Visual conversations — the limits of my language means the limits of my world

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein

My new project is the perfect mix of experience & algorithm, art & science, human & machine, images & words. At the centre of it all are visual conversations, narratives designed by humans but stitched together with some lovely machine learning algorithms.

My role at the moment is help design products and services to give life to these photographs, memories and experiences. No need to focus on the specifics of the role itself, I’d rather share some thoughts about narrative and language, and how for me the interpretation of stories through languages in it’s many forms is being challenged on a daily basis.

Before we look at images, let’s start with words. It will feel tangential, that’s on purpose, so bear with me.

English business language is formal, dry and functional. Especially in an international context, we keep our language neutral so that everyone can follow email exchanges and conversations. My new boss is French. His use of language is sensory. Actually, for all French people on the team the use of language involves the body, touch, smell, sight and even a lot of love. (A cliché, but true.)

When I need to discover things or find out the cause of a problem he asks me to smell it. And he doesn’t just say it, his whole body moves with the concept, his hands move to his mouth as he asks me to taste an idea. Now, that sounds completely inappropriate, and for a while I didn’t know whether to correct him, whether it was inappropriate or what the hell was going on. But I was enamoured with the idea that these words can be used in a business context, so I embraced it because everyone knows this would never happen in an UK only business.

As I was recounting this tale to my English Francophile friend she told me that in French the word for to smell, je sens, can also be translated as to feel… even more wondrous in its double meaning, I am being asked to both sense and feel at the same time.

So what I am being asked to do, is not just see something, but to smell, touch, feel and ultimately understand.

This got me thinking a lot about the translation not just of words but images also. Verbal language can be clumsy, as words are rather literal. Language is contextual, it takes time to describe the nuances of the story we want to tell or the feelings we want to share. It other words, it takes a lot of words to describe the feelings we want to share. We have to invest time to both communicate as well as respond — there is nothing wrong with that, just it is a form of storytelling but it requires time.

When you communicate abstract concepts, for example ideas like love, hope or freedom there are also limits to our shared language. My understanding of love at any given time is wrapped up in a set of emotions, memories and the situation I find myself in. It might be twisted around the relationship I am currently in or the connection I am sharing with a person. And obviously, my love for my family is different to that for my lover.

Therefore if time is a factor (not a driver) the nuance of love and how I want to describe it at any given time can be explained more accurately, more quickly and more poignantly in images. We interpret the love that is being shown instantly and can construct a narrative in our minds without needing words or time to read the full story. The full story is in plain sight.

In a digital world, we have for the last 20 years relied a lot on words to tell stories. This is most simply due to the fact of bandwidth, hardware and a lack of access to image-based technologies to quickly generate and share images.

This is now are rapidly changing, image technologies are fast becoming ubiquitous, our phone is the most used camera in the world, image based apps are some of the most used across the globe, across all countries, languages and cultures and the internet enables instant communication from anywhere in the world regardless of the language we speak. We are returning to the early days of storytelling before written language the equivalent of drawing images on walls as we embrace visual communication as the predominant way of communication.

Think of all the ways we communicate now? Want to know where I am? I will drop a pin and send a screenshot. Late for dinner and to order dinner with your friends? Friends will photograph and WhatsApp it to you. You are missing the party? Plenty of ways to send photos to you on Snapchat, Instagram or chat, just to make you envious. All these conversations were instant and only able to happen through the sharing of an image.

In our conversations via screens that have endless access to all sorts of media online, visuals are now driving communication. Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo Agency has a lovely way of explaining it as the rise of digital changed the very nature of photography by moving it from a fixed image to a fluid one.

Over the past 15 years, photography evolved from a hobby or a professional career to an intimate part of our everyday lives. The cost to print photos has disappeared as our cameras disappeared into our mobiles, and we started to use photos to share our personal perspective. Today it’s a means of self-expression and most of the time it’s not crafted and carefully edited, but instant and raw. In photographs we no longer share only our memories, but our experiences in real time as well.

Therefore, we need to understand that images are used in an ongoing conversation with our friends, family, colleagues and strangers. They are no longer mementos but lived experiences recorded, streamed and shared in a never-ending live and lived conversation.

People might be separated by borders, time zones and their native languages, but still share a magical connection through images. We have started to replace words with emoticons, memes, GIFs, photos and videos to make our conversations more meaningful. And in this context, images are universal and need little translation.

“The definition of photography is changing, too, and becoming more of a language,” the Brooklyn-based artist and professional photographer Joshua Allen Harris writes, “We’re attaching imagery to tweets or text messages, almost like a period at the end of a sentence. It’s enhancing our communication in a whole new way.”

This evolution of visual language requires us to value the collaborative nature of capturing, making and sharing images.

Peter Neubauer, the co-founder of the Swedish database company Neo Technology, explains in a conversation with Om Malik, that photography has seen the value shift from “the stand-alone individual aesthetic of the artist to the collaborative and social aesthetic of services like Facebook and Instagram.” In the future, he said, the “real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package.”

If we think about language as social practice, as product designers, creatives and engineers we need to look at these conversations and craft our products accordingly. The meaning of language lies in its use. In order to connect with people, we need to consider their personal use and play with language. Today, this means to understand why people share visuals to communicate and how these visuals reference our shared culture.

There are no answers yet, only conversations, personally, in a new project it is early days to know what this translates into, but let’s have some fun, while we learn and become fluent in this old form of storytelling but now considered new social aesthetic that is driving conversation today.

And for everyone else, it is time to join the conversation.

© Mel McVeigh