Sometimes social media can seriously dent your faith in fellow humans – jeez, there have been more than enough examples in recent weeks, and I’m not going to rehearse them again here. But then something happens to remind you that it can be a fantastic tool for spreading ideas, building on them collectively and creating something which might just have some kind of broader value than a lol-of-the-day.
One recent example was the #overlyhonestmethods twitter hashtag. For me, its main effect was to brighten a late night train journey home. But several people made the point that it was an excellent bit of science communication, reminding readers that SCIENCE is done by ordinary humans who, like everyone, get bored, mess around, make mistakes, have in-jokes and want to get out of work on Friday afternoons.
And now there’s Up Goer Five.
It started late last year with a comic by xkcd, which attempted to provide a blueprint of the Saturn V rocket – and by extension, to explain the whole Apollo programme – using only the thousand most common words in the English language.
(Side note: having touched on textual analysis in my Digital Resources for the Humanities module last term, I was curious as to which corpus Randall Munroe of xkcd used to get his thousand words. Apparently it’s this one, although there doesn’t seem to be anything to say exactly how it was derived.)
At the time, the main product was this rather wonderful tumblr, which sadly doesn’t seem to have been updated since November.
But then, Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, devised this simple but effective text editor, which tells you as you type whether you are using anything outside the thousand permitted words. He challenged people to explain hard ideas while not breaking the rules and to post the results. Happily people have begun doing just that.
Aside from anything else, Up Goer five is a great tool for focusing your own thinking – if you can’t work out a way of explaining a difficult concept in simple terms, does it imply that in fact you don’t completely understand it yourself?
What is disappointing to me is that, so far, it mostly seems to be only science that is being written about – and it’s certainly not the case that scientists have a monopoly on hard ideas.
Over Christmas, I followed the great debate over the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince (I gave me own views as a comment on Emily Winterburn’s blog). One of the things that riled some participants in that argument was the feeling (fair or not) that the History and Philosophy of Science camp couldn’t articulate their position clearly, briefly, and without technical language. I’d love it if some brave HPS experts would take the challenge of devising an Up Goer Five explanation of – say – paradigm shifts or falsifiability.
Another example. In my Archives & Records Management masters we have a Concepts & Contexts module which includes a lot of archival theory and academic writing. It’s the first time since my undergraduate degree that I’ve run into post-modernism and I had forgotten how impenetrable a lot of it is. You’re constantly faced with words like ‘structuration’ and ‘meta-narrative’. You reach the end of an article not having understood more than half of it – and with a nagging suspicion that the author didn’t understand more than three-quarters. I ended up siding heavily (though not entirely) with Alan Sokal in believing that at least some of the time the Emperor is most definitely wearing no clothes.
Archival theory also has its own specialist terms and concepts which can be a real challenge to grasp. One is the ‘records continuum’ (it’s a way of looking at the life of a record – I still haven’t fully got my head around it and I am not going to attempt to explain it here). Early on in the course, an essential reading was an article by a leading Australian proponent of this methodological approach, Frank Upward. He sets out his take-no-prisoners approach early:
“In face-to-face discussion with those who have been perplexed all I have ever been able to do is shrug my shoulders. It is a tool for perceiving complexity and is already a simplification that, in my experience, is understood or rejected intuitively. You cannot have an easy discussion across a paradigm shift.”
Well, that’s just great. And, in fact, isn’t it also something of a cop-out? Here is someone deeply convinced that an idea is highly useful to everyone in the archives profession. Is he really saying that it can’t be expressed simply? And if it can be, then surely those who are its strongest advocates should be doing so, in order to get it into wider usage?
So, I’d like to see an Up Goer Five explanation of the records continuum please!
What I’m saying, I think, is that in recent years there has been a great effort to explain science in simple terms. The fact that so many have quickly jumped on the #upgoerfive hashtag with explanations of scientific ideas fits with that. But I want to see the same kind of thing happening in the humanities, social sciences and other academic areas. It would be wonderful if people working and studying in those areas could get onboard Up Goer Five. Selfishly, I’d also like to see examples from the archives profession.
I’m going to have a go at defining what an archive is and what an archivist does – as this is something that I find I’m forever explaining to people. I’ll post the results here.