The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Communication. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Communication. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Christmas' Nativity Scenes: Using Images to Cross the Language Barrier


A Nativity Scene ("presepe") near Florence this year. This way of celebrating Christmas never went out of fashion in Southern Europe, and perhaps never will (but you may never know). It is part of the effort of making communication possible between people who don't speak the same language. The Catholic Church tried this method with some success, maybe we can learn something useful from this experience. 

This is another non-catastrophistic post on the "Seneca Effect" blog, but don't worry. We'll return to doom and gloom next year. 

The "Nativity Scene" is a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Catholic countries, especially in Southern Europe. In Italy, it is known as the "presepe," a term that originally meant the "manger" where the baby Jesus was placed. If you have been a child in a country where this use is common, you cannot escape the fascination and the magic of these scenes. And, indeed, they make for a much more creative effort than the more recent tradition of the Christmas tree. Making a presepe may involve collecting moss from the garden to simulate the grass, making lakes using aluminum foil, creating trees with toothpicks and green-painted sponge chunks, a starry sky using blue paper with holes and, finally, the star of Bethlehem made, again, from aluminum foil. 

As usual, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. And that holds also for Nativity Scenes. In the end, these scenes are forms of non-verbal communication.  The fundamental point of religions such as Islam and Christianity is their universality. They accept all races, languages, regions, and cultures. That brings a problem of communication: how can an imam or a priest communicate with the faithful if they don't have a common language? 

In the case of Islam, God spoke to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic, and that remains the sacred language of the faithful. Of course, modern Arabs do not easily understand the language spoken at the time of Muhammad and not all Muslims are native speakers of Arabic. But Islam focuses on the Quran, encouraging the faithful to study and understand its language. Islam is a text-based religion expressed mainly by the human voice of the mu'azzin. It sees images with diffidence, 

For Christianity, the problem was much more difficult. God spoke to the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the Bible. Then, Jesus Christ spoke most likely Aramaic, whereas the Gospels were written in Greek. Then, when the center of Christianity moved to Rome, the holy texts were translated into Latin, which came to be seen as one of the main languages of Christianity. In addition, Christianity diffused rapidly into regions, such as Western Europe, which had emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire as a hodgepodge of very different languages with different roots. 

So, it made sense for the Christian Church to use visual imagery to carry the message to everybody. That was an early characteristic of Christianity, for instance, the sentence in Greek ("Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr") (Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior) was turned into an acronym that could be read as "ichthys," which means "fish" and therefore could be expressed as the image of a fish. Not every Christian understood Greek, but everyone could recognize a fish.  

The idea of using images to represent sections of the holy texts accelerated during the late Middle Ages and early Modern Times when there was an evident attempt of the Christian Church to maintain the universality of their religion (the term "Catholic" means "universal") while facing the dissemination of texts translated into national languages. It led to the creation of pilgrimage sites that we would define today as "theme parks," where the stories of the gospels were represented as 3D imagery. Some of these "parks" still exist today. Below, you see an example from the San Vivaldo monastery that goes back to the 16th century. Visiting that place is an eerie experience.

In parallel, small scales versions of the Nativity story became popular. The first version similar to the modern one goes back to 1291, and it was created by Arnolfo di Cambio. From then on, many different and elaborate versions were produced. It was an original idea that has parallels with our use of "emoticons." Our times are strongly image-based in terms of communication, and the vitality of Nativity Scenes is not in discussion. There are many examples of weird, funny, or outrageous versions, such as this one from 2016, with Donald Trump and other characters of the time. 

There are versions with zombies, others inspired by Star Wars characters, Disney characters, fuzzy bears, cats, dogs, and, of course, the queer version with two Marys or two Josephs. 

Our civilization is probably the most visually-oriented one in history, and, at the same time, the most language-fragmented in history. So, it is not surprising that we are trying to develop visual methods of communication that go beyond the limits of national languages. It is necessary to do that if we want to overcome the parochialism of nation-states and find an agreement on how to manage the planetary commons. 

But will it ever be possible to develop a completely image-based language? It is one of a few conceivable alternatives.

1. A dominant language, such as Latin was during the Middle Ages in Europe, and English is today. 
2. A creole or a koiné language, such as Greek was during late antiquity. Esperanto could play this role nowadays. 
3. A purely gestural language, such as the one that the Native Americans had developed before coming into contact with the Europeans. It might have a parallel with the modern "emoticons"
4. Automated, real-time translations -- these were not possible in the past, but in modern times Artificial Intelligence offers possibilities unthinkable in the past. 

The future will tell how civilization will face this challenge. Maybe it is unsolvable (and surely it is possible to worsen the problem). It is also possible that there will be no civilization surviving to address it. But, as usual, the future always surprises us. Why not return to cuneiform written on clay tablets? It would be, at least, more durable than any method that was devised in later times!


Sumerian cuneiform characters for "Ama-gi," that can be translated as "freedom" (literally, "return to the mother")

Monday, October 31, 2022

"The Bird is Free." Will Elon Musk Become Grand Duke of Mars?


The news of the day is that Elon Musk took control of Twitter and promises to abolish censorship. At the same time, the platforms most plagued by censors, FB for instance, are taking a bloodbath in the market (Twitter is doing much better!). It is part of the evolution of the Web, an entity much too complex and structured to be controlled by dumb creatures such as "fact checkers" and their AI henchbots. We don't know what Musk has in mind: he may plan to become the next US president or maybe to rule Mars as Grand Duke. In any case, he seems to understand better than many others how to use social media as a communication tool. 

