Simanaitis Says

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COMMUNICATION AND lady friend miscommunication have been in the news a lot these days. E-mails and tweets, leaked, deleted and otherwise, are part of this.

Nathan Heller’s article in the Annals of Technology portion of The New Yorker, July 24, 2017, offers fascinating views on communication, from which I glean the following, with my own modest contributions.

Heller begins by noting, “A measure of industrial progress is the speed with which inventions grow insufferable.” To his choices, including insufferable e-mail, I add talk radio, reality TV, the answering machine, and the quadcopter drone.

“Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being,” Heller quotes John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, 1848. Heller’s primary bêtes noires are the e-mails seized back in 2001 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 151 Enron Corporation employees during that company’s accounting fraud meltdown.

True, Heller also cites communications of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Donald Trump, Jr. To which I add the deleted tweets of Anthony Scaramucci, the newly appointed White House Communications Director. “Past views evolved,” Scaramucci tweeted recently, “& shouldn’t be a distraction.”

Anthony Scaramucci, New York-born 1964, American financier and political figure, nicknamed The Mooch. Image from Vanity Fair.

Sorry, Mooch, those tweets are still part of the electronic universe. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to have someone in the administration invoke evolution as a legitimate concept.

But back to Enron. As Heller notes, “The Enron archive came to comprise hundreds of thousands of messages, and remains one of the country’s largest private e-mail corpora turned public.”

Its interest to Heller, and to me, “is less an account of Enron’s daywork than a social and linguistic data pool…. This makes it, in the annals of scholarship, something strange: a canonic text that no one has actually read.”

That is, analyzing the Enron treasure trove has little in common with, say, studying Shakespeare’s syntax to determine authorship of a newly discovered play.

According to Heller, more than 3000 academic papers have cited the Enron data, with topics addressing things like rationales of folder assignments; networks of who e-mails whom (connect-the-dot plots known as Gower layouts); and “compliance bots,” data crawlers that identify sensitive elements potentially getting e-mailers in trouble.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1225–1274, Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, theologian, scholar. Image by Carlo Crivelli (15th century).

There’s interesting history here as well: Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas left a notoriously unmanageable thirteenth-century discourse. A multivolume analysis of his works was commissioned by the Vatican in 1879 and is nowhere near completion.

Roberto Busa, 1913–2011, Italian Jesuit priest, one of the pioneers in the use of computers for linguistic and literary analysis. Image by Antonio G. Columbo.

In 1949, Italian Jesuit priest Roberto Busa asked IBM’s Thomas Watson if this new gizmo, the digital computer, might be useful in cataloging St. Thomas Aquinas’s oeuvre. Watson backed the idea, and for the next 30 years Busa encoded 65 thousand pages of Thomist text.

Father Busa’s achievements led to establishment of the Busa Prize, awarded by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. He was its first recipient in 1998.

Today, notes Heller, Thomist text can be “word-searched, cross-referenced, and what we now call hyper-linked. The Index Thomisticus was the first corpus to be primed for digital scholarship, no less impressive because it started on punch cards and ended up online. ‘Digitus Dei est hic!’ Busa punned in 2004. The finger of God is here!”

Heller’s article is rich in such examples. One of my favorite lines is his “The true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing.”

I covfefe…. er, concur. ds

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