Archive for July, 2010


Jungle Adventure

Thursday, July 29th, 2010


When I was a child I wanted to marry God. As a young woman, to be a nun and a missionary, fighting misery. I went to the jungle. There in the tropical rainforest together with progressive priests, interpreted God’s word. With a mixture of catholic fervor and political naivety we learned more than we could teach. 

Some years after, I was enlightened once more. This happened on the Aztecs’ land, at university in Mexico. I was searching for a methodology that could explain why some advertisements caught my attention immediately and why some others passed by completely unnoticed. I found the answers in semiotics.

The zigzag of my life brought me to Sweden. I changed sunny México for the Swedish darkness. My world was turned around in all senses, but a girl’s dream to do something meaningful still followed me.

The message here was of course different. It was about semiotics. Being inspired by the British pioneers, I decided to follow my vocation. To introduce semiotics to market research, I spread the word through seminars.

I clearly remember my first lecture. I wanted to appear credible, so I tried to adapt myself to Swedish cultural codes. There I was, a Colombian semiotician trying hard not to gesticulate, talking in a measured way and looking calm. Not very successful – boring in fact. I decided instead to be myself and keep on going.  

I managed to introduce semiotics despite my Latin-ness (or maybe thanks to that) and the high suspicion that the methodology aroused. It was perceived to be subjective, not being based on talking to consumers. I tested different ways to break through for a period of time until, finally, the opportunity came and I took it.

An ordinary day.  A colleague who was searching for ways to interpret collages from focus groups asked me if I could see further and deeper than her own interpretations. The answer was affirmative, and the META-COLLAGE WAS BORN. Today it is one of the most popular terms connected with semiotics in Swedish market research, for better or worse.

The consumer’s pictures were transformed into visual stories. I saw an endless source of information within the images. A visual chaos lying there, waiting to take form through strong story-telling. The credibility problem was solved. The clients believed in what they saw.  The pictures were of course, chosen by consumers. They represented the emotional values of the brand, not only with words but with concepts, symbols and images. Adjustments were made on the journey. An additional collage was needed: the one that represented the optimal brand, to capture the relevant emergent tendencies.  

In some ways I’m back on the jungle, trying to convert the heathens of research.  I have already managed to saved some, but the mission is not complete yet. I carry on saying that even without the consumer’s answers a semiotician can really see beyond – into the territory of culture. I already see the signs, that the day is coming …

© Martha Arango 2010

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global Vectors, Semiotics, Sequencing, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Whose line is it?

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

One would have thought that plagiarism is a serious business.   Certainly in literature.   This spring (2010) we learn from the German press, the leading publisher Ullstein and the young female author of the book Axolotl Roadkill, that plagiarism may actually be an important emerging code.  Especially in literature.

Whose line is it anyway

In this novel a 16-year old aspiring author, Helene Hegemann, writes about drugs & sex like a 38-year old nightlife junky and is instantly proclaimed the new literary star of Germany.  Bestseller listing follows.   Unfortunately, it turns out that most of her book is copied, often word for word, from many people, but most of it from the blogger Airens.  No credits, no footnote references, unequivocally plagiarised.

This sort of thing (apparent literary fraud) used to mean the end of the road. But not for everybody. Not for Tony Blair in the notorious ’Dodgy Dossier’ on Weapons of Mass Destruction, for example, used in UK to persuade Parliament to support the invasion of Iraq. And now not for Helene Hegemann.

Helene Hegemann, reportedly, is not only unrepentant but apparently proud.   She tells us we live in a word-of-mouth society where any content is everybody’s content. Therefore, content is about proliferation of information and re-shuffling of ideas, not about authorship or ownership.

Without diving into any unnecessary discussion around the ’art of intellectual referencing’ – either old (Shakespeare from numerous sources, Goethe copying Shakespeare, the phenomenon termed in German Weltmitschriften’, in English ’minutes of the world’) or more recent (music & song sampling, postmodern quotation as stock-in-trade of film, theatre and ad direction) –  the fact appears to remain: Helene Hegemann copied large chunks of prose from an internet author and sold that content at a premium.

How does she get away with this?

• The book industry wants to sell books – free content on the internet does not help that endeavour (unless it can be repackaged and sold at a price).

• The Über-author is a learned concept in mainstream popular culture since ist inception with scratching in the 1980s.

