PHIL -- Cross-cultural aspects of visual communication

Philippe Van Nedervelde (
Tue, 28 Mar 1995 17:02:56 +0200

Hi all!

I've been 'lurking' here pretty much since the start. The 'nuts & bolts'
side of the discussion I prefer to leave to the incomparably more capable
programming wizards among you out there. But I think & hope my following
active contributions are worth my breaking my silence. This first one is
uncharacteristically long, but please bear with me.

[Visual representation overcomes cultural and language problems]

>Doesn't a visual representation of an object overcome cultural and
>language problems by being language independent ??

Alas, for purposes of communication, this is in many cases, if not most,
*not* the case.

For starters, the meaning of an object very much depends on the nature of
the object in question.

In very general terms, this is the case for most natural elements and
phenomena of our surroundings: air, water, soil, fire, mist, vegetation,
animals, laws of physics
apparent in everyday life etc. etc. But even here, it should be noted that
different cultures attribute different meanings to even these basic things.
For instance,
animist cultures attribute 'spirited life' to objects we (Western culture)
consider inanimate. But significant differences can already arise at the
merely functional level. For certain cultures, a tree can mean a safe
shelter for the night whereas for other cultures may never think of it in
this way.

You see, objects may well be language independent, that does not make them
culture independent. Don't equate culture and language... Ambiguity
persists because different cultures attach different meanings to different
objects. Sometimes the difference is only slight, but even small differences
can becoming crucial ones depending on the context in which they are used.

Now, things get spectacularly more complicated when we move on to man-made
artifacts. The shape of a given building can denote a holy place for one
culture and something very different or indifferent to others. A stick, a
knife, a vehicle can be so many different things to different cultures.
Worse still, it can mean vastly different things to people sharing the same
culture but operating in different contexts/situations.

And with that last word, the key to a possible solution is out of the bag.

In the vast majority of cases, meaning really is dependent on context. Such
a context is largely culturally determined. One inevitably has to learn a
certain amount of a particular culture before one is able to 'read' the
meaning of given objects in given contexts.

How does this get transposed to visual cyberspace?

This is far from being a trivial thing.

Many problems come from the fact that in visual cyberspace, we leave behind
usmost of the physical world as we know it, together -and here's the actual
sting- with all its associated demands. The on-line space is completely
We become as gods, or to be more correct: as apprentice sorcerers.

Now that is very liberating in the sense that we free ourselves to a large
extent from the frustrations of physical space and also to some extent from
the frustration of time. This is the fundamental basis why this technology
and its associated concepts is so

The trouble is that the demands of the physical world and its
characteristics are also basic things in our lives that we, as a 'cultural
species', have attributed a wide variety of meanings to, and which also
provide for a lot of the context within which we attribute meaning to
objects, be they man-made or natural.

We win a lot, but the price we have to pay for that is that we also lose a

So what about a solution for this problem. I think I have one.

For a significant part of their early life, and arguably during much of the
rest of their life, people learn to function in physical reality and in the
man-made cultural superstructure on top of it. This proces takes a lot of
time and energy. In software parlance, 'consensual reality' can be said to
have a relatively steep and very long learning curve... a high threshold.

When novices today first enter the on-line space or 'world' they have to
again climb up a very steep learning curve. Even with a 2D GUI like
Mosaic... The present day interfaces to on-line networks still prove to be
too high a threshold for IT illiterate people.

Us techies and so don't mind so much, but the question here is: why on earth
should we require from them to acquire skills to operate arcane,
unintuitive, alien interfaces so that they can function in this on-line world.

Visual cyberspace offers the *potential* to dramatically change this.

The way to do that is to use the real world as a metaphor for the on-line world.

This should be done to a great extent, even to the extent of recreating some
of the frustrations that we know from consensual reality and that we are
keen to rid ourselves of. Remember that the idea is to offer interested
people from all over the world an environment in which they find as many
familiar things as possible. This familiarity is essential in order to allow
them to function in that environment from the very first moments that they
are in it.

OK, OK, I hear some of you already clamouring that this would completely
defeat the whole potential for empowerment of this new technology and its
associated concepts.
Before you jump to conclusions, please hear me out.

As soon as a novice feels comfortable in the on-line space, s/he needs to be
informed that this new 'world' is both less than a one-to-one copy of
'consensual reality', and much more at the same time. In as simple terms as
possible, s/he needs to be explained that:

o it is not really a physical world;
o it mimicks physics and cultural artifacts from consensual reality only to
provide a shared frame of reference to people within it as well as for its
initmate linkages with 'consensual reality'. (Cross-culturally for most
natural objects and phenomena and culture-specific for cultural artifacts.)
o this environment allows certain 'magic' which is impossible for 99,9 % of
people inside consensual reality.
o this magic includes things like instantaneous locomotion (teleportation)
and 'flying' for those who choose to do that.
o another part of the magic is that objects *can* have different functions
-and hence meanings- than they have in consensual reality. In other words:
things are not necessarily what they appear. That can be the case in
consensual reality too, of course. The difference here is that objects can
have properties and behaviour which in consensual reality would be
impossible or very 'magical', even miraculous.

So, let on-line objects be what they may be, but provide them with
sufficient cultural context (in the form of other objects in its vicinity or
by means of explanations) so that people from different cultural backgrounds
can 'read' them properly and not mistake them for what they are not (unless
that is an effect deliberately aimed for by its designer -- if so, this
ought to be justified somehow).

>>Language problems, yes, but not cultural problems. If you use a trash
>>can ("dust bin" to you, Jon) to represent a place to discard things, a
>>person from another culture might see a round metal storage container,
>>which is correct, in a way, but could lead to misinterpretation.
>Errrrr.. 'scuse me but in computer (certainly GUI) parlance isn't the trashcan
>(I call it that too) a universal symbol for discarding somthing?

Sure, but 'universal' here only extends to a very small part of the worlds
population: people familiar with 2D GUIs, mostly Macintosh users at that.
There are literally millions of Windows-users out there who are *not*
familiar with the Mac's desktop metaphor and hence would need to be
explained or find out by trial and error the meaning, usage and usage
implications of a 2D icon of a trash can.

Hope this helps. Sorry if I have been too long-winded for you.

Philippe Van Nedervelde