A Bold Example of Semantic Pollution

Sometimes language changes slowly and inadvertently. The meaning of words can change over time as language evolves. That’s how many semantic environments become polluted: little by little. But sometimes change happens abruptly and purposefully. This past weekend, AT&T gave us an excellent example of how to pollute a semantic environment in one blow.

Today’s mobile phone networks work on what’s known as 4G technology. It’s a standard that’s widely adopted by the mobile communications industry. When your smartphone connects to a 4G network, you see a little icon on your phone’s screen that says either 4G or LTE. These 4G networks are plenty fast for most uses today.

However, the industry is working on the next generation network technology called — you guessed it — 5G. The first 5G devices are already appearing on the market. That said, widespread rollout won’t be immediate: the new technology requires new hardware on phones, changes to cell towers, and a host of other changes. It’ll likely be a couple of years before the new standard becomes mainstream.

Despite these technical hurdles, last weekend AT&T started issuing updates to some Android phones in their network that change the network label to 5G. Nothing else is different about these devices; their hardware is still the same and they still connect using the same network technology. So what’s the reason for the change? AT&T has decided to label some advanced current-generation technologies “5G E.” When the real 5G comes around, they’ll call that “5G+.”

This seems like an effort to make the AT&T network look more advanced than those of its competitors. The result, of course, is that this change confuses what 5G means. It erodes the usefulness of the term; afterward, it’ll be harder for nontechnical AT&T customers to know what technology they’re using. It’s a bold example of how to co-opt language at the expense of clarity and understanding.

AT&T decides 4G is now “5G,” starts issuing icon-changing software updates

Working in a Second Language

Love this exchange between Daniel Kahneman and Tyler Cowen:

COWEN: Do you think that working outside of your native language in any ways influenced your ideas on psychology? It makes you more aware of thinking fast versus thinking slow? Or not?
KAHNEMAN: It’s something I used to think about in the context . . . I’m from Israel, and it was thinking whether there was something in common to Israeli intellectuals operating in a second language. And I thought that, in a way, it can be an advantage to operate in a second language, that there are certain things . . . that you can think about the thing itself, not through the words.
COWEN: It’s like lower sunk costs in a way.
KAHNEMAN: I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I thought that this was not a loss for me, to do psychology in a second language.

This resonates with my experience as somebody who operates primarily using a second language. Working in English has made my work better, not worse. It’s been a forcing function that has made me more aware of the contingency of language; a significant effect given how central language is to information architecture.

Daniel Kahneman on Cutting Through the Noise (Ep. 56- Live at Mason)

How To Frame an Argument

“The way in which we frame an issue largely determines how that issue will be understood and acted upon.” So begins an article by Dr. Biljana Scott that analyzes President Obama’s 2010 Nobel speech to illustrate how to frame an argument.

Dr. Scott highlights several effective framing mechanisms:

  • assertion,
  • pre-emotive arguments,
  • appeal to authority and precedent,
  • typecasting,
  • selective disclosure,
  • semantic categories,
  • appeal to emotion through stories in a capsule,
  • clusivity,
  • shared aspirations,
  • redress,
  • the use of musical devices, and
  • ethos and credibility.

The objective? “To change the attitudes and associated behaviour of another party in line with one’s own beliefs (or a set of beliefs which suits our purpose).” This calls for a mix of force through assertion and grace through attentiveness—achieved through the mindful use of language:

The person who takes the initiative in assigning members to categories, defining key terms and pursing a well-reasoned argument is likely to maintain control of the topic under discussion.

Framing an argument

The Meaning Vampires

Let’s look at a painting:

Mona Lisa

Surely you’re familiar with this one. It’s very famous! By the time I was a university student, I’d seen reproductions of this painting many hundreds (if not thousands) of times in a great variety of contexts: history books, art books, magazines, print ads, TV commercials, etc. In my last year of university, I visited The Louvre, where the “original” is on display. It was on a wall, behind thick glass.

My first thought upon seeing the “real” Mona Lisa was that it’s smaller than I expected, perhaps because I was very far away. There was a large crowd surrounding the painting. Immediately in front of me was a man with a child on his shoulders; he’d propped him up so he could see. “Son,” he said, “there it is! The most famous painting in the world!”

The most famous painting in the world. Not just a beautiful portrait of a particular individual, an excellent example of Renaissance painting or of the sfumato oil painting technique: This painting represents something else, something broader. It’s the uber-painting, the one that represents all other paintings. If you were to stop a random person on the street and ask them to name a painting, the odds are high this is the one they’ll mention.

Mona Lisa’s fame has resulted in (and been the result of) endless reproduction and re-contextualization. What was once a stand-in for a real person is now used to convey lots of other meanings: Renaissance, painting, art, genius, and so much more. With each new reproduction, each new act of association between the painting and an idea, a little bit of its original meaning erodes.

