A TextArc is a visual represention of a text—the entire text (twice!) on a single page. A combination of an index, concordance, and summary; it uses the viewer’s eye to help uncover meaning. Presented here are the full interactive Java application and a PDF download of a “raw draft” of the Gamer Theory TextArc. In the PDF, the strand clusters beneath words point to points in the arc where those words occur. In the Web version, simply clicking a word reveals its distribution along the arc.
Play with me
Try out TextArc for yourself. Click on a link below to open TextArc and start visualizing. If you have questions, the interface provides a built in Help section. Please be patient while it loads—it has to do a lot of thinking to look as good as it does.
TextArc currently works best with Firefox or IE7 on PCs and Macs that have the latest version of Java. Due to a known bug in the Java VM the browser’s cache of Java classes is not cleared between executions; this means to restart TextArc you must exit and restart the browser.
Also see: textarc.org
McKenzie Wark on TextArc as a writing tool
Earlier this April (2007), Brad Paley and McKenzie Wark spent an afternoon at the Institute for the Future of the Book exploring a large image of the Gamer Theory TextArc projected onto one of the office’s walls. Wark later reflected on the experience:
As a writer I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of text visualization. Are there ways in which picturing the text, or more precisely relations within the text, might become part of the writing process? This is a bit different to the more ‘scientific’ applications of visualization. I’m interested in those too, but for me its mainly about writing.
Most writers who have wrestled with large texts realize at some point that for every sentence on the page (or screen) there are thousands of other sentences that could be in its place. Could there be ways of exploring this ‘virtual’ space of the text? Perhaps as a way of generating new texts out of the existing one? This was the line of thought that led me to Gamer Theory 3.0: The Visualizations.
By far the most promising visualization project I have seen is Brad Paley’s Text Arc. It is at once well designed, intuitive to use, and it produces a rich picture of relationships within the text. I was very excited to meet Brad at the Institute for the Future of the Book and learn more about his work, but I was really itching to see Gamer Theory as a Text Arc.
Brad put it up on the screen and it was like seeing a diagram of my own writing brain. It’s a way of seeing the text that shows me what is where. The results are sometimes surprising. For example, the term ‘agon’ ends up more or less at 9 o’clock, when I thought it would cluster more at 1 o’clock. It is, after all, the nominal subject of the first chapter. What I had not realized is that it is only announced there, and is actually developed much later. Had I known this in advance I would have changed the text. Oh well. Next time I hope I can use Text Arc mid way through the writing process, not at the end.
I was also surprised by things that clustered together: ‘theory’ is close to ‘entertainment’, ‘life’ with ‘world’ and ‘topology’ with ‘space’. The last of these three is to be expected, but the others are not. So for me what would be interesting would be to tease out the meaning of these spatial overlaps, and see if there are unexplored conceptual overlaps. That is one way I would use it in the writing process. The term ‘lifeworld’ has a particular theoretical meaning. But I did not use the term in the book. But maybe the concept crept in anyway, without my really wanting it to. And, of course, there’s something uncanny about the ‘theory’ ‘entertainment’ overlap. I have thought about writing something about this, and maybe the thought is already in the text before I have gotten around to writing it. I would want to explore that further, but for me its a potentially stunning result: that one could find inside the actual text these ‘virtual’ texts (I use the term virtual here in the philosophical sense).
I’m also surprised by things that don’t cluster: ‘work’ and ‘play’ is an obvious one. And I would want to know more about why. I was trying to get away from a binary relation between the terms. Indeed the last chapter ends with a four part schema: worker, player, hacker, gamer. So maybe in this case I succeeded in repositioning the terms a little bit. Changing the scale a bit and looking at the rarer terms, I would want to explore the relationship between ‘actual’ and ‘form’ some more. I would also want to know why form is not a more common term. The relations between terms that appear at different scales in the text is also intriguing to me. It’s easy to do a word count and find how common a term is, but adding the ‘spatial’ aspect, of where it falls in the text, is much more helpful.
There’s more, but perhaps now it’s clear where I’m going with this. Text Arc could be a really interesting way of reading, but also of writing. One thing I wish it did was allow the reader to pull a relationship out of the circle and explore it as a ‘thread’. That would allow the reader (and writer) to ‘unspool’ the hairball a strand at a time, seeing where the strands intersect.
Another thing I would like to do with it is look for sentence forms, and chart where they are. The key terms are one thing, but the structure of clauses is quite another thing to map. For example, my last book used chiasmus a lot, but it would be good to know the frequency of the construction and its placement in relation to other constructions.
In short: Text Arc is more than a pretty picture. I hesitate to say that it is a ‘useful tool’, really because I think it is (and can be something more interesting than that. I see it more as a creative process than as an instrumental one. The ‘result’ it would give you is more of the order of the new writing you can already find in your existing writing. Walter Benjamin once said that “the work is the death mask of its conception.” I think with Text Arc I get to peel off the death mask of the finished text and find some life teeming away inside it, making new texts, that I might not otherwise know were there.
18th April 2007
About the Artist
W. Bradford Paley uses computers to create visual displays with the goal of making readable, clear, and engaging expressions of complex data. He did his first computer graphics in 1973, founded Digital Image Design Incorporated (didi.com/brad) in 1982, and started doing financial & statistical data visualization in 1986. He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art; he is in the ARTPORT collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art; has received multiple grants and awards for both art and design, and his designs are at work every day in the hands of brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, and is director of Information Esthetics: a fledgling interdisciplinary group exploring the creation and interpretation of data representations that are both readable and esthetically satisfying.