13 February 2007

The growth of a culture

I read a lot of design sites, particularly those dealing with word-of-mouth marketing, branding, experience design, and the like. It’s interesting watching firms make attempts to engineer cultures around their brands. Some of the silliest flops in marketing history have been because some group of marketers and/or execs thought they could sell a manufactured myth. While not entirely impossible, many people seem to miss the spirit of the brand, the soul of a community or culture.

I found this recent piece from New York Magazine interesting. One quote in particular, on the development of language from necessity to full-fledged, living, breathing thing, really caught my eye:

Younger people […] are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up “putting themselves out there” and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it.

Shirky describes this generational shift in terms of pidgin versus Creole. “Do you know that distinction? Pidgin is what gets spoken when people patch things together from different languages, so it serves well enough to communicate. But Creole is what the children speak, the children of pidgin speakers. They impose rules and structure, which makes the Creole language completely coherent and expressive, on par with any language. What we are witnessing is the Creolization of media.”

That’s a cool metaphor, I respond. “I actually don’t think it’s a metaphor,” he says. “I think there may actually be real neurological changes involved.”

It reminds me of a couple quotes I like:

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”
—Benjamin Lee Whorf

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

“All men dream, but not equally.”

The article is about the new internet generation and their embracing the lack of privacy the people over 30 tend to convince themselves doesn’t exist (yet). They’ve embraced internet slang, mashups, and even rendered proper sentence structure to emotives and more intuitive communication structures akin to the personal interpretation prevalent in languages such as ancient Hebrew and Japanese. I think this return back to intuitive, subjective use of language is of particular importance, as it harkens back to more magical interactions with one another through a shared language — not a language predicated by the blacks and white of English grammar where our tools are defined for us, not by us so that we have a wisdom (knowledge + experience = wisdom) of what we're communicating to one another.

Of course, contemporary adults fear this. Adults fear almost everything they don't understand. I don't need to expound too much on this, but I wanted to make this post for posterity’s sake so I can refer back to it.


Thomas said...

Could you explain some of these "more intuitive communication structures akin to the personal interpretation prevalent in languages such as ancient Hebrew and Japanese"? It sounds interesting, but I'm not familiar with Hebrew or Japanese, so I'm at at loss for examples.

Don said...

You can try perusing this article on Ambidextro: Spirituality and Japanese design practise, but it's a bit long and covers many topics aside from just this.

Many languages (not rooted in Latin), such as Hebrew and Asiatic languages, are more open to inerpretation. This empowered not only the individual as s/he required an intimacy or depth with their chosen words and phrases, but also with the context shared between persons via the process of communicating. Today we regurgitate much of our language and semantic without really questioning How or Why we "know" something to be what it is we say it is. I only know Fear as far as my experience with it goes, and when I use that concept in conversation with another I've little approximation of the depth of their own fears, strengths, or loves.

These subjective languages allow for more poetic license and more involvement on the part of the speaker to imbue the message. It also builds a subtler, non-verbal context which builds a stronger, deeper bond between people. In a way, similar to Western body language or tone or sarcasm, etc.

Another gist of it can sorta be summarised in this passage I've taken from Super: Welcome to Graphic Wonderland:

«The letter bears no intrinsic relation to the sound it refers to,» says one of them.

«In other words,» he adds, «there is nothing that makes the sound A resemble the letter A, in any way.» … «The letter is abstract form.»

The Jewish kabbalists insisted that not only the words, but also the very letters of the Holy Scriptures were fragments of an infinite network of potential interpretations. Every textual unit was precious, containing, as they liked to put it, the Breath of Life, and every letter was numbered, with the various textual fragments adding up to ever new sums and subtotals cross-referring to one another in an unbounded melange of meaning. Here, much as the letter itself was God-given, its reading and significance was open.

«Arguably the opposite of what is happening today.» says the designer who has spoken last. «People can sense that form is a historical construct, but it remains a mere support, a crutch, a prosthesis for content. And content,» he adds, «content is secured and guarded by sementic dogma. By hermeneutic dogma.» He looks down, scrutinizing his snow-white Lacoste running shoes. He sighs. «By pop semantics and hermeneutic faith,» he says, sadly shaking his head.