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Terministic screens

This post, dedicated to a pen pal, explores the “terministic screen”, which directs attention to certain types of perceptions that inform symbolic action.

If it is true that “All terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principles of continuity and the principles of discontinuity”, might there be situations where they are transcended?


  1. What is a terministic screen
  2. Two-eyed seeing
  3. Jumping fences
  4. A tech surprise
  5. Fin

 What is a terministic screen    top

Kenneth Burke coined the term in Language as Symbolic Action, explaining the terministic screen to be “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others”.

That explains why it is that people, like myself, interpret messages through the screen of vocabulary and worldviews that are already familiar. “Each such terminology is designed for a specific set of observations rather than for meditations on the nature of man in general,” he writes. But he goes on to explain the necessity for there to be screens:

We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another. Within that field, there can be different screens, each with its own ways of directing the attention and shaping the range of observations implicit in the given terminology. All terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principles of continuity and the principles of discontinuity.

Anecdotally, I thought of this concept tonight as I was trying to “digest” the notes I am reviewing and condensing that I made over the past few years as I have sought to think through what some sort of “digital literacy” entails for the non-programmer. I have found that the border between “continuity and discontinuity” is not where the terministic screen of my field typically puts it. Generally, it lies at one of two extremes: in a space of categorical techno-criticism or in service of technical writing devoid of a humanistic viewpoint. Neither help to inform shared symbolic action.

I have been publicly exploring this problem since my ComTech 2020 talk at Université Paris Diderot, entitled, UX Design as Growth Strategy (note: email long changed). UX and design traditionally involve two different disciplines. It has seemed to me that to reconcile their respective terministic screens, meaningfully, necessitates some sort of cross-polinization (to cite Maxwell) that is currently not being served by education. But there are initiatives that could do this well. For example, Program by Design suggests that the liberal arts program be augmented by seeks for computer science, which makes absolute sense considering how much computer science shapes the environments in which we spend our time.

How is it that a humanities teacher is saying this? Pedagogical support can be found in Hélène Trocmé-Fabre. She writes that to learn another terministic screen, like me coming to programming, we approach it hoping for it to:

Surprise me so that I may discover you. This is an act of trust that calls on the resources of the Other that this Other may not even recognize themselves and involves the joint discovery that the exchange permits.

When I began to think about digital technology seriously, aside from being overwhelmed by certain industry trends, which to this day can be terribly sobering, I became enchanted with some definitions of a hacker culture that seeks what Richard Gabriel, after Christopher Alexander, calls “comfortable” code, if I may use this reference very broadly. I could see myself in this attempt; it makes me sad I do not have more time to learn how to code to experience more of this myself.

The act of joint discovery shifts where “I” begins and “You” ends. This is known by writers like Shelley and philosophers. This is interesting to consider in the context of programming.


 Two-eyed seeing    top

As I did weight training today, I listened to an excellent podcast on The Wild with Chris Morgan, which considered different ways of understanding nature.

It addressed the analytical, clinical “terministic screen” of Western science and the experiential approach of Indigenous people. Both approaches can complement each other:

“Etuaptmumk” or two-eyed seeing is a term first used by Mi’kmaw elder Dr. Albert Marshall. It is a way to understand wildlife and nature from the perspective of both western science and indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge refers to understanding and skills built up by a group of people through generations of living closely with nature.


“It’s this principle of learning to see from one eye with the strength of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing and from the other eye with the strength of western knowledges and ways of knowing, and learning to use both of these eyes together for the benefit of all,“ said Dr. Andrea Reid, who leads the Centre for Indigenous Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.


 Jumping fences    top

On a brief walk earlier this evening, in the small park near by, the setting sun was lavishing such natural abundance on the plastic palm trees atop the garish rainbow colors of an inflated slide. What a contrast.

Further along, a father made a game for his small daughter out of almost nothing: lifting her up, over the short wire fence that borders the park, to the pavement on the other side. How she laughed!

The easy thing would be to pay for a ride on the slide. Life on autopilot; no symbols there. It must be tempting, oh so tempting, for those who can pay. The inventive, more difficult thing is to look around and find ways to make ordinary surroundings fun. Here, re-interpreting the fence is an act of love: Because I love you, I will transform these surroundings into an activity for us to share. We will spend this time, together.


 A tech surprise    top

if we’d had a little bit more disintermediated innovation, if we had made running your own Web server very easy, if we had explained to people from the very beginning how important the logs are, and why you shouldn’t let other people keep them for you, we would be in a rather different state right now . . . If you’re not familiar with the benefits of configurability, chances are you’re not going to implement them. If the machines you’ve grown up with never offered options and freedom of choice, will you spend energy on championing that in a professional setting?—source

What is suggested above and in the next sentence is not a surprise, except for the extremists I mentioned in the first section above. The “surprise” is that hackers are people, too. The “surprise” is that “terministic screens” can be overcome by the symbolic action of, for example, working for freedom.

Do people want to remain in silos, or to do the “extra” work to break out of them, for the chance (nothing in life is guaranteed) of common good?

But the chances of achieving such a shared view become poorer when we try to encompass broader purposes, and to involve more people. This is precisely why the question is becoming more relevant today: the thrust of technology is to foster interaction among greater numbers of people, and to integrate processes into monoliths serving wider and wider purposes. It is in this environment that discrepancies in fundamental assumptions will become increasingly exposed. Source

Do we want to design a better shared terministic screen, for a better life environment?

Something that bothers me greatly is the idea that people are made by their surroundings, the buildings we live in, the books we read and the sites we browse. If we keep building boring mundane buildings, then boring mundane people will grow up in them. The same goes for websites and the people who browse them. Perhaps you think thats ok and websites are just websites, I disagree, the little details of peoples lives matter. Source

 Fin    top

As no knowledge is gained through reading “over the shoulders” of participants acting within the interpretive framework of a terminstic screen, there is a need for participation, for the possibility to be surprised by that which is Other. But this does not mean forgetting respective symbolic referents.

Above all, there is no reason for our brains to turn into mush; we are not birds.

(I note, by the way, that “terministic screens” are probably quaint to cognitive scientists and many programmers, but maintain they help to explain much popular behavior.)

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