• It’s one of the dilemmas of the web itself, where thoughtlessness is more than tolerated, sometimes celebrated – and perceived worthlessness can be the result.

Bottom line: Axolotl Roadkill looks like a case of daylight robbery. But then Helene Hegemann is not legal age, yet. So a moral license for pupils and students to download their school assignments from online sources? Or symptomatic of much larger economic issues around counterfeiting, piracy and intellectual property guaranteed to keep the lawyers busy, perplexing the world of information commerce and the new creative classes for at least a few years yet?

© Oliver Litten 2010

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

The Screen Experience

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Screens are changing many aspects of human existence. They have created and redefined new forms of interaction, modifying everyday cultural practices and transforming spaces. I am interested in exploring in the light of a phenomenological thinking the screen experience. The screen usable as a mode of embodiment, considering aspects such as space-time and presence–absence.

Our body is considered to be under continuous adaptation by objects. Objects and body are equal participants in the making of meaning and under the actual circumstances; the mobile screens are not the exception. Nowadays, it is through our screens (especially with iPhones and iPads) where we are living “the invisible life, the invisible community, the invisible other, and the invisible culture” where we elaborate a phenomenology of the other world. It is on the screen where “I acknowledge an ‘I can’ or ‘I do’ which allows my relationship with the world and which is expressed in routine practices, actions, and bodily habits. The body is my means of entering into relation with the screen, is my embodied perception that reaches a reality beyond the reversibility of the screen. It is my body’s capacity to be both living and sensible.

Being on the Screen

The screen has become an intimate and perceptual space. The screen is a more intimate than private space, as some of our secrets and notes about our social world are keeping in there. We do not like strangers invading our screen. Screen is a perceptual space not only by the attachment to personal and emotional significances; the screen implies remembrances and affections that are very much relevant to the individual. While using our screens, we are constantly renegotiating our intimate – public space. When seeing the screen, one is in one's own intimate space, but manipulating the screen in the presence of others creates a certain social absence with little room for social encounters. The user may be physically present, but the mental orientation towards someone absent is unseen. Users often are renegotiating their presence in their private and public space. Presence in the ‘virtual’ space reduces the presence in the ‘real’ social space.

A phenomenological experience of the screen does not mean ‘pure presence’. Presence whether the body is ‘in here’ (screen) or ‘out there’. Being on the screen is a way of being in the world, it is a mode of being in relation with the other, but is the embodied perception of the screen that opens up a world we spontaneously and without doubt consider real. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as an experience that is “engaged to the other in such a way that we are never simply a disembodied onlooker or transcendental consciousness”.

Presence is a response to our perception that maximises agency through time interactivity between users and artefacts. Merleau-Ponty conceives presence in terms of perceptual experience that incorporates the dehiscence named as écart. The object can be seen only if there is a seer, but the seer can see only because it can be seen, is itself visible. It is on the screen where the invisible is not the opposite of the visible; it is the invisibility of the visibility. It must be neither past nor future, but rather right here, right now, right on the visible, right on the screen. The screen is écart. To think temporality is thinking of écart. Écart is invisible but the invisible and the visible belong to being the screen. Écart means proximity and distance, presence and absence, both sameness and difference.

© Lucia Neva 2010

Posted in Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Nuclear Kitty

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Cleaner, greener nuclear energy is an emergent theme in the context of growing carbon and climate change awareness.  This 2007 article from Australia's "science of everything" site Cosmos looks at thorium reactor technology.  Thorium is safer than uranium and an abundant natural resource producing no byproducts than can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. The visual interpretation of the nuclear hazard sign here is a semiotic tour de force.  Eco-chic, greenwash self-ironizing nuclear kitsch (or all these simultaneously)?  You don't know whether to stroke it, eat it or give it a round of applause.   

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Visual Shopping

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Material culture and design are the main storytellers of our society. Design has become the common language to describe our relationship with objects and the subconscious messages they convey. Objects define us; they are signs of who we are and who we are not.  Visual shopping is a semiotics methodology that helps to shape these stories, bringing disperse concepts together and trying to make sense of a culture by analysing its cultural language. Visual shopping is about curious collecting, giving access to culture through combining theoretical approaches from material culture and design in equal measures.

