File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 156

Date:         Wed, 30 Jul 2008 05:15:49 +0100
From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-MCCARTY.ORG.UK>
Subject: 22.152 toy or tool
To: humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 152.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Wed, 30 Jul 2008 05:11:02 +0100
         From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
         Subject: Re: 22.146 toy or tool

Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> As for wordle, it is very cool, but there are limits to the cognitive
> pay-off.
> If you wanted to put the quite brilliant design and visualization work
> of this application to serious scholarly use, playful or not, you
> would really need more sophisticated inputs.

Tag Cloud generators have, of course, been around for awhile and Wordle
is just one of the latest iterations of them.  While it can be fun to
generate them, they only give you a very vague sense of the relative
comparability of word frequency.  You are certainly right that by
controlling the input you can get slightly better results.  However,
what bothers me about most instances of tag clouds for linguistic
visualisation is their lack of interactivity and flatformedness.  When
used in blogs, photo sites, social networking, etc. they almost always
enable a form of navigation.  (i.e. you click on the tag to see all
photos/posts/people tagged as such)  In most linguistic attempts to use
them this interaction usually doesn't happen.  There are exceptions to
this: I remember Dave Beavan (from the SCOTS projects, demonstrating a collocates tag cloud
builder where when you clicked on a word you were given a tag cloud of
that word's collocates, and could continue clicking through more of
them.  While just as fun, perhaps, that at least strikes me as useful.
It still has the same limitations, of course, as any tag cloud in being
an approximated visualisation.

It seems silly to argue whether something is a 'toy' or a 'tool'.  In my
opinion, a tool is just something which allows you to accomplish a
desired task.  That tool can also be a toy, and the task can indeed be
an event of playful ludic expression. Toys can be even more
sophisticated than tools.  Some toys are more suited to some tasks, of
course, just like tools.  Would it be true to say that if you aren't
"playing with things" then maybe the things you are doing are the wrong


Dr James Cummings, Research Technologies Service, University of Oxford
James dot Cummings at oucs dot ox dot ac dot uk

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