Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A meta rhetorical tree (boring)

WARNING: this article has been judged to be boring, and will at some point be rewritten.

In Ancient Athens, there were two ways to explore an idea:

Dialog, spoken conversational philosophy
Rhetoric, written philosophy

Of course a dialog can be written down, and rhetoric can be read out.

So perhaps a better way of putting it would be:

Dialog, where two or more minds compete or collaborate whilst exploring an idea.
Rhetoric, where one mind takes an idea and runs with it.

But speaking and writing also have other attributes:

Writing is narrowcast. One reader at a time for a piece of writing.
Speaking is broadcast. Stand at one end of the Agora and shout and you can talk to a thousand people.

Speech communicates emotional tone.
Writing does not.

Dialog is more interesting if you're one of the dialoguers.
Essays are easier to understand if you're the reader.
You need to persuade someone else that your idea is interesting to have a dialog.
You can write about it alone.

What has happened since?

The Printing Press

Suddenly writing wasn't narrowcast. A writer can reach millions of people.
Rhetoric instantly became the dominant form.


No one would have written a novel before the printing press. It's enormously hard work, and only one person would be able to read it at a time.

The very form of a novel didn't exist. It had to be invented by someone.

Once it was invented, it wiped out all other forms of story telling. The previous dominant form, the long poem, is gone.

Another attempt at the same sort of thing is the short story.
Short stories are marooned in a sort of semi-existence. Sometimes they are published in collections, other times in magazines.

There are no story forms in between. I find that rather strange. I'd expect a power-law distribution of story length. It's probably an artifact of the economics of publishing, and it probably leads to some perfectly good stories being untellable. They either have to be padded out or cut down. And spoiled thereby.

Other written forms enabled by the printing press are the newspaper, the textbook, the article and the (academic) paper.

Snail Mail

Physical mail is a small victory for Dialog. You no longer have to be physically present to Dialog, although the bandwidth is appalling.

Radio and Television

Dialog gets its own back? Not at all.

Radio and TV are usually one-to-many. It's more like Rhetoric acquiring new powers.

Rhetoric can now carry most of the emotional content of speech.
But it's also acquired Dialog's power of immediacy and unpredictability.

On the other hand, Dialog is also enhanced, because broadcasting a live debate is like listening to a Dialog. But you can't be part of it. So Radio and TV have enhanced the powers of both Rhetoric and Dialog.

But you lose things too. Broadcast media have to be aimed at a particular audience. Because most of that audience won't be too clever, they have to move very slowly. TV is better than radio, because you can have a side-channel of pictures to illuminate the words and make them more immediately comprehensible.

However, as a wise man once said "A picture is worth a thousand words, but they have to be the right thousand words. Very few sequences of one thousand words can be represented by a picture".

Radio is much cheaper to make and to broadcast than television, so it can get away with a narrower audience. We might therefore expect there to be radio programmes too intellectual for television, even though the television version would actually be easier to understand.

The reader can interact much more effectively with a written piece. You can skim read it. You can ignore whole paragraphs. You can scan subject headings. You can't effectively do any of that even with a recorded video or audio track. I'm not too sure why.

Fixed Line Telephony

Dialog hits back.  You can have full speed conversations with people who live in other places. But there are still only two of you. Because the "who speaks next" arbitration system doesn't work over the phone, multi-way phone calls aren't as effective as physical meetings.

Mobile Telephony

Even better. You don't both need to be in the right place to Dialog.

And finally,

The Internet

This is the true revenge of Dialog. Suddenly we can have communication between thousands of people.

What new characteristics are there?

The delivery mechanism is the best yet. Everyone to everyone and as fast as you like, for free.
No gatekeepers. You don't need a central authority to work out what should be published and broadcast.
No traditional censorship. Censorship used to be done by pressure on the gatekeepers.
No anonymity. You can't put something on the internet without leaving traces of yourself.
Permanancy. Once you've published on the internet, it won't ever go away.
It's still a bit slow compared with face to face talk.
The natural 'who speaks next' system still doesn't carry over.