It is said that the Grand-Duke, of Tuscany, Cosimo 1st, (1519 – 1574) used to sit, unseen, behind a low window of his palace to hear what people passing by were saying. He wanted to know what his subjects were thinking of him. He needed to: it was part of his ruling method. He used an iron fist when needed, but he also used a velvet glove to turn enemies into friends. For instance, the masterpiece of statuary, "Perseus and Medusa," was cast by a former enemy of his, Benvenuto Cellini, whose skills Cosimo admired. 

The "Perseus" is still standing in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. With it, and with other pieces, Cosimo 1st was carrying out a propaganda campaign where he presented himself as the "monster slayer" Perseus: a stern, but just, ruler. But he needed to know how his message fared with its targets. In this case, the citizens of Florence themselves informed him by commenting aloud while looking at the statue (probably knowing that the Duke was listening from the window, nearby) and writing their comments on small pieces of paper that they glued to the pedestal. We don't know what they said and wrote, but, apparently, they thought that the statue was too much on the "stern" side and too little on the "just" one.  The Duke was disappointed enough that he never paid Cellini for the work he had done. I told this story in detail in an earlier post

There are many ways to operate a propaganda campaign. In ancient times, of course, they didn't have the technologies we have nowadays, but the problems were the same. Rulers could not reach citizens individually, but they would "broadcast" their power by means of impressive imagery and buildings. Then, the people had a certain capability of sending messages back to the rulers. And some enlightened rulers, such as Cosimo 1st, knew that a ruler who doesn't know what his subjects think doesn't survive for long. But, to hear what the citizens say, there is a need for a certain level of freedom of expression. It was a good way of ruling: Cosimo was a true Renaissance Man, who patronized art and science and did not oppress his subjects too much. He reigned for 32 years and started a dynasty of Grand-Dukes that lasted up to 1737. 

In time, propaganda evolved. The "mass media," first the press, then radio and TV, started being fundamental during the 20th century. They are great broadcasting technologies, but they are extremely poor in terms of two-way communication. With the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, people were receiving messages from their rulers, but they could not talk back to them. The only way for governments to know what people were thinking was to rely on spies, but that was usually overdone. In the Soviet Union, in Iran at the time of the Shah, and in many other places, what you said to a friend could end up being reported to the police, and you risked disappearing in the night, forever. Soon, people lost all interest in expressing their opinion to anyone. 

The problem with totalitarianism is that it is rigid and inflexible. Rulers tend to think that the fact that nobody criticizes them means that nobody disagrees with them, they get absorbed into their internal squabbles, and they soon lose track of what the real problems are. That's one of the reasons why totalitarian states are not usually long-lived. A good case is that of the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, in Italy. One of the most totalitarian states of its times (and perhaps in known history), the total control of the media by the state was matched only by the total incompetence of the government. And it ended with the great leader hanged upside down, as it was perhaps unavoidable.  

How about our times? By the end of the 20th century, Western propaganda was a sophisticated machine that worked on the principle that "the devil's best trick is to convince you that he doesn't exist" (Baudelaire said that). It was structured in such a way that it gave the citizens the impression that they were free to express themselves. It was obvious, though, that opinions contrasting with those of the government would always remain confined to spaces occupied only by visionaries and crackpots. It was a form of "invisible totalitarianism." 
But technology always changes things. The Web and social media were the equivalents of a monkey wrench thrown into the works of the smooth Western propaganda machine. The elites soon realized that they could hardly control the system when anyone could use it at a low cost. And anything could go viral on the Web, out of control, no matter how subversive. That led to a scramble to take control of the Web. 

So far, the action has been mainly with the search engines: those who control them, control the Web. If you have experienced "shadow-banning," you know how effective it is, and how defenseless you are against it. In more recent times, we saw soft banning supplemented with true banning. A large tribe of so-called "fact-checkers" appeared on the main social platforms, cracking down on whoever said something that their employers didn't want to see diffusing on the Web. With the idea that social platforms are private spaces, it was argued that the 1st amendment does not hold there, The account of a former US president on Twitter was canceled, and even top-level scientists were censored. Sometimes, just linking to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals could lead to your account disappearing in the night, forever. 

Some people absolutely love censorship. But many (perhaps most) users of social media didn't like to be watched from over their shoulders by those overzealous nannies who pretended to know better than them what is true and what is not.  That generated criticism, and some attempts to rein in the censors. But, so far, we only saw censorship increasing its reach and becoming more pervasive.

Except for the news of the day: the bird is free! Elon Musk bought Twitter and promises to eliminate censorship.

What's happening? There are several possible interpretations, but at least something is clear: those who rule us are not a monolithic entity, as the Communist Party was in the Soviet Union. There are several would-be world rulers who are vying for power behind the scene. Musk may actually be smarter than most of them and able to understand that you gain nothing by silencing those who disagree with you. Suppose he wants to become the next US president, or maybe the Grand Duke of Mars, then he has to think like the Grand Duke of Tuscany did. He needs to know what people think because he can rule only if people agree that he is the ruler. Ruling by force and oppression is inefficient and, often, the ruler ends up hanged by the feet. So, Musk may well understand that he needs to leave some space for people to express themselves. The bird may not be completely free, but it has to be able to fly

We seem to be in a transition moment (we always are). The Internet is under pressure by the attempt of controlling it by the powers that be, turning it into a tool for a totalitarian government (in China, the government may have succeeded at that). But, at the same time, some members of the elites are realizing that the Internet is a much better tool if used according to its characteristic of a two-way communication system. The Internet may allow us to generate a new governance system that might be more effective and just than the old totalitarian systems. It might be part of a "new Renaissance" that could take some aspects similar to the way Cosimo the 1st ruled in Tuscany during the 16th century. Maybe. But, as always, the future will surprise us.