15 Aug 2009
I have always tried to explain everything through the lens of the really wonderful observation, ‘meaning is use.’ It is the unifying theory of the universe for me.
What I think went underdeveloped in Wittgenstein’s writings though, is the complexity of use. A complexity that is probably represented by the observation that the definition of a word in a language can be understood as the totality (really) of the uses of that word in a language. The kicker is that even uses that fall outside of the boundary of understandable (useful) contribute to the meaning of the word in our language. This is the extraordinary and miraculous ability human beings have to insert new words and new meanings for old words into the language game. Now, of course a person’s ability to extend the language is a factor of their standing in the language community (ok…reputation), how and when they choose to throw down the new use of the word, whether the context is a school board meeting or a poetry reading, etc. To say, if you string a number of nonsensical words together while walking an unsteady path down a dark sidewalk you are not going to lead the social semantic revolution you might hope to.
When I think about systems that might help the world understand itself a bit better, I start with thinking about how it is that we make meaning and how it is that we represent this meaning. This morning Chris described our work as finding the faults in understanding. Perhaps because the example of an Earthquake was invoked a bit earlier in the discussion, I immediately thought about the geologic notion of the word fault. What we are looking for is the faultlines in the understanding of things. The tectonic plate that separates the monolingual Arabic speaking world and the monolingual English speaking world. (I make the distinction to emphasize that my many bilingual colleagues ably straddle continental plates).
What is critical in our globalizing world is that we can identify and share the boundaries, the places where two cultures point at the same thing speak words in two different languages that are used in different ways. This is the big leap from Plato to Wittgenstein, meaning makes a leap from the thing to the use. Take, for example, the issue of the dog named after Anwar Sadat in the bad Hollywood movie, I love you, man. The release of this movie in Egypt has brought about a lawsuit and outrage. The use of the word ‘dog’ is quite different in Arab culture. [Dog’s rights groups are hounded there (sry--really, so sry)] Seriously, though, dogs are second class nouns across the region. As we saw across the Arab press with this story, it is not the least bit funny. There is not really any where to go with this, except for English speakers to learn a bit about the rules (use) of the Arabic language. Did the filmmaker intend this impact? Almost certainly not. Should he/she care? Yes, insofar as an artist wants to be understood. Asking an Arabic speaker to temper their reaction is equivalent to asking them to change the rules of their language. When you speak to the world, you have the great disadvantage of not knowing the rules within which your words are going to be understood. You don't always get to mean what you want to mean.
The bad news for Meedan is that this means we are destined to fail. The good news for Meedan is that the first design principle of the agile and open approach to success in the new social global economy is: ‘fail early and fail often.’ Said another way, the only thing we really need to ensure our success is failure, lots of it.
So, in an effort to circle back to the notion of how we come to move our language forward (and equally in an effort to not be perceived as the unkempt gentleman who, in spite of outward appearance, turns out to not be talking into a bluetooth device) I will suggest that the work of the new globals-as some have called this emergent generation- is not simply to understand the perspective that their counterpart from Cairo has on the Iraq War, but to learn how it is that they use this in the language and from that to extend the way that we use the term in our own communities.