What is “cancel culture”? As an anthropologist, anything relating to culture intrigues me. Although, arguably, everything humans do is cultural, and all culture is human culture.
In black and white
Cancel culture caught my attention because it wasn’t something I fully understood. From the outside looking in, it seems to be a form of ostracism and public shaming: silencing someone or something not considered socially acceptable or agreeable.
My understanding is that there’s a trigger event or trend towards a turning point that sparks outrage and visible disapproval of a public figure (a person, brand, or the like) that’s held accountable for their actions. This then leads to a number of people exerting social pressure on others in order to encourage them to withdraw their support, too. The hashtag #isoverparty has become synonymous with cancel culture.
Some argue that a person should be split from their actions — an artist is separate from their art — and, therefore, support for their work shouldn’t be impacted by what they do in their personal capacity as a human being.
This brings me to the notion of “splitting”. This is a term often associated with psychological diagnoses in which individuals place people on either extreme of a spectrum; they are either idealised and idolised or devalued and shunned. Psychologists recognise that splitting is a protective mechanism that particular individuals develop in response to previous abusive, harmful or traumatic experiences.
There’s so much behind call-out and cancel culture that it can’t be simplified into ‘good or bad’ categories. Social systems and human behaviours aren’t mathematical; it’s not an equation that’s categorically right or wrong.
Trevor Noah, comedian and The Daily Show host, has been vocal about cancel culture, calling for counselling, not cancelling, and allowing for sincere apology (coupled with an attempt to right any wrongs) to result in absolution. I’m reminded by something the late great Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
What will you do differently today to honour and respect the dignity of others? How might you align yourself with brands, businesses, and behaviours that uphold an honourable and humane set of values and ethics?
Have you ever recognised something familiar embedded in something strange — a shape in the clouds or a face in the shadows? Have you ever noticed a pattern scattered through disconnected phenomena — repetition in data or similarity in scenarios? How do we know when an observation is deeply meaningful or simply coincidence?
This might help explain why we see more people going with their gut, rather than sticking to science, or how some brands evoke emotional reactions from audiences while others remain distant and disconnected. (Read more on “apophenia” if this topic interests you.)
Lucky number 7
I recall a professor once saying to a room full of bright-eyed anthropology students that, as human beings, we only see what we expect to see and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see. This stuck with me. I wondered if my reality was determined by how I perceived the world around me. Was my perspective conditioned by an inherent and innate nature, or was it conditional to nurtured experiences and circumstances?
Take, for example, the number seven. It might start with me moving into house no. 7 in the street. I then notice my mom reading Lucinda Riley’s The Seven Sisters book series. I come across a theory on the science of human origin in Africa, called “The Seven Daughters of Eve”. I am reminded of the seven sins and seven virtues as I research a project relating to religious philosophy. I then see Hennessy’s Seven Worlds advert. What, if anything, is the significance of the number seven in relation to my life?
“Confirmation bias” is the term psychologists have long used to describe “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values”. Businesses are catching on. If you search online for articles on the use of confirmation bias in market research and in advertising, you might be surprised to see what you find. For example, one is titled: “How errors in reasoning can be used in marketing”. It goes on to list five ways to ‘exploit’ this phenomenon.
This could potentially be tied into another conversation regarding Gestalt theory, which designers have been incorporating into user experience (UX) and related fields: “Gestalt Principles are principles/laws of human perception that describe how humans group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images when we perceive objects.”
Correlation is not causation
Anthropologist Leslie White has argued that our ability to translate and transform symbols in meaningful ways is one of the key qualities that makes us human. The challenge, however, is discerning the meaningful from the meaningless. This is not to be confused with the notion often shared in research settings: “the absence of insight is an insight in itself.”
Put another way: we exist in living systems that continuously change. Meaning-making occurs within this same state of existence. Just as we live and die and life continues, so too must meaning rise and fall and endure. Dave Snowden and Nora Bateson, in a recent dialogue on “when meaning loses its meaning”, explored “how meanings stretch, transform and sometimes wear out across ecosystems of communication”.
What will you do differently today to look at the world differently — to make conscious decisions in some situations and to let go of control in others?
Do you know — or remember — the Norwegian story, Three Billy Goats Gruff? It’s a cautionary tale that warns against the temptation and consequence of greed.
It tells the story of three goats wanting to cross a bridge to get to greener pastures. However, a grumpy troll lives under the bridge and refuses to let them cross, threatening to eat them. The first two manage to cross over, owing to their persuasive promise of something better to come. That is, until the final goat shows up — larger than the first two — who manages to knock the troll off the bridge and into the river.
To infinity and beyond
“The bridge can only be crossed when we get there, not before.” —Wittgenstein
A bridge is a peculiar structure. It is both a concrete structure and an abstract metaphor. Semiotically, it symbolises both division and connection: two separate spaces or entities brought together. The bridge constructs the whole but also maintains its distinct parts.
