Tilde as Approximation

This symbol (in English) sometimes means “approximately”, such as: “~30 minutes ago” meaning “approximately 30 minutes ago”. It can mean “similar to”, including “of the same order of magnitude as”, such as: “x ~ y” meaning that x and y are of the same order of magnitude. Another approximation symbol is ?, meaning “approximately equal to” the critical difference being the subjective level of accuracy: ? indicates a value which can be considered functionally equivalent for a calculation within an acceptable degree of error, whereas ~ is usually used to indicate a larger, possibly significant, degree of error. —From the “Common Use” section of the Tilde Wikpedia article

On Saturday I gave a version of the “Domains in the Afterglow” talk that began taking shape after a panel presentation I was a part of at DML14. I’ll be presenting it in full-featured form Friday (alliteration FTW) at Barcuh College. The Mary Washicon audience consisted of two people; I’m lucky it was the right two.  Zach Whalen was kind enough to stay for my talk, as well as emoboiler Maureeen Iredell, who was crazy enough to invite me.

This run-through was really useful because after doing an abbreviated version Zach provided me some awesome feedback that I’ll be building into Friday’s talk. One recommendation was to explore the concept of afterglow a bit.  To think of this concept not only as the Wikipedia definition of apocalyptic sunsets made possible by our pollution, or the trashheap of technological history as Bruce Sterling defines it in his presentation at Transmedial 2014, but rather as an illumination remaining where light has disappeared—an aura akin to the glow of a CRT monitor after it’s turned off. A dissipated energy that we can and should be reharnessing and re-directeding, a frame that will work nicely with my vision for Domain of One’s Own towards the end of the presentation. This is not just another iPad giveaway or the next generation of churn and burn ware software, but a critical intervention in personal empowerment through the open web. What’s more, such a vision shouldn’t be limited to UMW—that narrative is not only getting lonely, dangerously myopic.

All of which reminds me of something else Zach mentioned that resonated deeply with me, this presentation can and should be placed within a broader history of the web in higher education. Like Zach’s talk on animated GIFs earlier that day, an attempt at an archaeology† of the web that frames the work we’re doing within a broader historical context is crucial. That said, I mut be clear that this presentation is an early, incompelte approximation of that at best. Nonetheless, I want this presentation to be the start of a focused resistance to the ahistorical impulse when talking about technology to suggest innovations, disruptions, and all the other buzzwords employed are actually deeply embedded signifiers within a complex network of social, economic, and cultural factors that have as much to do with the consolidation of power as they do with the liberation of networks.

But I digress,  because what I really wanted to talk about when I started this post was this idea of exploring the tilde space I’ve been writing about recently through a technical, typographical, and representational lenses. Zach mentioned that the typographical character tilde “~” is not only a Unix command for denoting a user’s home on the server, something like ~jgroom, the character also suggests an approximation. So, you can read ~jgroom as approximately Jim Groom. A space of approximation is fascianting to me because as we were talking about digital identity in the Internet Course last week the question of the traces one leaves online somehow approximate your presence, but can never truly represent the whole person. And you could easily say the same in the physical world. In fact, the ~ can move seamlessly between tehcnical, typographical, and representational readings, and it’s a close reading a literal sign—trippy.

So this notion of one’s online presence as an approximation of who we are that has become increasingly fragmented (which is not a bad thing by any means) is part of a technical an tradition at universities that is as old as the web. This talk needs to position UMW Domains within this narrative as a critical intervention to start digging into the deeper representational implications of online identity as they relate to the academic discourse. For higher ed to reclaim a sense of the deeper philosophical, technical, and practical visions the web was born of, and the resultant implications on our transforming notions of identity (digital and otherwise) as it relates to the curriculum and community on our campuses more generally. Does that sound like for a plan, or what?


† I’m imagining this is referring directly to Michel Foucault ‘s method he outlines in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge.

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7 Responses to Tilde as Approximation

  1. Alan Levine says:

    I ~ love the approximation metaphor

  2. Ryan says:

    Just to clarify one of the technical pieces here … on a *nix server, the ~ isn’t a command, it’s a shortcut that represents the exact path to your home folder (not an approximation thereof). I can then use that shortcut in commands to make life a little easier. So, for example:

    cd /home/rbrazell

    is a command that says, go to my home folder. But that’s a lot of keystrokes, so instead I can just type:

    cd ~

    and that will take me to the same place. So it’s more like an abbreviation than an approximation in that context.

    In addition to machine/programming languages, I find it interesting to think about the ways in which other languages make use of the tilde. In Spanish, the presence or absence of a diacritical tilde can completely change meaning of a sentence. For example:

    Spanish: Tengo 31 años.
    English: I am 31 years old.
    English, literal: I have 31 years.

    Spanish: Tengo 31 anos.
    English: I have 31 anuses.

    Other examples include cono/coño and pena/peña … but I’ll let you look those up for yourself 🙂 Pretty powerful stuff for what looks like a little squiggle.

  3. Alan Levine says:

    Tho a different meaning for matrix math, it’s “not” operation http://www.mathworks.com/help/matlab/ref/not.html

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