Humanities & Social Thought

The Elevator Pitch (On the Longest Elevator Ride Ever)

Yearn: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning is a browser application (most people would just call this a website, but technically, there is a difference between a browser app, like Facebook, and a website, like a restaurant’s homepage).  The goal of Yearn is twofold, the first is investigative: is it possible to use digital methodologies to enhance (or contain at all) humanist methodologies for answering  questions or solving problems.  Building off social networks that already exist to ask questions, like Yahoo Answers and Quora, I decided that the only way to answer a question that could ever engender something intellectual  would be with an annotated bibliography. But I was interested in public intellectualism, and an intellectual public. I was interested in making a social network that made  the public more intellectual. If every question was answered with an annotated bibliography, that changed the nature of every question. But if every asker was also an answerer (this would be the ideal state, consistent  participation),  the nature of every answer would have to adapt as well, from the traditional annotated bibliography – that academic text – to a public version. I envision questions that range from “why did my boyfriend break up with me” to “why are we here,” and bibliographies that cite everything from Gossip Girl to Kant (as well as other forms of media, including art, graphic novels, radio, TV, film and games).

I began to think about the main algorithms at work in social media.  I quickly came across an initially startling, but ultimately obvious facet to the social network: If LinkedIn connects, Facebook friends, Twitter follows, and OKCupid matches, and Quora asks, then Yearn thinks. But Yearn doesn’t think,  its users do.  In almost every social network, there is an algorithm that is automatic and hidden. The main algorithm in Yearn is not automatic – while it is designed by me insofar as user interaction is guided by me, it is not the same design process as these other social media use, because the very work of connecting various pieces of information to each other is what the user is meant to do: to think. I thought about what it would be like to develop an algorithm that was also exposed, that made observation of the process part of the process. There is a really excellent quote by Albert Camus, that goes:

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched.”

Then, I must create interactions that make the interactions explicit. I began this way: When you register for the app, you answer the question “What does it mean to think?” and this is what constitutes the body of your user profile.  Secondly, I create a rating system that uses a rubric which highlights the ability of the bibliography to promote reflection.  Thirdly,  possibly the most difficult, some sort of reflective commentary system – one that enables conversation between users but in such a way that it feeds back into the process coming together to think. Fourthly, inlay some kind of mentoring system,  where users can  demonstrate expertise in particular areas and build relationships with other users whose questions consistently address those areas. Towards making a more intellectual public, we hope that most people will be both teacher and student. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, contextualize the entire thing within a long history of intellectual activity – develop a mythology of the intellectual, and assert the users as the sacred, chosen inheritors of this mythology.

That isn’t to say there is not already a mythology of the intellectual, but this one will belong to the public, it will be one that the public can see themselves as the proper inheritors of, as opposed to how they often see themselves now:  the coldly observed subjects.

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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