Friday, March 05, 2021

Creating Pictograms for Instagram

The dog had walked me to Seattle Center and there at the base of the Space Needle a pair of teenaged girls were posing while a friend framed the shots. They pressed their cheeks together, lips forming matching buds. Their bodies assumed mirrored poses, with thrust hips and bent knees. Picture taken, they straightened up, spoke a few earnest words to one another, then on the count of three leapt into the air, throwing their hands over their heads like cheerleaders do, their knees bent to create the illusion of height.

I realized I'd seen those poses before on the social media pages of the young women in my life. 

I don't post a lot of "selfies," in fact I've never posted a selfie. They strike me as self-indulgent or show-offy or something, but as the father of a daughter who was a teen not too long ago I realize that this ritual has become a kind of necessity, just as posting a photo of one's restaurant meal or the obligatory shot of your holiday paradise from between outstretched legs and bare feet. They've always struck me as cliches. Couldn't they at least use their imaginations, come up with something new? 

As I passed on, the girls were positioning themselves to create the illusion that they were pricking their fingers on the top of the Space Needle, the classic tourist pose. Not far away, I came upon more young women similarly posing. I imagined their photos on my Instagram feed above and below those of the previous posers.

I've been thinking a lot lately about pictograms, ideograms, and hieroglyphs, those representative images that make up the Chinese alphabet or those found on the walls of ancient ruins in Egypt. The idea of a pictogram is to represent meaning, not by breaking words down into discrete sounds as happens with our phonetic alphabet, but rather to convey a more complete message, one that can be "read" using all of our senses. They are not lined up to tell linear stories as we do with our alphabet, but presented together in order to evoke thoughts, emotions, sounds, smells, and information; in other words, to provide a more complete picture. Of course, to do this requires tens of thousands of "letters." They say the Chinese alphabet has an unknown number of letters that exceeds 50,000. Even if you consider that most people only need to know around 2,500 for day-to-day living, that is still a thousand times more letters than we use. Can you imagine your preschoolers learning the Chinese alphabet song?

As I reflected on those girls, I realized that maybe the cliche of their selfies was the point. From the time of the Gutenberg printing press, that machine that allowed for the mass production of books, western society (and through our colonial practices, the rest of the world) has been increasingly concentrating its experiences into the written word as defined by the more efficient, more easily-learned phonetic alphabet, but maybe our current age is reversing that. What if what these girls were doing was creating pictograms to post on Instagram, messages that need a certain amount of standardization in order to effectively communicate? We old people often complain about the way younger folk endlessly scroll, clicking "likes" and "loves" while rarely stopping to read, but what if they are "reading" the way our pre-phonetic alphabet ancestors did, not by visually interpreting a handful of letters that represent a small range of sounds, but through a more complete experience. Maybe our social media feeds are today's walls of ancient times: temples and tombs and market squares, going right back to those cave paintings that obviously meant something to someone.

Our preschoolers are learning the conventions of social media use. I've been present as thousands of preschoolers have posed for photos. Today's poses are much more sophisticated and self-conscious than those of 20 years ago. Past generations often had to wait weeks to see the results of a photo, but today's children rush to "see" their picture the moment it's taken, sometimes even requesting re-shoots, sometimes even urging their parents "post it." It's easy to view this with a kind of alarm, to worry that they are somehow being warped by technology, and not without reason, but at the same time I see children who are already far more literate in this new pictogram-ic alphabet than many of us old-timers.

Tomorrow, perhaps I'll re-join those who bemoan the fate of this generation, the way Socrates bemoaned the advent of the phonetic alphabet:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves . . . You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”

But today I'm considering the idea that maybe it's a good thing that the kids are finding a way to break the hold that the phonetic alphabet has on us, translating all experience into a meager and inadequate 26 sounds, making so much of life into inert ideas, fixed forever on a page, not truth, "but only the semblance of truth." We are afraid of how much is lost as the printed word loses some of its power, but as these new alphabets emerge, I'm aware that I am largely illiterate, ignorant, which means I'm in no position to judge.

Jean Piaget asked, "Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?" This is the dilemma of relying so much on inert ideas that live only as text. Maybe learning to be creative, to create the world, requires a break from a phonetic alphabet that reduces rich experience to words on a page. Maybe we are witnessing a return of our more complex oral and pictogram-ic traditions, ones that live within us, and that require us to apply all of our senses in order to comprehend. Certain this world is far more complex and beautiful than can ever be expressed in by a mere 26 letters fixed inertly to a page. 

It might just look like teenaged girls posing for silly selfies, but maybe what it foretells is the end of forgetfulness in our souls.


This 6-part e-course can help you to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Technorati Profile