Some Notes on Meaning, UX & Culture

Some time ago I presented a very abstract view of User Experience Design and Technology as it stands in relation to culture. This post is more of a write up of the notes to that presentation than anything else. You can access the presentation using this linkUX Culture and Innovation

The premise for the presentation was that User Experience Design and related disciplines have a role to play as cultural activities. As such they are concerned not just with use and usability but, with meaning. Specifically creating new kinds of meaning through the interactions that we have with the world around us.

What these are, how these evolve and manifest themselves were the subject matter of the presentation at the time that I gave it. I wanted this post to act as more of a guide to the presentation (my notecards so to speak) rather than an extrapolation and explanation of the ideas within it. I’ve made very few revisions from my original notes except where some additional clarity might help.

What kinds of things are meaning

  • The words ‘things’ ‘culture’, ‘meaning’ and ‘experience’ don’t point to objects we can easily identify, yet we seem to be able to see and find them everywhere.
  • They are abstractions that point at very many different parts of the world. In point of fact they are all easily interrelated.
  • This makes them very hard to pin down.

Sets or Classes

We could say that they are sets or classes. As abstraction they would fit nicely into the language of sets.

Although I would tend to err toward this description, unless we can identify what they are classes of it will be circular or we’ll get an endless regress to go down this route.

We will end up defining what we want to define with itself as a definition or we make the classes the things that we are defining with themselves which amounts to the same thing.

This kind of argument can force us to say things like ‘unicorns exist’, if for example we start saying that ‘imagined “abstractions” are ‘things’ themselves. That is if we start to treat classes as ‘things’ with some existence. (because we treat sets as entities with existence) then the class of all abstractions will have the presence of existence. This doesn’t seem tenable.

So none of these things are things.

The point here is that we want to put some flesh on the ideas of ‘culture’,  ‘meaning’ and ‘experience’. We want to move beyond purely abstract definitions.

So we’re in a bind. We want to know what culture is, meaning is and experience is. We’re (as cultural professionals) in the business of each of knowing what it is for something to mean something, to be an experience and to an object of cultural experience.

So let’s go back a few thousand years and see if Plato can help?

Imagine you’ve been brought up in a cave with no modern amenities and someone shows you a chair.. would you know what to do with it? (it’s a cultural object), it’s an object we know what to do with because we have a cultural history of using chairs.

If we follow this line of reasoning we’re led from wanting to know what “something is?”  to how we can treat our knowledge of what things are and what our relationship with the world is as a cultural and symbolic exercise.

Ultimately our knowledge and understanding is cultural.

It took 362 years from Descartes positioning of human experience in the head to being able to assert that we live in the world.

Conclusion: Culture determines  what it is that we think things are and how we understand our relation to them.

During those 362 years a number of concepts evolved to help us understand our relationship with the world.

  • Embodiement: Our experience is situated in our bodies. Deeply rooted in our physical form.
  • Incarnate subject: Our experiences are placed in time and space culturally.
  • Collective Consciousness: is the idea that our cultural ideas, their historical collective form directly influence us and are in fact observable.
  • Reciprocity and Feedback: can be found in Hegal but, ultimately suggest that our relationship with our world is dynamic, that the collective whole is more than the sum of its parts.

So what about culture? Well we’ve discovered so far that there are people, their minds and the various ideas that they share. We’ve also seen that the ideas we have, the collected cultural understandings we believe are manifest in the world  directly impact us.

Of course, all these ideas and all the people required for meanings to be shared makes things a bit messy. How do we choose, how do we focus? After all there are way more ideas than there is use for them.

And so that’s the thing. We are actively engaged in the action of selecting and processing. We select things that we recognize, that we want to process. It’s these things that become a part of our experience.

So what happens when we select something to process

Feedback between system.

An important feature of culture is that it is a feedback driven system. It relies on feedback from itself to select what gets further processed by itself. This makes the world dynamic and in some sense a consequence of itself. The sea of ideas is an epiphenomenon and a cause.

The world is a cause at time t and an epiphenomenon at time t+1

So in some sense you can imagine that on the level of the mind there are many pieces of a much larger system acting to monitor our relation with the world. And if it’s true that we are all actively relating to the world and the ideas that we find in it on some level.

  • Imagine each forming interaction and idea as a little blob in a big collection of blobs
  • Imagine also that some blobs are more similar than others
  • You get a kind of mapping of blobs collecting and relating to each other

So what about UX?

Well I would like to make some statement.

The first is that we create cultural objects.Our work exists in a context, that context is culture. In that context we synthesize human relations with physical entities that are themselves imbued with meaning and history.

Example:  Wikipedia, the encyclopedists. The Encyclopedia project goes back at least as far back as Leibnitz (1646).


UX is a progressive discipline. It is a culture making enterprise. User Experience is not more interfaces. It is a discipline concerned with the relationship between people and systems. It is a strategic & synthetic activity that understands how we interact with the world in order to augment human potential.

We do this by creating further interactions with the world:
An interaction is any act in which there is a change of state in the world. And the thing is that as user experience architects it is our job to shape those interactions.

As a Final note I wanted to share some videos that are thematically related to some of the ideas in these notes:



  • nouveau maillot equipe de france 2014
  • replicas camisetas futbol
  • maillot de foot 2014
    • You know as a topic I don’t know a great deal about Trust Management. Are there any web-pages or recources that describe what it’s about? Be glad to know more!

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