Visual shoppers immerse into specific social spaces, analyse culture by collecting with a semiotic, anthropological and design eye stimulus such as images, packaging, and other popular culture materials. Visual shopping is not about – as some people might think– going out and taking photographs at random. It is about collecting, interpreting and validating relevant cultural codes, which can influence future trends in consumption spaces. Visual shopping is a process that enquires the relationships between material cultures and social environments.

Accessing and inquiring cultural spaces via visual shopping

The meaning of space as a semiotic sign is understood in relation to objects and people. The background of this thinking has been shared by Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Peirce, Debray, just to mention a few. Even Einstein contemplated the relationship between space and objects in his theory of relativity. Meaning is created when distinctions are recognised as qualities of the space, which are dependent on material and visual cultures. This is where we began to recognise space as a semiotic sign. Space creates paradigms and defines sign distinctions.

The spatial quality of material culture has a profound impact on the way we, as society, interpret things in our daily lives. Space contributes to nonverbal aspects of communication based on cultural rules, objects and images. Images and objects speak more about people than people can talk about themselves. Studying material and visual culture in specific cultural contexts opens a better understanding of their role in meaning. Visual shopping as a semiotic approach helps to understand meaning in different scenarios from design to social environments. This methodology is aware of multiple realities, and multiple interpretations, it is cautious of presumptions about a community.

When accessing cultural spaces, it is essential to identify the nature of the visual and historical context before a visit, just to determine possible cultural scenarios. A visual shopper should be aware that pre in-situ interpretations are always provisional, and they need to be validated during and post-fieldwork. It is necessary, before starting any fieldwork, to have a clear understanding of the research questions in order to identify scenarios, geographical locations, situations that are potential sources of cultural information. The process of collecting key visual information helps us to construct a semiotic view of specific cultural contexts. However, the process of understanding meanings during fieldwork requires the visual shopper to find and organise information, establish relationships, and make connections between visual signs, objects, and cultural ideas.

The most difficult part of studying cultural spaces, especially for a researcher without an orientation towards semiotics, is acquiring the habit of searching for the right signs in spatial elements, translating the visual vocabularies and sensorial experiences into categories that can be used effectively by brands in their communication strategies.

© Lucia Neva 2010

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Sequencing | 1 Comment »

Hinglish Lyrics

Monday, July 19th, 2010

A recent trend in the lyrics of songs in Hindi movies is the juxtaposition of English and Hindi lyrics to create bi-lingual songs. It can take the form of a refrain in English that intersects Hindi stanzas or the presence of bi-lingual sentences. The adoption of this genre of song writing by leading lyricists as well as the growing popularity of this format with several hit songs, calls out for a semiotic interpretation of this new phenomenon. 

Hinglish Lyrics

Of course the songs are trendy and cool and targeted at youth. And “Hinglish” is an old phenomenon in advertising, used for well over a decade. So, what’s with the “Hinglish” lyrics now? One explanation that suggests itself is that, we now have a  post-liberalization generation (born after 1990) that is coming of age. This is a generation who are the children of a global and materialistic age, who believe that they are simultaneously global and Indian. “Global” is sexiness, glamour, fun, challenging authority, freedom of choice, action orientation. “Indian” is sentiment, romanticism, gentleness, family values and tradition.   This is a generation that is exploring dating and the mating game, new life possibilities and risks in a way that no previous generation in modern India has done before. They are seeking a new language with which to describe their angst and their thrills, the highs and lows of their love life and indeed their life itself.

The bi-lingual song whether a romantic ballad or a youth anthem, talks directly to the contradictory impulses of their fusion soul. So, the English lines are often suggestive of action and movement while the Hindi lyrics explore inner feelings in a more descriptive, metaphorical and romantic manner.   Sexy is fun and cool in English, while it is the fire of a burning lust in its Hindi expression. 

What would a philosopher or a psychoanalyst make of the fusion soul? It is hard to place this soul into an elitist cultural hierarchy or indeed on to a salvation quest that follows the dictum of “Know thyself” in order to be true to yourself. Is their story to be written as one of eternal angst, forever caught between two places? Or is it to be a story of freedom and choice and a celebration of the human spirit in a new avatar?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2010

Posted in Asia, Culture, Global Vectors, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Social Networking & Activism in Saudi Arabia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Over the past 20 years it has been clear that Saudis, particularly the young, are falling in love with technology.   Given that until recently more than fifty percent of the population was under 15 years old, Saudi youth and their drive to adopt technology have become a considerable force. Cultural meanings associated with technology have evolved over the years through a number of stages. In recent months, in the hands of a new generation, it has even become the focus of a new kind of activism previously unheard of in the kingdom.


