Saturday, 30 October 2010

Clouded Judgement

Word clouds tell a detailed story, perhaps more meticulous than their name would suggest. Constructed using a piece of text the size of the word is proportionate to the number of times it is used in the text. One is able to deduce implicit or subconscious messages from them, be they intended or unintended. If anything, word clouds are useful to the author in terms of illustrating whether or not they are saying what they want to be saying or, indeed, communicating something slightly less desirable. It’s not telepathy, but it’s the next best thing.

To demonstrate my point, I looked at word clouds which were generated from two interviews with Tony Blair, one with Jeremy Paxman about the Iraq war and one more recently with Martin Kettle, concerning the recent publication of his memoirs.

The former, as one would expect, contains brutal language: war, regime, weapons, inspectors, chemical, oil, nuclear, aggression, sanctions, threat, destruction, breach, extreme and terrorism. It’s raw and clinical, not to mention defensive: effectively, agree, believe. There’s even a small indication of frustration on the right hand side in the words ‘done’ and ‘talking’, surreptitiously sat together below a beacon of apparent ‘resolution’. Surprisingly, ‘inspectors’ crops up more often than ‘war’, perhaps Blair was unintentionally trying to shift blame onto the sources of what was perceived to be false intelligence.

Furthermore, a specific tone of voice can be gauged from the Iraq interview, as opposed to the one about memoirs. Blair regularly identifies people and countries: George (Bush), Colin (Powell), Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Korea and Afghanistan to name but a few, pointing an invisible finger at the many facets of the situation he has found himself in. The lack of this direct language in the Kettle interview shows how Blair is now distanced from his former political situation, aside from the smaller yet undeniable presence of ‘Gordon’. The language is softer and retrospectively vague: end, issues, support, state, reason, progressive, going, time, know, welfare, respect, reforms, relation, conversations, public, explain, sense, social, engaged, frank. However, a lasting strain remains in the former prime minister’s words, perhaps a hint towards his continuous involvement in the public eye, and the incessant criticism which follows: still, difficult, argument, danger, problem, order, changes, completely, absolutely, never.

What becomes clear from comparing these two images is that the insightful phrases in fact lie in the periphery of the clouds. Political language is permeated irretrievably with words such as ‘think’ and ‘people’, and so the larger words, in these clouds, don’t really tell us much about the particulars of the person or situation. Further evidence of this can be seen in the word clouds that were produced from the televised political debates during the election earlier this year, where ‘think’ was the predominant choice of word for both Nick Clegg and David Cameron. The truth therefore resides in the words that sit outside of the main bulk of political jargon. There’s still hoping then, for those than can squint hard enough to see the ‘sorry’ that sits pitifully between ‘country’ and that ubiquitous end goal: ‘resolution’.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview concerning his book with Martin Kettle.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview about the Iraq war with Jeremy Paxman.

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