Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It’s Not Easy Being Seen

(April Fool! Color will return to the column next month---I promise.)

by Michael H. Brill, Datacolor

“Plagiosphere” is a term coined by Edward Tenner [1] to denote the fragile, finite volume of our creative phrases that now can be checked for plagiarism by Internet search. Tenner said poignantly, “Copernicus may have deprived us of our centrality in the cosmos, and Darwin of our uniqueness in the biosphere, but at least they left us the illusion of the originality of our words. Soon that, too, will be gone.”

On the anniversary of Margaret Walch’s article highlighting green in the fashion industry and harkening back to Kermit the Frog’s “It ain’t easy bein’ green,” I address this column to the plagiosphere, the bane of high-school term-paper writers and the planet where Kermit’s descendents and catchy titles seem to multiply without bound.

Consider this column’s title (a takeoff on Kermit’s complaint), which I found as the heading of an article in the February 2008 issue of Discover. The referent was a mutant frog (genetic-engineered by scientists in Hiroshima, Japan) with a transparent skin. The article explains that transparent frogs are useful in the lab because you can see their responses to stimuli in real time. There are also transparent frogs in the wild---in tropical rain forests---which don’t survive in more sun-exposed areas because of the vulnerability of internal organs to direct sunlight. Hence “It’s not easy being seen.” [By the way, the eyes of a transparent frog can’t really be transparent or there would be no retinal image.]

Another of Kermit’s descendents appeared recently under the same title, this one a new frog species that “leaped into view in Oklahoma” (Tulsa World, Jan. 12, 2008). This frog seemed really new, not just invisible. It is most remarkable for its mating call, with a sound like a finger run along a metal comb, increasing slowly in pitch and adding to the other Cajun frogs’ calls to make a deafening noise. It may not be so easy being seen, but easier to be heard.

Encouraged by these examples, I wondered how many Google hits would arise in a search of “It’s not easy being seen.” I got 25, including one on prominent economic pundits who bemoan the tendency of their gloomy predictions to become truths. And many on “coming out of the closet.”

One can scarcely coin a phrase anymore. Whole term papers may be matters of coincidence in the stifling plagiosphere. I am worried about creative works becoming matters of coincidence as we near the monkeys-on-typewriters limit. Whenever I think I’ve turned a clever phrase now, I look it up in Google before I take too much pride in it---but I don’t necessarily avoid using it. The context is worth something, and I believe we can become too prudish in our demands for originality. That especially applies to high-school curricula, whose well-worn paths are deep ruts in the plagiosphere that---I should think---would tend to entrain as well as to train students.

So as not to get trapped in the plagiosphere myself, I offer here a premise for an article under this column’s title that may be truly original. The Iranian New Year, celebrated at the Spring Equinox, is highlighted by the custom of gathering seven things whose names begin with the Iranian letter “Seen.” Success at gathering such things is a token of good luck in the coming year. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norouz]. Given that premise, discuss among yourselves: “It’s not easy being Seen.”

[1] E. Tenner, The rise of the plagiosphere, Technology Review, June 2005.