Painting, art, and genius are abstractions; they need signifiers to help us discuss them in concrete ways. Mona Lisa fills this need beautifully. We latch on to the new signification and repeat it. In so doing, the painting’s original meaning wanes. As familiar as you are with the image itself, I’m willing to bet you’re not as familiar with the name Lisa Gherardini, the ostensible subject of the painting. (This post, too, layers new meaning onto the Mona Lisa, nudging it ever slightly further from its original role and meaning; the irony isn’t lost on me.)

Of course, this doesn’t just happen with paintings; all signifiers can be subject to this sort of meaning shift. For most of our history, it’s happened relatively slowly: Mona Lisa’s meaning changed over a long period of time. However, in digital information environments — and social media, in particular — this process can happen much faster.

Consider the appearance of the word “BREAKING” at the beginning of a news item. I still remember a time in my life when seeing this word in this context would cause my heart to skip a beat. “Oh no!,” I’d wonder, “What terrible thing has happened now?” “BREAKING” used to mean something like, “an event has occurred that is important enough for us to immediately ask for your attention.” It’s useful to have a signifier that serves this purpose; sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing to pay attention. (“BREAKING: 100-foot waves spotted heading towards San Francisco as a result of a ​tsunami. Evacuate now!”) “BREAKING” is thus a sort of incantation that makes us prop up.

Or rather, it used to be. You see, this usage doesn’t come for free: it only works as intended if we use it infrequently and for really important things. When we overuse the word, its meaning starts to erode — and once gone, we’ve lost it. At some point, somebody recognized the power of “BREAKING” to get us to pay attention​ and used it for something slightly less than truly urgent or relevant. Other people picked up on the usage, and from then on it was a slippery slope to irrelevance:

The original meaning of the Mona Lisa has mostly eroded. But that’s OK; Lisa Gherardini and the people who loved her (and would’ve cared about the verisimilitude of her representation) are long gone. The painting is now serving a new role. This shift in meaning is useful to us​, even if we can no longer appreciate the painting as such and only do so as an abstract concept. However, in diminishing the potency of “BREAKING” through repetition and re-contextualization, we’ve done ourselves a disservice: we’ve lost a powerful signifier that used to play a useful (and necessary) role.

Those of us who structure information environments are continually repeating and re-contextualizing signifiers, often for novel purposes. We must approach the task with great respect to the power of language, being mindful not to trivialize the words, phrases, and symbols we use. It’s frighteningly easy to drain signifiers of their meaning, and once that’s happened, their potency (and effectiveness) cannot be regained; the life is sucked out of them.

Note: I first learned about the erosion of meaning through reproduction—using Mona Lisa as an example—from one of my university professors. I wish I could remember her name so I could give her credit for it.

The Power of Labeling

“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
— Genesis 2:19

A storytelling trope: a child finds a derelict, perhaps injured, animal and starts caring for it. An adult then advises: “Don’t give it a name.” The adult knows what happens next: The act of naming the animal will mark a change in the relationship. Suddenly, this is not just a random dog; now it’s Skippy. In granting the dog this label — which sets him apart from the other dogs in the world — the child has taken more responsibility for Skippy. A strong bond is established.

Naming things is a superpower all humans share. We see something novel, and need to discuss it. Long descriptions won’t work. “The dog we found yesterday in the alley” is too long and awkward. We need a label we can use to stand in for the thing. Not just any dog; Skippy. If we’re learning a language, we may ask someone else: “what do you call this?” They may say, “We call it pamplemousse.” The label pamplemousse gives you new abilities. Now you can get juice, for example. In some cases, there will be no existing label; we need to produce one. “Let’s call it Large Hadron Collider.” Bam! Now you can ask for funding.

When you’re considering a new project, naming it is a key step towards making it real. Before you’ve named the project, it’s just a vague set of ideas in your mind. But once it has a label, you can make a folder in your computer, start a notebook, email people about it. The label makes the project a more concrete thing. You can think and talk about it in more precise terms. The label establishes boundaries around the project; it concretizes it as a set. It also gives you a way of operating on that set. You can kick off the project, work on it with other people, transfer it, archive it, etc. Think of a hot frying pan; you can manipulate the pan because it has a handle. A label is a sort of handle that lets you manipulate ideas.

But labels do more than that. They also frame things in particular ways. Imagine you name a project “Tahoe Vacation 2018.” That label establishes several frames. For example, it’s clearly not a work project. (Unless you work as a travel agent.) It’s implied that this vacation applies to the year 2018; perhaps you only take one vacation per year, or you go to Tahoe every year and this particular project applies to the one in 2018. In any case, time is now part of the framing. It’s also implied that you’ll be going to Tahoe; by giving it this particular label, you’ve ruled out lots of other destinations.

