More on constrained universes of expression (dozed off on the couch, woke up with a headful of thoughts). I thought about TV series as created universes of expression. The example that came to my mind was Sex and the City: multiple parallel stories on the same theme, that comes together in the end as Carrie types up her column; voiceover, cut to the PowerBook as she types the key rhetorical question. (I’m definitely not a fan of the series, but I appreciate the clear structure that these types of productions have.)

Anyway, it’s a created format that the series’ creators work within; a space of expression. This format benefits both the creators as they churn out yet another episode, and serves as a contract between the producer and the consumer (the viewers). Step outside the format and the viewer is bound to be confused, which is bad in commercial television. Your Nielsen ratings might drop.

So, the contract makes sure the consumer knows what to expect both in terms of structure and type of story.

In television, there is a thing called “format”, which is something that a successful series is turned into, so that it can be licensed to production companies in other countries and produced there. I thought about this a while back, and specifically about how they document these formats for the production companies. I talked to a guy that works with this, and he said that they write a description of it – called “the bible” – and that this, together with tapes of the original production serves as documentation. Sometimes they send someone to work as a consultant or mentor as they start up a new local production of a format. (See my post TV formats #2.)

This led me to think about Mishkin Berteig’s article The Software Construction Analogy is Broken, in which he suggested that a better analogy for software development would be creation of new media. He referred to Marshall McLuhan, but I didn’t get it. He sent me an email trying to explain it further, but I’m still not sure I get it. Anyway, the universes of expression analogy might be related to this. (See my post about this article; mostly quotes, though.)

Here’s what I wrote him back, but I’m not sure I’m on the right track:

First, I’m not sure I have fully understood the meaning of “the medium is the message” yet. I’ve tried to find articles about this, but haven’t been successful.

I realize I have interpreted “message” as, to quote the entry on dictionary.com, “The substance of […] communication; the point or points conveyed” rather than the communication itself. So it becomes “the medium [for communication] is [the communication itself]”.

But then I wonder, in the case of television as well as for software, between which parties does this communication take place, and what is its point? [Probably between developers and users, I guess.]

I guess I have to read some more about this to understand it, but I think I understand what you’re [Mishkin] after: the analogy for software you suggest is communication, and there’s explicit as well as implicit communication [this refers to things he wrote in his email]. For implicit communication, this is where McLuhan comes in. So with this analogy, the question for those involved in the project becomes: What are we communicating (implicitly and explicitly)?

But as I said, I’m not sure I get this.

Laurent writes that he’s thought about this as well, and he relates constrained universes of expression to “Douglas Hofstadter’s “linguistic medium”: a language restricted by a set of constraints that are not so tight as to preclude the expression of arbitrary meanings.” I’ll have to read his post tomorrow; I’m too tired. Also, Urban has emailed me something about a breakthrough in the history of Go that I’ll have to look further into.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 23, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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