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Words and Pictures

Language as Metaphor, Technology as Human Transformation

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

For a designer, signs and symbols are the stock-in-trade of the profession. Images, pictograms, hieroglyphs, Arabic numerals, the letters of the phonetic alphabet, calligraphy, metal type, logos, fonts, iconography.

Graphic design is a profession that works with words and pictures on a daily basis.


Which leads us to metaphor.

Language is metaphor. An idea in the mind needs to be communicated to another mind. How do we do it? We can use grunts, gestures, mime. But that gets us only so far. We discover that we can make sounds with our mouth, tongue, and vocal chords. Certain sounds can be used to refer to a person, place or thing. People do things. Objects can be acted upon. Things have characteristics. We create words for these things: nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, adjectives, adverbs. We have grammar and syntax, to organize how words are put together into phrases and sentences that can be understood.

Words are vibrations in the air, sounds we create, as symbols for ideas. A word is not the thing itself, but the audible sound that refers to a particular idea, with a meaning agreed upon through repetition and regular usage in the form of language.

Now, add technology. We have hands that can fashion tools to make life easier. We use sticks to draw in the dirt. We use tools to carve marks into bone, wood, stone, and metal. We find and make pigments that can be applied to surfaces to draw and paint pictures. Through repetition and regular usage, simple pictures become symbols for ideas, for words. But if you need a picture for every word, a person must remember thousands of pictures. What if we created symbols for the sounds of the words rather than for the idea represented by a picture? We invent the phonetic alphabet. Now we need only remember a limited set of symbols which can represent thousands of words when letters are combined to represent all the words that we can think of.

Now that we have writings systems, we need ways of preserving ideas. We can write on stones. This ensures that knowledge can be preserved for long periods of time. But, the process is very slow, laborious and expensive. We can write on clay tablets, but what happens when you don’t have enough clay? We can make thinner, more portable surfaces. How about animal skins? How about leaves? We invent papyrus, parchment, vellum, and paper. We can roll these surfaces into scrolls, but this is awkward for long pieces of literature. We invent the codex, pages bound together into the form of a book.

However, creating or copying a book is a slow, laborious, and expensive process. We can speed up the process by creating blocks with letters carved into them that can be combined into words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages to simulate the manuscripts scribed by hand. Ink can be applied to the surface of the letters and imprinted on sheets of vellum and paper, which can then be assembled into books. With the printing press we can spread ideas much more quickly.

What should we print first? Imagine what a difference it could make if people could read the greatest literature of the world in their own language? What if the common people could read the literature that only kings, priests and scribes can read and write? How about the Bible? Cue the Reformation.

What if we could use machines to speed up the printing process and the distribution process? Cue the Industrial Revolution.

What if we could use electricity to bypass the printing process completely and display words on screens? Cue the Digital Revolution.

What if the machines are better than humans at wielding the tools that humans have created? What should humans do? Pause for effect.

Human Transformation

Where is technology taking us? There is a progression. Words and pictures have a power to transform. Are we really thinking about where we want to go, or are we just following technology to its logical conclusion?

“We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” — John Culkin


What do we write about? What knowledge do we pass on to the next generation? The main theme of human history has been the great question, “Are we alone?”

From this question follows many more questions:

Is there something, someone else out there?
How did we get here?
Why are we here?
What is truth?
What is reality?
What do we do with the short time that we have in this world?

Humans have long been wary about technological progress. Our great literature has this central theme. Consider the Tower of Babel.

However, consider the Bible as literature and you will be considered a heretic.

Consider Rob Bell and his latest book, What is the Bible?.

And consider the response.

The debate about how to understand the ideas that have been passed on to the next generation will continue as long as there is knowledge to pass down and generations to consider what came before.

Some will question, “What is there about the past that is worth holding onto?” Modernism was a response to the traditions of the past, with World War I as the catalyst for the movement to say to the previous generations, “Whatever you have to teach us is worthless. Your stupidity, cruelty and violence have invalidated anything that you have to teach us.”

Yet, we are warned:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

— George Santayana

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is weary of history:

What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited — it’s the same old story.

— Ecclesiastes 1

Is there anything we can learn from history?

Sting — History Will Teach Us Nothing

Perhaps we can learn from someone who made it his life’s work to translate the ancient languages into the modern vernacular. Eugene Peterson was such a person. What is the first lesson we need to learn when we want to translate the Bible? What is a metaphor?

The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol.

God figures prominently in human history and literature. It’s hard to ignore this idea. This being inspires a great amount of emotion, even anger.

XTC — Dear God

Is the divine worth considering, given the reality that confronts us? Or do we discard the past and forge ahead toward a technologically-driven future, leaving progress and the evolution of ideas to the relentless forward motion of time and chance?



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Stephen Bau

Stephen Bau

Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.