Distrust of technology characterized the earliest stages in this long process of change. The Arabian Peninsula under Ottoman rule was largely ignored, except for the power gained from controlling the holy lands.  So it declined culturally into something like a dark age.  When the oil money started to come in and people were able to afford some twentieth century technology, the initial reaction from the older generation was to be suspicious of the new arrivals, e.g. radios, to the extent of considering them the work of the devil.

Gradually, however, people started to embrace technology for convenience, comfort and a generally improved standard of living. Thus technology started also to convey status, accompanying the kind of wealth which was then necessary to have a car, television, VCR etc. at home. Then the communication of status evolved to include enthusiasm for technology as a sign of being educated, cultured and the kind of cool person who keeps up with what’s new. This process was accentuated with the introduction of satellite dishes into Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s around the time of the First Gulf War. This facilitated leadership on the part of the ‘cultured educated’ people in terms of connecting with the outside world, which signaled another significant cultural shift.

Even after modern Saudi Arabia was established, and the Arabian Peninsula came out of its centuries of isolation, socio-political forces had continued to keep the kingdom within a kind of a bubble. People were very proud of their heritage and felt it set them apart. The oil rush made them even somewhat arrogant about it. Satellite dishes allowed the Saudi masses to see, hear and really listen to the outside world.  Then came the age of the internet which further facilitated breaking through the barriers to connection with the outside world. The internet and wireless also facilitated more local connections as well as global ones. Young people in particular spearheaded this movement, which cascaded into other age segments. With these developments the idea of connection and mutual influence came increasingly to replace an us vs. them attitude and to be embraced for an enriched life experience.

A more educated generation better connected with the world started to feel the need to exert more influence to create the kind of world they wanted to live in. There remained, however, sociopolitical constraints on the development of grass roots movement – no unions or youth clubs, for example, and no large gatherings without special permission. So there evolved, in response to these constraints the technology-savvy ‘Soft Rebellion’ generation – using social networks to develop such movements and assuming a leadership role within them , albeit still in the form of virtual participation alone. Some initiatives did start to move towards more active participation, particularly via the setting up of charitable projects. The key requirement in these cases was to find the right sponsors – usually attracted by a smart use of technology to generate PR and word-of-mouth publicity.

A decisive moment of breakthrough finally arrived in December 2009 when Jeddah was flooded after a couple of days with very high levels of rainfall. Many of us, in the modern parts of Jeddah, spent the morning watching and marveling at how heavy the rain was. By late afternoon reports started to go around about the damage done in other parts of the city. The heaviest rain fell in the hills to the East of the city then came gushing down natural valleys where urban development had taken place. Videos were immediately posted in YouTube showing houses, cars and people being swept away by the force of what was dubbed ‘The Jeddah Tsunami’.

Anger mounted and was expressed in many blogs as people started to focus blame on municipal and local government. The turning point came that evening when a website called ‘Rescue Jeddah’ was set up. Rather than being just a site just for complaining Rescue Jeddah became a call to action. The young team who set it up called for public action to gather whatever resources could be mustered to provide immediate relief for all people affected. It also called for those responsible for the tragedy, to be brought to justice: that is the municipality and local authority representatives who authorized urban development in ‘natural valleys’ prone to dangerous flooding coming down the hills. Experts were invited to join their discussion posting presentations of their full analysis of the basic errors made in the urban planning of the city.

Overnight numbers of people expressing support for this initiative rose into the thousands. Videos and stories continued to be posted, further inflaming popular anger. Volunteers signed up and donations poured in. It was widely expected that the government would clamp down on this activity at some point. Instead, about 10 days later , the King issued a statement that exactly mirrored the language of the people (as expressed in this site and others). He indicated that he was ‘enraged’ by what had happened, that he had set up a special panel to investigate and that he promised to bring to justice every single person responsible. In Jun 2010 the local government honored the young men and women who led the public into an unprecedented relief effort where people waited in line, not just to donate, but to actually physically pitch in.

From virtual participation, in time, active participation may yet emerge.

© Habiba Allarakia 2010

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Socioeconomics, Technology | No Comments »