Reading the speech Obama gave this morning in Cairo was like reading all of complex, elusive, and often conflicting ideas that I have had for quite a while about the relationships among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. How refreshing to hear them coming from a president of the United States and not only whispered by friends and colleagues. Two passages that I think inform much of Obama’s approach to the world:
For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared. That does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely.
It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.
But this is a post about Wordles, and I’m sure that many Wordles of Obama’s speech will emerge over the course of the next few days. I’m intrigued by Wordles and the constraints that we can place on them: color, font, inclusion of numbers, maximum words included, all lower-case letters, direction of text, and so on. I thought it would be interesting to play with one of those constraints, maximum words to include, to see what impact it has on the semantic representation of that text. So, here are Wordles of Obama’s speech with 1000 words, 100 words, 10 words, and 1 word (the constant constraints are: black text on white background, rounded edges, horizontal layout, Telephoto font, words left as spelled, English common words removed, numbers included):
Listing them like this has a kind of Name That Tune effect: how few words can relay the primary idea within a text? Listing them from 1000 to 1 has the effect of narrowing down the speech to the primary idea: we are all people. Reversing the order, however, has the effect of suggesting that the speech expands the main idea into its many (difficult) nuances:
True to the nature of nuanced, complex, difficult issues and ideas, as the Wordles expand in word number the more blurry and out of focus the ideas become. The goal when working with such complex ideas is to maintain a focus on the primary idea (we are all people) while addressing the nuances that impact and are impacted by the primary idea. Viewing Wordles in a sequence rather than isolated (as they are often presented) allows us to see semantically the tensions, complexities, and nuances that exist within the ideas discussed in texts and, importantly, the texts themselves.