Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Introducing Introductions

I have often been frustrated by the lack of a good introduction.

I like flipping through catalogs of catalogs. We all do. is a good example. What is it? A ton of books containing a ton of information. So it's information about information.

In the movie Annie Hall, the Woody Allen-character relates a joke about two old folks in a home. "The food here is terrible," says one. The other replies: "Yes, and such small portions!" Nowadays with information, it's just the opposite: such large portions.

It's been that way for a long time. Go into any library and you'll get lost pretty quickly. There's a lot of sections with a lot of books, and each book contains a lot of stuff--including references to other books. I remember distinctly that the first dozen times I walked into a library, I made a tour of the whole place--and then left. I couldn't find a thing.

Finding things is important: being able to find things. If you leave school and can't find anything--because it was all provided to you, plunked on your desk, shoved into your hands, crammed into your eyes and ears--you really did not learn something very important that everyone needs to know.

The other day I was flipping through a catalog of college courses on DVD and tape. All of calculus or Western philosophy or quasars or neutrino's--in twelve lectures or 24 or 36 lectures. I confess I own several of these already. I've never gotten past the first lecture. Call me ADHD--oh look, a bird is flying past as I type this! But the point is: introducing a topic does not require this much detail: it requires something else.

We live in a culture of experts. There is so much information, and the only way to Be Somebody is to become an expert. We're drowning in experts--when we could really use some good amateurs. That's what good journalists are: good amateurs. That guy at Berkeley who writes about food is that. He goes and tries to find out stuff, and then he tells you about it, and it's interesting, and you can follow it, and you're not drowning in it. Really: the guy has a gift. He can boil what he knows about food--which is a lot--down to sixty pages.

Brevity is a good thing. Not shallowness and not compression but just brevity. What you really want to know is: just enough so you can find out more. Brevity clarifies. Brevity nourishes. Brevity excites. Brevity intrigues.

I really wish our culture had more brief introductions.

A good introduction is a short one. "John, this is Albert. Albert this is John. Albert works in a hospital like you do, John, but in Calgary rather than San Jose. John went to Occidental, and you want to Pomona, so maybe you can swap stories. And you're both married to Swedes." That's a good introduction.

Introductions are more about where than what. Where is this? Introductions connect, situate and locate along lines and in networks that are important. This is this kind of a person from this kind of a place with this kind of connections to the past and the present and to other people. That's really what the titles in personal introductions do: "This is Dr. John Sussmann, Associate Director of the Marlin Group." Now I know a bunch about John based on his title, his name, his job, and where he works.

But little introduction are now rather big. There's a nice series of books called "A Very Short Introduction To...." And then it's idealism in 90 pages. Or Derrida. Or Genomics.

Wikipedia is really a set of introduction. One lovely thing about them is how they're connected. One can lead to another. If it's an award winner, you find out who won the award the year before and after. That's context. That's part of introducing.

But even Wikipedia can be overlong--as introductions go. (Brief introductions are good introductions.)

There used to be some nice introductions. There was a wonderful 'invitation' to sociology. It was short, and any literate high school graduate could could read it with pleasure. Look at the reviews, and you'll find many who recall it with great fondness. But the introduction or invitation was killed off by the massive textbook tome. This contains everything you never wanted to know about X--and were quite rightly afraid to ask.

So when I want to learn about something, here's the kind of thing I'd like to know.

  1. What the heck is it? What kind of thing is it?
  2. What does it do? What does it accomplish? How is it used?
  3. Where did it come from? What did it lead to? So what came before and after?
  4. What else is like it--but not the same thing?
  5. How big is it? How many parts does it have?
  6. What do people argue about it?

These are actually semantic concepts and relations. What is it called? What are synonyms and antonyms? Aristotle offered his own list. (Of course: Aristotle loved lists. He'd be on my list of list-lovers.) You can find many good discussions--but of course, they're too long. But many others have chimed in--although the field of semantic relations is nowhere near as organized as you'd think it would be.

To my mind, an ideal introduction would be somewhere between a few sentences and a page. But is prose even the best medium? A nicely configured database might allow us to store items with explanations and relationships in a form that could then be browsed by whomever could build the best interface. This seems to be The Way Things Are Going. Yes, Amazon has a store, but it's really a bunch of data about products. And if someone else can create a nicer way to browse it, so be it. (The information is fed out through something called an API, if you're into tech stuff.)

It seems to me some basic semantic concepts that would locate stuff in relation to other stuff would be:

  1. kind
  2. name/title
  3. scope & magnitude
  4. parents & children: where did it come from & what did it lead to?
  5. siblings: things that are similar-and-different
  6. internal parts
  7. debates

These aren't too fussy, but I hope they're not too broad, either. The point is that each semantic dimension is a kind of road or avenue bringing us to meanings--like addresses.

--Edward R. O'Neill

P.S. This post was formerly longer, but I migrated the latter half to another post--on how Introductions fit into the Syllabus-Free Course.

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