According to Dinda L Gorlée, “Semiotics is regarded as a constellation of beliefs, values and techniques which serve as a unifying matrix or technique mediating knowledge” (more on semiotics here). A semiotic bridge, much like the architectural structure, is constructed. In this case, a bridge is built of signs or codes, messages and meanings that connect data or information, and support those connections.
Just as semiotic bridges exist, so too do semantic barriers. These are symbolic obstacles that distort a message from its originally intended meaning, making it unclear and ambiguous. Barriers take the form of contextual factors, such as perspective, emphasis, internalised meaning, and encoded language (more on semantic barriers here).
We often hear about the core or centre and periphery or outskirts. Tiit Remm makes an important distinction here: the periphery (a dynamic space of difference and exchange) exists as a binary to the core (the stable organisation of a system). A boundary, though, separates the internal from the external.
Dr C Mariene Fiol explores the notion of organisational boundaries as imagined lines that are drawn to separate an organisation from its surrounding environment, as well as internal roles that are related yet distinct. The interplay of autonomy and interdependence is understood to be used as mechanisms of control within and between organisations. The individual and the collective can’t have too much power, apparently.
Semiotic borders establish, maintain, and contain — as well as unify — semiotic spaces or semiospheres (more about semiospheres here). “Every culture (semiosphere) needs another culture to define its essence and limits,” writes Dr Ekaterina Vólkova Américo in her article, The Concept of Border in Yuri Lotman’s Semiotics. Lotman’s notion of border is useful here in understanding how it can be both a divider of spheres but also as a mechanism that brings spaces into conversation and exchange with one another. It both limits the invasion of ‘alien elements’ and translates particular elements into the language of a given semiosphere.
The bridge, the barrier, the border, and the boundary are intriguing if considered to be catalysts of change and of culture. This is where the new and the novel emerge, where serendipity and spontaneity occur, and where differences become similarities.
Where would you place, say, Eskom in this story? Would you consider it a troll, a goat, a bridge or a river? As an organisation, is it greedy or misunderstood, cunning or innovative, isolated or connected, impatient or dynamic? Most media headlines paint a picture of Eskom as a power-hungry, mischief-making dinosaur (or troll). South Africans are portrayed as the smallest goat who simply wants to get to greener pastures: reluctant to take responsibility but willing to sabotage the troll to get there. The first goat passes the buck to the second goat — the South African government. This goat uses distraction and denial to get across the bridge. When the third goat shows up (in this case, the global energy crisis), everything falls apart.
Listen, for a moment, to the sounds around you. What do you hear? Can you identify what’s making these sounds? How do you interpret sound — do the sounds carry any information that you can make sense of? Just as there are ways of seeing, there are ways of hearing.
The semiotics of sound considers that all things audible and acoustic carry meaning and are a form of communication, encoded and decoded similar to how the visual — signs and symbols — can be interpreted in context.
Sound of Silence
Everyone, and everything, exists in an acoustic environment, consisting of both natural and artificial sound. Soundscapes emerge from these immersive acoustic ecologies. Experts in the science of sound have identified three sources of sound and three key elements of soundscapes.
Consider the soundscapes generated in your work environment or by your brand as you read through the sources and elements. What stories are being created and carried by these sounds?
In thinking about your workspace, organisation or brand, what metaphorical song does your space create? In what key is it sung; is it upbeat or slow, melancholic or uplifting? What sound signals are being sent to ‘listeners’ and how do they interpret the messages embedded within it? What soundmarks are monumental to identifying or recognising your brand’s figurative band?
Speed of Sound
When you imagine the future, what does it sound like? What sounds do you hear? What will your brand or business sound like in the future?
Futures Soundscapes is a project from Mexico City that has explored the question: What does the future sound like? In developing sound-based scenarios through shared visions of the future, and the ability of sound to conjure up these images, it demonstrated the power of sound.
Beyond looking for visual signs of change, we should be listening to signals, too. Perhaps the next time you conduct market research, consider keeping listening journals, reading up on sound theories, and interpreting the nature of sounds in their natural environments. The sound inside a taxi, on a train, in a bus, taking an Uber — how do these sounds shape our sensory experiences?
Sound of Music
How Bad Is Your Spotify? This judgmental AI filters through your listening data and tells it like it is.
See also How AI helps Spotify win in the music streaming world if you’re curious to know how machine learning can be harnessed to “discover and act on insights from external data and user behaviour”. This is particularly important for those of us who make data-driven decisions to enhance people’s experience online.
