Tom Friedman’s Weirding Wordle

For a quick break from the Freshman Reading Program winners, we once again have a post by University Writing Professor and passionate environmentalist, Michael Svoboda.

Weird Wordle 1

A “wordle” is a subtle and yet fun example of what Edward Tufte dubbed “small or scaled multiples,” graphic representations that provide information about the relative size or frequency of something by repeating or scaling iconic images of that thing . In a wordle, the size of a word provides relative information about the frequency with which it is used in a particular text. (The colors, however, are just eye-candy.)

Robin Delaloye’s beautiful graphic for Eckles Library was the first wordle I encountered.  (I’m still waiting for my poster, Robin!) The second was the wordle of the “negotiating text” for the next round of climate change talks in Copenhagen; that one accompanied an editorial by John Vidal in the October 2nd issue of the Guardian, the left-leaning London newspaper. In addition to calling our attention to the odd absence of “carbon” from the starting text for negotiating the next climate change agreement, Vidal also provided a link to a wordle website.

At the Wordle website , you can cut-and-paste any text into their processor and out will come a wordle. You can then tinker with the results by changing the color of the background, the font and color palette of the words, or the orientation (horizontal, vertical, or mixed) and arrangement (by repeated scramblings) of the words.

The above wordle was created by cutting-and-pasting two of Tom Friedman’s recent environmentally-themed New York Times  editorials into the wordle processor: “Real Men Tax Gas” (9/20/09), about America’s failure to follow Europe’s lead on taxing fossil fuels, especially gasoline, and “The New Sputnik” (9/27/09), about China’s launch of several green technology initiatives.

My tinkering with this wordle went beyond the usual switches of font, color, orientation, and arrangement. To get the words “hot,” “flat,” “crowded,” “global,” and “weirding” into a text that was not drawn from Friedman’s book, where they were used frequently, I had to add them to the mix. I suspect a wordle of Friedman’s second chapter—“Today’s Date: 1 E.C.E; Today’s Weather: Hot, Flat, and Crowded”—would look very similar to the one presented here, but I can’t say that for sure. So let me confess again that the wordles you see here—see another example below—have been worked, and worked pretty hard.

Nevertheless, from these two examples we can see that Friedman regularly frames climate change as an energy-for-economic-growth issue, one with international repercussions. And in this framing, China looms very, very large. (I did not tinker with “China” at all.)

The relative prominence of “win” likely also reflects Friedman’s penchant for framing climate change (hot) as an aspect of economic fitness in an increasingly interlinked (flat) and competitive (crowded) world. But on this point we might wonder whether Friedman is perpetuating the very problem he wants to solve. Effective action on climate change will require effective government regulation. Friedman readily admits this. But in the United States, appeals to economic competitiveness, or to competitive conceptions of masculinity (“Real Men . . .”), tend to resonate with the anti-government or anti-regulatory undertones so pervasive in our public discourse. The Europeans and the Chinese, albeit in very different ways, approach climate change with very different attitudes toward their governments. Can we get Americans to cooperate more effectively on climate change by appealing to their individual competitive impulses? I think that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, however, we can admire these pleasing wordles of Friedman’s weirding words.

Weird Wordle 2

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