What have we done with it so far?
Of course the first things we tried were copies of traditional things:

E-mail and chat

Use the computer to replicate the postal system, only the delivery is much faster, and it's possible to send a message to many people.

This brings with it some new powers:
Live written dialogs are possible for the first time in history. And they can be many-to-many.

Probably the next step was:

Newsgroups (and also mailing lists)

They're like e-mail, but there's an archive somewhere where the conversation is stored forever.
And it's probably searchable.
And you can add a reply to any message, possibly years after it was sent.

This is a very new thing. Suddenly our dialogs, which throughout the whole history of humanity have been serial structures, are tree structures. It's possible, of course to convert a tree to and from serial form, but these trees are living things. Any branch can suddenly start growing.

This leads instantly to the idea that, just as the Greeks edited and refined their dialogs until they were fit to be written down, we might take newsgroup tree dialogs, and edit and refine them into more perfect forms.

I don't think I've ever seen anything like this. Is it just that no-one's ever thought to do it? Is it copyright issues? Is it a reluctance to edit someone else's words combined with a reluctance to remove their names, thus depriving them of the credit for their thoughts?

I don't know. But I would have thought that by now we'd be seeing anthologies of the great newsgroup discussions. They're actually a very readable form of philosophy.

And the minute you start thinking of a newsgroup as a new literary form with a tree structure, you're struck by the question "Why does it have to be a tree? Why can't a post have more than one ancestor? Why can't you add links retrospectively when you see connections"


This is an absolutely new form of Rhetoric. Rather than a great serial thing where the idea you want to understand is in chapter 23 and you need to read it all in order in order to get there unless the book happens to be using notation and terms that you're familiar with, a hypertext has no real beginning. It's a truly general directed graph where you can link to everything you need to define.

Web sites

This is looking more like a dialog again. You just write a bit of the hypertext, but there are other minds at work on other parts, so you can just write your new thought and you can link to whatever else the reader needs to know.


A wiki is more fluid than a load of websites, since every writer (which may also be every reader) can edit anything. With large wikis you actually need to have a social structure to control the edits. There are new things like wiki-spam, which I guess could be defined as an attempt to hijack the discussion for commercial purposes. I'm pretty sure spam has never previously been a problem for philosophy.

Tube sites

Back to Rhetoric again. Only it's television without the gatekeeper.


Blogs are sort of Rhetoric. Just one person writing alone. But the immediacy of it is stunning and liberating. And again there's no gatekeeper. And blog entries attract comments, and there's no reason why comments can't themselves have comments, so maybe it's more like a newsgroup with a privileged member who can start new threads and edit all threads. And blogs become part of the world-hypertext.

Search Engines

Facebook, Twitter, Social Networking

I've no idea what these are. I'm too stupid and old fashioned to get them.


Think how many times you've sent an ironic e-mail and had it interpreted literally.

I once got ditched by e-mail and didn't realise. When I saw the young lady in question two days later there was an audible crack of colliding world views. When I went back and read the e-mail to myself in the tone of voice she wrote it in, the meaning was perfectly obvious. When I read it back in the tone of voice I'd read it in, it wasn't there at all.

Rather more importantly, a speaker can manipulate the emotions of his audience in a way that a writer cannot. If Adolf Hitler's speeches had been read out by a trainee bank clerk with a droning voice, history would have been different.

Eventually the study of Rhetoric came to include the techniques for reading it out, and that's really the modern sense of the word.

The true importance of the invention of the computer, aside from its potential to achieve self-awareness and destroy the human race, may be as a communication tool.

I think in future the big difference between free and non-free societies will be about whether it's possible to use the internet and telephone networks anonymously.

Why has nobody ever published a version of the Socratic Dialogs with adverts for penis enlargement liberally inserted into the discussion?

No comments:

Post a Comment