Take, for example, the Discover Weekly feature on Spotify. According to Outside Insight, the music platform generates this personalised music list for each user through a combination of three methods: making comparisons between different people’s behavioural trends and patterns, scanning online conversations to identify ‘top terms’ and to develop ‘cultural vectors’ based on these discussions, and analysing data from audio tracks to categorise the songs themselves: “In this way, Spotify portrays itself not just as a platform for popular existing musicians, but also one that provides opportunities for the next generation of budding musicians to gain recognition.”
How might you, your organisation, or your brand make personalised recommendations based on past patterns and potential preferences of your clients, customers, or consumers?
What will you do differently today to break from the noise, to be heard from near and afar, to not be obscured by silence, and to listen intentionally?
Ways of Seeing revisits a previous column, Fragments. In this new series, we’ll explore the processes of sense-making, knowledge production, and world-building in our memories, realities, and imaginaries as South Africans, inspired by the use of semiotics (the scientific study of signs, symbols, and communication systems within sociocultural contexts) in our business landscape.
Semiotics is growing in popularity among brand analysts as it’s “the most appropriate tool for understanding questions surrounding brand symbolism and meaning and the multiple and layered messages that underpin this meaning,” according to Chris Arning. More and more businesses are ‘tapping into culture’ to create meaningful communication, to develop human-centred design, to position themselves competitively in shifting contexts, and to cue concepts and ideas that resonate with specific audiences.
“Semiotics, the study of signs and cultural meaning, has been gaining ground in the world of commercial research.” This is the opinion of Cato Hunt and Clem McCulloch in Epic. Semiotics has long been making waves in the business world but what we see emerging is a distinctly corporate and commercial form. “Commercial Semiotics can be used to strategically answer business challenges, providing cultural context as to why ideas are in people’s minds in the first place,” writes Caroline Brierley in Illume Stories. “By deconstructing culture to determine underlying codes, [semiotics] tells us how meaning is created,” says Ashton Bridges in Kelton. “Humans make emotional decisions. Those emotions are often guided by subconscious interpretations of words and images. Semiotics can help decode those subconscious messages to sharpen messaging and branding,” notes Lesley Vos in CXL.
HIDDEN IN THE DARK. We often speak of insights as gems to be mined, nuggets to be unearthed, buried treasures to be discovered, as if researchers are miners, archeologists, or explorers, and the people and places from which we draw insight are mines, caves, or uncharted territory. In this sense, culture — learned behaviour, value systems, beliefs and worldviews — is imagined to be hidden, underlying, deep below the surface, fossilised, rather than entangled, enigmatic, and evolving.
Aren’t we colonising culture by hunting, excavating, and claiming it? By flagging it, moulding it, and putting it on display?
CASTING SHADOWS. Have you heard the saying, “Old sins cast long shadows”? What we do today has consequences tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. In the same breath, we’ve inherited processes and practices that came before. The ways in which we gather, collect, nurture and share insight shapes the stories that are told, the perceptions formed of people, the innovations and strategies that are made. Our thoughts, words, and actions matter.
Consider, for example, what comes to mind when we think of shadows. Often shadows are associated with metaphorical darkness, mystery, and the unknown. If someone behaves in a ‘shady’ manner, we question the honesty or legitimacy behind their intentions. The shadow economy is used to refer to ‘unlawful’ activities that operate outside of the formal economy and so are beyond state control or benefit. The shadow pandemic encompasses the gender-based violence (GBV) that targets women and girls. In psychology, the shadow self is a part of the individual that they’re either unaware of or choose to suppress and not make visible or known in order to control and contain a version of themselves and their reality.
In thinking about our use of insight, what assumptions, judgments, and preconceptions cast shadows on the work that we do? How might we change these narratives, perspectives, and choices?
SHINE A LIGHT. Jean Paul Petitimbert, semiotician and brand analyst, distinguished between two branches of semiotics — one of French origin, and the other emerging from an Anglo‑Saxon world.
He explains that, “for the French strand of semiotics, the purpose of an analysis is to dive inside signs (whatever their natures), to disassemble them, so to speak, and to take them to pieces in order to understand the internal logic at work between their different components, with a view to describing the mechanisms that produce meaning.” In this sense, a brand is built on internal logics, philosophies, systems and rules. The semiotician “bring[s] them to light” so that a marketer might maintain the brand’s identity over time and space.
The English variant of commercial semiotics tends to border on trend analysis. You have probably heard of codes being described as emergent, dominant or residual. This also involves a consideration for the intention and interpretation of signs and symbols, says Petitimbert. One branch of commercial semiotics focuses on the internal, the micro, and the specific, while the other focuses on the contextual, the macro, and the external.
In short, “[t]here should exist marketing research programmes proposing to use both approaches in order to get the depth and width of analysis respectively provided by each type of semiotic enquiry so that clients can make really thoroughly informed decisions.”
Originally published on Marklives.