Ginzburg V: Bertillonian word portraits in the age of tag clouds

Ginzburg dwells on the use of signs to identify individuals in his essay. His main example is the emergence of fingerprinting as a semiotic practice to identify and diversify crowds into individuals. But he also looks at how graphology grew out of the understanding of one’s characters – in writing – reflected one’s character – in psychology. Through the series of examples of signs and symptoms used to identify the individual (also used to warn us of recidivist criminals, like in Dumas) he tries to show that our need for a connection between the semiotic and the biological is a need that has roots in our need for accountability, and legal responsibility. In passing, Ginzburg also mentions Bertillon’s use of word portraits, a practice that was suggested to escape the simplistic physiognomic descriptions in early criminal records. And here we find something interesting.

Bertillon suggested that a linguistic description of an individual would be more interesting than one in which we try to measure a few biological qualities. He immediately ran into two problems: one was the problem of linguistic ambiguity – how do you create a literal description of an individual that can be used for uniquely identifying that individual? The other was the problem that the system was, as Ginzburg notes, wholly negative. Someone who did not fulfill the description could be eliminated, but would a word portrait really uniquely identify someone? Anyone who has read a description of criminal or seen a so-called phantom image of a criminal understands how hard that task really is.

Fast forward to today. Would it not be possible to extract unique linguistic signatures from someone’s Facebook feed or Twitter stream? In fact, would it not even be possible to more exactly identify and individual from their linguistic print than from any biological data? We could imagine a technology that creates a linguistic portrait against which we can be authenticated, and where we would not even know what idiosyncracies truly and finally identified us uniquely as ourselves.

A Turing test of sorts, a matching against all the traces and threads that we have left online, that would be able to state with a percentage the likelihood that we are the same individual as that of the text sample we are being compared to.

A lot of interesting questions suggest themselves. A finger print can only identify the individual. Can a linguistic word portrait also suggest age? Can it suggest intoxication or any other state of mind? Is it possible to build a piece of software that can show in detail how our language typically changes through our life spans? Or degrades with a number of drinks?

Imagine a filter that detects the tell-tale signs of drunk tweeting and silently holds your tweets until you sober up. Or a filter that suggests that your actual mental age seems closer to 50 than 40 at this point in time. An interesting, if somewhat eerie, possibility perhaps.

What would a word portrait of you look like?

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