We Rep [Ideas]

Meaning and Things Pt. 2

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What dilemmas can we foresee at the outset when developing a system that acquires and communicates meaning through gesture, movement and morphology? By asking questions we invite ourselves into an exploration into theories of meaning, along with the relationships people inherit and build around objects and spaces through experience. Quite a networked onion really.

The notion forwarded by the conference organizers, that we can design semantics alone, in a ‘systematic and scientific way’, ignores the emergent, natural relationships that occur in the dynamic between human experience and the material world where meaning is cultivated.

“The symbol is not the sign that veils something everybody knows. Such is not its significance: on the contrary, it represents an attempt to elucidate, by means of analogy, something that still belongs entirely to the domain of the unknown or something that is yet to be. Imagination reveals to us, in the form of a more or less striking analogy, what is in the process of becoming. If we reduce this by analysis to something else universally known, we destroy the authentic value of the symbol; but to attribute hermeneutic significance to it conforms to its value and its meaning.” (Jung, 1953)

If meaning resides, and is latent in, possible relationships we may form, then the dominant emphasis on the artifact is insufficient. Rather, our attention belongs to the relationships and experiential processes that exist ‘in-between’. We need to move away from the notion of considering our objects and spaces as absolute reified things, instead seeing them as tools that afford potential roles and relationships. This step transforms the criteria by which we create, use and understand our objects. Such an outlook on our material world opens ‘things’ up to further interpretation and negotiation of ‘what they can be’, which is as malleable and dynamic as our intentions, desires and goals.

“In fact it can be asserted in the history of philosophy that, for example, the are no things, only properties or relations” (Bochenski)

As a cultural construct, the form of an artifact has the potential to both consecrate meaning, and to confound it. In essence, form has no meaning. (Thomas, 2006) Meaning is cultivated through the relationships that arise between the properties of things and the goals of people. (RH +Mc) Form is an invitation, a window to possible experiences which can give rise to a myriad of meanings. Events and actions, following no common rules, clarify temporary instances of meaning in the act of experience. The human production and attribution of meaning to objects and spaces can be seen as an untapped renewable resource. The spectrum of user-forged relationships offers an intangible inventory that can be tangibly expressed through the medium of things.

‘The meaning of a representation is the role of that representation in the cognitive life of the agent, e.g. in perception, thought and decision-making.’(Block)

Block asserts in this statement that the meaning of any-thing or non-thing is the life it lives in the lives of people. Meanings of things are malleable human constructions. It could be said then, with certainty, that meaning is emergent. An attempt to affix meaning to form neuters ones perception to see what it can do or be. A thing is as much a question, as it is a material solution to a given need or want to achieve something. The loss of this dialogue is essentially what is at stake.


Conventionally forms are inanimate participants in the effort to reify and manage meaning. [Graves-Brown] As they continually become recognizable references for former experiences where meaning was formed and transformed. Here artifacts, interfaces included, have a role in the production, preservation, recall and engagement with meaning. As differing worldviews, values, metal models and motivations evolve, they frame existing structures of meaning in different ways through the creation and socialization of things.

IED Cellphone

IED Cellphone

The fear is that the semantic tyranny of industrial age design of artifacts will be carried over into a new class of objects that offer a new range of affordances. People, seduced by the surface magic of black box material culture often do not participate in the vision of things, their purpose, their role, and their possibility. [Latour] The stealth danger is deploying technologies and products like a form of non-democratic legislation. Individuals who live in materialist cultures are deeply effected when products, services and technologies come to define patterns of social life and order. In the domain of every day experience, ‘live’ moments become a form of real estate. People then are continually faced with the prescription and ingestion of the prefabricated artificial experiences, presented as social constructions of what is, and what should be, without explicit opportunities or access to contribute in a meaningful way.

How then can we explore and prescribe the criteria of systems that are based on the way in which meaning is produced, perceived, transferred, preserved and obsolesced in situ. Can we design into objects the affordances and techniques to identify what humans attend to, choices they make, what behaviors and habits are being born. By considering the relationship of form to meaning while engaging in a critical and open-minded conversation about people as producers and vessels of meaning, we can assemble a deeper understanding, one that will inform the development of new species of form-as-interface, embedded in, and inseparable from, a dynamic “ecology of means and meaning”.

A successful language of form and movement cannot be designed. What is possible is the design of s platform in which user-based formal design, semantics and functions can emerge through negotiation.

Such a debate about the inherency of meaning in form could potentially overturn how we produce, interact with, and communicate our relationships with form. People continually contribute to objects through use and “misuse”. We may, as user-creators, begin to enrich product, service and environment interactions and make them much more intimately engaged in people’s everyday lives. Form-as-interface, to manufacturing-as-service, may reveal a whole new landscape of habiture that organizations did not know their existing things/products satisfy. Conversely, it may also reveal whole new platforms, product categories and territories that may contribute to the creation of new behaviors, habits and rituals. We may succeed in democratizing authorship of product functionality, beyond a small privileged priesthood of creators.

What are the properties and dynamics of the process of social emergence of meaning? And how then can we design in, from, and through this process?

Through discussing a series of  weak signals we can begin to describe a system of behavior-enabling, experience-driven material production that is both empathetic and inclusive. A second objective is to identify new market opportunities associated with emerging technologies along with processes and models.


Written by rthomas

February 24, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. So things that ‘live’ gather more variations of formal properties,in a polymorphic way (being more than one thing at one time) and therefore also able to gather the largest ‘life force’ through the aspiration of interested, interacting parties? What about a chair? Is a chair just the “desire to sit?”

    It would be so interesting to do a backcast of icons that are understood as X or unrecognized depending on the viewers relationship to time (their age). The relationship to form as it has changed, will change, and as the conduits of our mediated lives change. (ie. I don’t have a tv but can watch more tv now then when I did have one).

    Great ideas and work (just from reading this small fb post).

    nice. Hope your well. cmac.

    Catharine MacIntosh

    February 24, 2009 at 11:12 pm

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