We give our children labels. My name is Jorge, just like my dad. This frames our relationship — and my relationship to the world – in a particular way. It sets expectations on all sides. Naming firstborn male and female children after their father and mother is a common practice in some parts of the world. My wife and I decided not to follow this practice; our son’s name is not Jorge.

Most often, we don’t give as much forethought to labeling as when we name our children. We label things all the time, sometimes casually. But either way, the names we give things (and people) has great import. It affects how we think about them and sometimes (as in the case of children) what they think about themselves.

Labeling is central to information architecture. The essence of IA is establishing distinctions between things and naming them in ways that allow people to understand those distinctions. The job requires that we exert this superpower — that we give names to things — on a daily basis. As with all superpowers, we must wield it responsibly.

An Example of a Semantic Environment Map

I’ve had folks ask me for examples of a semantic environment map. Here’s one for the confessional, a semantic environment within the broader environment of the Catholic Church:

Did I get it wrong? It’s likely. If you can spot problems, the map is serving its purpose: to help us have discussions about contextual issues that often go unnoticed or unexpressed.

If you want to create a map of your own, you can download a PDF of the Semantic Environment Canvas.

The Value of Mapping Semantic Environments

You hear about it all the time: an accomplished designer joins a large company to lead their design efforts, only to leave disillusioned and frustrated after a relatively short stint. These are smart people and great designers. They’ve come into the situation with the best intentions and have put their credibility on the line. This is not the outcome they wanted.

When you talk to them, they’ll tell you corporate politics ground them down, or that there’s too much inertia in the company, or that design isn’t as valued in the organization as they thought it would be, or that they’ve lost executive support. These things may all be true, but they’re all symptoms of a deeper issue: the leaders (and their teams) haven’t mastered the organization’s semantic environments.

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Semantic Environments

Media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003) said communication happens in semantic environments. This is a useful concept for us to understand how people collaborate meaningfully. Let’s look at what these environments are and how they work.

Many of us think communication is something that happens like a game of table tennis: One person says something, another person listens, processes what has been said, formulates a response in their mind, and then utters the response. This restarts the process: the other person listens, processes, formulates, responds. Back and forth, over and over again.

Instead of being like table tennis, Postman says, communication is something that happens to us, much like growth happens to a plant when it’s exposed to an environment that includes sunlight, water, and nutrients. You can think of those things as the plant’s physical environment, which makes its growth possible.

Communication, too, requires an environment that has particular features. They include the social relations between the actors that participate in the communication, their goals in the interaction, and the particular vocabulary they use in that situation. Postman calls this set of conditions the semantic environment the conversation happens within.

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“Information” in Navigation Labels

One of the most challenging aspects of designing a navigation system is finding the right labels for its links or buttons. The words we use for these labels must be recognizable while being distinctive. They must be specific enough that users will be able to differentiate between all the choices before them, but broad enough to encompass all the things they point to. They must be pithy; you don’t have space to ramble. They must also help create a sense of context; the understanding that this place is different from others. In short, defining labels is not a trivial task. We must be careful with the words we choose.

Look at this navigation structure:

Sign-In | Banking | Credit Cards | Loans | Investments | Learning

These labels give you a clear idea of the sort of place you’re in. (A bank.) Some are more specific than others. (“Credit Cards” is more specific than “Banking,” for example.) They’re all short and to the point. I think this structure works well for a bank.

Although it feels obvious, defining a simple navigation structure such as this one probably required many hours of meetings. I’ve often been in such meetings. Team members will go through many ideas, trying various terms to see how well they describe the concepts they’re pointing to and how they relate to each other.

One of the words that inevitably comes up in such discussions is “Information.” For example, while I don’t have insights into the particular structure above, I can guarantee the team that designed it spent many hours discussing the term “Learning;” I’d bet at some point someone suggested the label “Educational Information” instead.

I always probe such suggestions. “Information” is not a helpful term in these contexts. After all, everything in the app or website is information. It’s redundant. You could as easily say “Banking Information” or “Loan Information” — “Information” doesn’t add anything. At four syllables, it’s a long word for a navigation label — and remember it never stands by itself, but always as part of a duo. (“Educational Information” has nine syllables — much too long for a label in most cases.) Some folks try to get around this by shortening it to “Info” instead:

Whether it be “Info” or “Information,” you’re not telling me anything useful by including it. Whenever you hear it suggested for a navigation structure, take a step back and examine the overall organization scheme. The appearance of “information” may be a sign that you’re trying to do too much with that one part of the environment.