Sunday, August 26, 2007

Curious Signs and Wonders

The TV, the newspapers have taken up the drum again. Americans don't read or when they do, they don't read much. As I make my daily commute (a 30 minute walk from Capitol Hill to La Alma), I look at the curious signs all about me and wonder if the opposite isn't true. Do we read too much, get bombarded with too much information, and -- to paraphrase Gertrude Stein -- lose our sense, our place in the world? Maybe we've given up reading for data mining. Maybe we only see what we think we need to see, the nuggets of gold that will quicken the journey. But the journey to where? If we don't read, don't understand context, the journey is nothing but disaster.

Take this sign at 13th and Corona.

A data miner might see trouble ahead and make a quick turn left. A reader might consider context, might understand that the detour sign is misplaced punctuation and make the only possible decision -- a turn to the right.

Or this sign towed daily through the morning commute skies --

A data miner might not see the plane towing the sign, might interpret the yellow as some sort of distress signal, a very large piece of trash, nothing to stop for, not for me, not in my backyard. A reader, on the other hand, would be curious, interested in the whole sentence -- the plane, the noise, the fact that the advertisement is upside down.

What would a data miner make of this?

Old beer? Well, I'm not stopping in there!

A reader would know that there's an "F" missing here, but a data miner might get confused.

Century Lots? Is that anything like Big Lots? Can I get anything cheap there?

What about this stencil at 12th and Bannock? Would a data miner believe that fish are waste?

A reader would understand context -- the drain beneath the stencil feeds the creek two blocks away, that fish swim in the creek, that the creek is fresh water, that waste could kill the fish or turn them unnaturally green.

And then there's the clock at 11th and Speer.

A data miner might look once and believe it to be broken, the hands all wrong. A reader might see the same clock day after day and realize that the face is not quite right, the hands are where they should be, and, yes, the time is pretty darn accurate. 11:16. Almost time for lunch.

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