Over at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff has a fantastic explanation and takedown of authorial intent. In recent days, Vox interviewed Sopranos showrunner David Chase, in which he reveals his meaning in that show’s famously-enigmatic ending. While many fans assumed the abrupt cut-to-black that ended the series meant Tony Soprano had died, Chase confirms (sort of) to Vox that Tony is, in fact, still alive within the universe he created. VanDerWerff’s point is for fans to follow their own analysis.
Likewise, VanDerWerff argues that the insistence of Hello Kitty’s creator that the iconic cartoon is not a cat but a little girl should be meaningless if individuals and the culture as a whole observed the character as a cat:
For many critics — including myself — the most important thing about a work is not what the author intends but what the reader gleans from it. Authorial intent is certainly interesting, but it’s not going to get me to stop calling Hello Kitty a cat.
It’s a fantastic read, but, for myself, it brought up a different nature of authorial intent. In the vein of the Hello Kitty problem–in which the answer is largely binary–it reminded me of Steven Wilhite. Wilhite, the inventor of the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) clarified that GIF should be pronounced with a soft g, so it is a homonym with Jif peanut butter.
I disagree with Wilhite’s statement, mostly because within the acronym the g stands for a hard-g word: Graphical. Therefore the acronym GIF should be pronounced with the hard g, not as its inventor intends.
A more difficult issue arises when we tackle a more vague definition, like the meaning of the Sopranos ending. For example: What does it mean to “fave” a tweet? Farhad Manjoo tackled this problem earlier in the week after Twitter announced they would be experimenting with a Facebook-esque update that would refer you to tweets faved by enough of your friends or followers, effectively turning the fave into the algorithmically-important Facebook Like.
When it wasn’t being used as a bookmark to help you remember links for later, pressing “favorite” on a tweet was the digital equivalent of a nod, a gesture that is hard to decipher. The fav derived its power from this deliberate ambiguity.
The fave, much like the “poke” before it, is left deliberately obscure in meaning so users can find their own meaning for it. We see this in the trend app Yo, which allows you to send one single message to a friend: “Yo.” While likely meant as a simple joke, the app became a somewhat jokey way to contact friends but also worked as a derived way to, say, alert Palestinians to incoming missiles.
Technology’s intent, much like the art VanDerWerff discusses, is largely left up to the user’s intent for it. When Wilhite developed the GIF format in 1987, it was intended as a faster way to upload color images. Presently, it’s an entirely different form of communication. Much like image macros–which were initially meant to speed up communication on image boards–they’ve become a shorthand altogether for the entire range of human emotion. It’s a way to share movie clips,
teach planetary science,
or simply show agreement.
The format is so widely easy to use–and easier on bandwidth than the streaming video Wilhite could only dream of–that his original intent for the technology is irrelevant.
Culture at large is subject to each of our interpretations and uses for it. Technology is often only considered different because history has tended to view technological innovations as a specific solution to a specific problem. In Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) theories, the focus is entirely on weeding out physical reasons for a technology’s existence and narrowing it down to socioeconomic reasons. While popular among social scientists, this theory quickly becomes irrelevant when you realize that the solutions a specific technology may solve often enough have nothing to do with the original questions they set out to answer.
when Étienne Lenoir developed the internal combustion engine (ICE) in 1858, he originally sold it to printers and factories as a replacement for human crank workers. Consider the problems the same invention–albeit heavily adjusted–solves now. The ICE is now apart of the very fabric of our world, shifting humans across the planet to allow for the type of quick innovation that could handle the population explosion of the 20th century. The ICE was meant to liberate factory bosses from feeding another mouth, and it instead liberated mankind from the comparatively shackled reliance on the steam engine and horse.
If we were analyzing the ICE through a SCOT lense, we might only find that the societal or economic problems that preceded its invention and how the ICE approached those as a solution. We’d have to ignore the almost unlimited utility of the basics of Lenoir’s design to solve a multitude of problems Lenoir himself could never have dreamt of.
In fact, Lenoir actually did design a wagon powered by his original crude design, but he became angry with it after one of his prototypes was lifted by Tsar Alexander II and went to work on motorboats. This transition of priorities was heralded by Popular Mechanics at the time, which called it the end of the steam age. Of course it wasn’t, but that narrow-minded focus highlights how technology can transcend the intent of either the creator or the culture that tries to frame it.