Monday, November 18, 2019

The Construction of Meaning

There was a recent minor incident on twitter in which, during some conversation about the "OK, Boomer" meme, someone posted a tweet reading die boomer and was summarily banned from twitter for 12 hours. The plot twist is that the twitter used was speaking German, so the phrase actually means "the boomer" or "the boomers."

Speculation suggests this credible story: someone flagged the tweet, the tweet was automatically routed to a human for review. The tweet was given to an english-speaking moderator without context or a language indication, and was the ban was handed out.

Colberg, noting this, wrings his hands and claims that this is a trivial problem to solve and twitter sucks for not solving it. He is wrong.

We construct the meaning of these things based on who we are (in this case an English speaker) and the apparent context (in this case an assumed ongoing thread of conversation also in English). Sure, you could apply some technical hacks, but they would be unreliable, and I dare say that if twitter started doing something like building "probable native language" profiles for twitter account, Colberg would complain about the horrible intrusiveness of twitter's algorithms.

What is going on here is that Jörg has glanced at the situation, viewed it through the lens of his personal experiences, and assigned a meaning. He assumes, as people are wont to do, that the meaning his brain assigned is universal and obvious to anyone, and also easy to write computer code to implement. This is a little surprising coming from someone in his profession, but whatever.

The problem is in fact intractable. We could add in endless context and metadata, but in the end there is no way to know whether the twitter user was or was not slipping in a sly dig at boomers here, assuming that it would pass muster being covered by the German language. Perhaps it was intended as a cute double meaning. Perhaps it was completely innocent. There is no way to know. If there was a nefarious intention, the twitter user in question has probably persuaded themselves that there was no such thing, by now. We tend to rationalize behavior and thinking along lines that make us look the best.


There is in the viral zeitgeist a video circulating, of a young black man in the SF Bay area being detained by a transit system cop, apparently for eeating a breakfast sandwich on the station platform.

Again, the ground truth of the situation, in the sense of everyone's motivations, is lost by now. All the players have surely convinced themselves that whatever narrative they're pushing is the true one. It is literally unknowable at this time whether the cop was motivated by racism or not, or whether the young man eating the sandwich was performing for his girlfriend's video or not.

There are allegations and facts available on all sides to support a variety of narratives here, the situation is remarkable in its ambiguity. I myself have no particular opinion, having fooled around with a variety of interpretations mentally and determined that the situation is unknowable.

This does not mean that most people are not forming firm opinions. In fact, most people appear to be forming opinions based on a few seconds of the apparently 14 minute video, and then to one degree or another dying on their chosen hill.

Again, we see a profoundly ambiguous bit of media leading people to: 1. leap briskly to a conclusion based on their own experiences and biases, and 2. to also leap to the conclusion that their take is obviously correct and universal.

Why do I care?

These are important things to have your arms around if you're trying to make pictures that communicate anything. People may (or may not) read your pictures very quickly, they may lock in on a reading almost immediately, in which case they are never, ever, going to change. People may well open your photobook at random, scan a couple of pictures, lock in on a reading almost immediately, and then never, ever, change. They will be convinced that they have, in a mere few seconds, read the entire contents of your soul.

This, on the one hand, is pretty frustrating. On the other hand, it teaches that you have to be really clear, that you have only a moment, really, to set the stage.

Well, in the worst case, anyways.

I also care, naturally, because as a self-styled critic it is absolutely necessary that I fight this same impulse in myself. While I am surely entitled to my own opinion, and any criticism I write will surely reflect that, it serves nobody to assume that my opinion is the same as universal truth. The critic simply has to maintain some ability to imagine other responses, to separate our personal extrapolations and interpolations from the actual facts of what we are looking at.

And, finally, if you, dear reader, want to partake of the elegant art of photography in a complete and nuanced way, you should to one degree or another cultivate the soul of the critic. Which means that you too should struggle against your impulse to permanently affix as meaning things which are in truth mere opinion.

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