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Keep Your Head in the Clouds

September 10, 2008

People like to typecast.  Canadians are no exception.  Pretend as we may that we have embraced the mantra of political correctness, the truth of the matter is that we all have biases, we all subconsciously believe in certain stereotypes, and we all love to place labels on people.

Black or White.  Rich or poor.   Tall or short.

You have to admit that it does help simplify life.  So long as we believe that people fit nicely into the labelled boxes we place them in everything appears to work “as it should”.  Unfortunately, reality is not so simple.

People wear many hats and are full of contradictions.  This is not new.  People have always been complex beasts.  But in today’s globalized world full of personal choices and free from the fear of discrimination, our idiosyncrasies are no longer hiding away inside the labelled boxes we used to shut them in.  They are now in full view, popping up in unexpected places and demanding attention.  While this may be a beautiful thing, it does raise a question: How should we categorize people in an age of diversity?

We have tried to build bridges between boxes through judicious use of hyphens, but this only allows one or two more labels to be pasted on without any sense of their respective importance.

Chinese-Canadian.  Ms. Smith-Jones.  Single-dad.

In today’s diverse society there is a need for a new classification system.  Enter tag clouds.

If you’re reading this you should know what I’m talking about – that bunch of words grouped together of varying sizes on the right side of this blog.  There’s just something so beautifully simple about it.

Immediate…the more popular the tag word, the more it stands out.

Flexible…as tags and popularity change so does the cloud.

Inclusive…even the occasional tag can get noticed if you look close enough.

Tag clouds provide a powerful metaphor to help think about the people you meet, and even about yourself.  Friends and colleagues with the same dark complexions, but different accents and cultural traditions.  Conflicting values of wanting cheap gas, but a stable climate.  Changing public facades in different social circumstances.  These are the hallmarks of a diverse society, and we need to build a mental map to guide us through it comfortably.

So next time you’re sizing someone up, don’t put them in the same old box – try to see their cloud.


(To create your own personal tag cloud go to Wordle.net)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. adamfritz permalink*
    September 12, 2008 1:07 am

    I should clarify that the Wordle.net site does not have anything to do with cultural identity, but is simply a tool for creating tag clouds based on the frequency of words repeating in any text you paste into it. You can use it to create your own cloud by making a list of identifying words and repeating those that feel the most important to you at this moment. You can also just past in whole texts and spit out a quick visual executive summary. As with any tool, the power is in how you use it.

    As for creating clouds for communities, countries, concepts, etc…by all means! The metaphor definitely transcends the individual. Most tag clouds you will see are simply visual summaries of a portion of the blogosphere. The “aha!” aspect of this is in how it opens your mind to new ways of seeing the world around you. It’s not that the world is changing, so much as our perception of the world is changing.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to paste into wordle all the entries from students who submitted entries to “Why I want to be Prime Minister” or “What I love about Canada”? That would be a great Canadian tag cloud.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    September 11, 2008 6:07 pm

    I’m afraid my cloud was a bit dull. I discovered that the site generates the cloud based on text you type in, so I just entered a couple of paragraphs of self-descriptive prose “My name is Corwin…” and clicked the button to see what would happen. The biggest word in the cloud, by far, was Time. Other large ones included Like, Find, Occasional, Parents, my girlfriend’s name, and Precious (shades of Gollum). Perhaps I didn’t repeat words often enough for it to work properly.

    Following up Scott’s points, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a tag cloud about anything – a community, a country, or for that matter an object or idea. It does make for an interesting way of looking at the world. I found the “ethnic cool” thing a bit hard to understand, but I’m not sure I want my identity to be as “dynamic” as Habacon seems to think is desirable. I’d prefer to have a relatively fixed and impervious identity that interacts constructively with the world without being too profoundly altered by it.

  3. Scott Y permalink
    September 11, 2008 5:25 am

    Great post Adam. This is something that has annoyed me to no end, and is one reason I hate hate hate the idea of the ‘mosaic’ in Canada, because it attempts to pigeonhole us into a specific ethnic identity. Not only does the eliminate the possibility of more than one ethnicity, it is severely limiting us to ‘ethnic-only’ identities. I’ll check out that site.

    It reminds me of Alden Habacon’s idea about the schema, which is very similar, in that it bases personal identity and ‘tags’ on the individual rather than a collective. He’s got some great work at his e-zine: http://www.schemamag.ca/about.html. My one reservation is Alden’s emphasis on ethnicity, but here is a little blurb on his notion of ‘schema’:
    “Using a new model for cultural identity, or “schema”, we envision individuals as dynamic identities that move through a complex web of cultures. Cultural Navigators see themselves as the product of these networks, available to them through immigration, family roots, and residency in diverse cities all over the world. We explore this unique evolution and experience of Canada’s diversity, and the things–be it food, music, art, film or comic books–that we seek out, enjoy and produce as part of our diverse daily lives. We call this innovation ethnic cool.”

    My one concern with the ‘cloud’ (and schema) though, is that it is very individually-based. Is it possible to create a ‘cloud’ for more than one person? a community? a province? a country? Canada?

  4. September 11, 2008 12:08 am

    Adam: love the post, love yr. cloud. I’ll visit that site. I hope that Canadians, despite al our flaws, can embrace your vision – how liberating. Surely the best that’s in the world – in science, in literature, embraces it too?

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