When cultural conventions operate on minds

Last summer I took a walk to a National City Park in Stockholm to try out the newly released Pokemon Go. For those of who haven’t played Pokemon Go, it´s like using the map in a mobile phone but with the exception, that name of streets and city-related landmarks are removed and replaced with Pokestops that are placed within a range of bus stops. By reaching the Pokestops one gets balls to catch small cartoonish animals called Pokemon that appears on the map and can be collected. Alongside me, I recognised a group of people that were walking with a map in their hands looking for Tony Cragg sculptures that turned out to be placed within the same range as the Pokestops and where my Pokemon appeared their sculptures came into sight.

We did exactly the same things, except the different objects to collect. Whether the “sculpture-players” would be able to see the similarities between their art exhibition and my playing, I wasn’t able to tell unless I went up to them and said: “Look! We are doing the same thing. I catch Pokemon and you catch Tony Cragg sculptures”.

Pokemon Cragg Djurgården
What is meaningful for one doesn’t have to be meaningful for another and as a narrative constructor, it is important to understand how cultural conventions, norms and beliefs influence our meaning-making. And when it comes to art and entertainment it is particularly exposed to personal taste where people evaluate the experience by its goodness, badness or worthiness and evaluate they who holds an opposite meaning as being right or wrong.

How we come to assumptions whether something is meaningful or not depends on our prior experiences and where we use our core cognitive senses to reason, identify, distinguish, compare, decide, choose, explore and solve problems. What cognitively drives us to start categorising information, whereby we reduce the complexity in the information, is that we don´t like to not understand and in order to get in control and lower the anxiety we create meanings that make us feel less anxious. So whether the “sculpture-players” would be able to see the similarities between our respective activities by a short “Hi! Fun! We are doing the same thing” would probably lead to a polite acknowledgement of the greeting unless someone had experience from playing Pokemon.

The time it takes to come to an assumption (to lower the anxiety by finding meaning) can take a split second or an infinite amount of time as it has taken to understand what happens to us every time we are exposed to a new media. For instance, during the renascence movable mechanic printers worried us by enabling a mass communication and where the worries could be compared to today’s unease with a mass of information on the Internet. In the thirties people demonstrated their worries about the popular films that attracted more people to visit the cinemas than theatres or reading books and during the fifties worries increased when the television moved into the privacy and where the video caused such a threat during the eighties that politicians quoted the bible as to condemn the video movement´s affect on people´s behaviour.

Today we see the same debates and worries directed at video games where a child once said about having the grandmother around when playing that the child made sure to drive the car in a good manner so grandmother would not think badly about her grandchild when running over people and lampposts with the car. Whether they found a shared understanding that running into people by a car in a video game was not the same as running over people in real life the story didn’t tell, but what it showed was how preconceptions based on cultural conventions, norms and beliefs, and where lack of information can cause problems and worries by how people understand and evaluate others experiences can even cause feelings of guilt and shame by how the contrasts in the understanding create a ”we” and “them”.

When meeting the “sculpture-players” there were no evaluative contrasts as they didn’t see what I did with my mobile phone except the same as they did by taking pictures of our respective collector´s items. But a few months later I got the opportunity to return to the “sculpture-players” and quench my curiosity about how they eventually looked at our respective activities as meaningful or not. The project was called GIFT, which was a European project in cooperation between museums, and among them art museums, interaction designers and academics, where the goal was to create a “meaningful personalisation of a hybrid virtual museum experiences through gifting and appropriation”. For you who don´t know what personalisation means, it is when you, for example, go to a café and get your name written on a mug and when the coffee is ready they call your name. The intention is to make you feel known and cared for. A personalisation through appropriation means that one takes the experience a bit further where the term appropriation within IT means to allow for users to interpret and do more of the “settings” by themselves. So if doing an appropriation at the café it would not stay with a mug with a name on. As to make the experience meaningful it would be to give the design for customers to choose mugs, adjust the light, change wallpaper, choose music, sit or eat where ever they like, or pay whenever they want, etc.

How a narrative constructor evaluates whether an experience is good or bad (meaningful or not) is based on other criteria than we are normally used to when seeing a film or playing a game where we agree or disagree upon each other’s experiences. From a narrative constructor´s perspective when studying eventual contrasts in how people understand the object of design, a meaningful experience occurs when the vision and the desired outcome of the experience (expectation) is reciprocally shared and contains reasons to give behaviour meaning. As the goal, from a narrative perspective on construction, works on the basis that a meaningful activity occurs when the causes and effects of possible events and agent actions are consistent with the set premise, and support the goal, the formulation of the vision and desired outcome is the key.

To fully understand what it means from a narrative and metacognitive perspective to set the vision and the desired outcome (a premise) I like to return to the grandmother and her grandchild. By knowing how we like to use our core cognitive senses to identify and distinguish problems one could say that the grandchild identified by how we (in this case the grandmother) cognitively search for patterns in conventions, structures, familiarity, and expectations in order to understand, and by knowing what the grandmother liked the child turned on the radio in the car that played music from the fifties. When grandmother heard Bill Haley playing the grandchild succeeded to engage the grandmother´s core cognitive activities to: identify, distinguish, compare, decide, choose and explore the music and where she took charge of the radio in the car. By this the child removed the previous conditions of the contrasts that caused a “we” and “them” where the experience became not only adaptively but reciprocally shared and meaningful to both, even with differences in prior experiences, and where the grandmother encouraged the child to keep up the driving when “accidental” running into people and lampposts to the sound of “Rock around the clock”.

When looking at the vision for the GIFT project as to detect contrasts in how one understood the “receiver” of the design, the vision was described as following:

“Our vision is based on the core assumption that to facilitate engagement for cultural heritage entails creating an emotional attachment between the visitor and the heritage collection, leading the visitor to see value and importance in the collection content.” (GIFT, p.3).

If looking at a vision it doesn’t use to contain any contrasts since what the vision does is to express from the constructor´s perspective what one likes to achieve; as the child did when wanting grandmother to participate in the playing and what the museums, interaction designers and academics expressed when wanting to engage visitors in the heritage collection. Also, there was nothing strange that the vision was an assumption, which visions mostly are, but when I found how the desired outcome was expressed by how the project wanted to engage visitors in the museum’s collection it indicated something peculiar in how meaningfulness was evaluated.

“The visitor must be able to move smoothly from a state of mind that is causal, light-hearted and fun to one that is focused, serious, and meaningful” (GIFT, p. 23)

If one could operate on a mind, this would belong to one of them by the separation of mind into two states; one that was focused, serious and meaningful and the other that was light-hearted, casual and fun. The two states of minds pointed at “the visitor” that “must be able” to switch between the two minds of activities: one that was considered as meaningful and one that wasn’t. Which activity that was categorised as meaningful or not, I can´t tell, as it would require asking questions to them formulating the vision, but if one likes to make a meaningful personalisation by appropriation and engage people in the heritage collection through an Hybride Musuem and gifts, and if the “keys” (vision and desired outcome) are formulated with an anticipation of someone´s behaviour to not be meaningful and that it should be changed, the risk is that one will have them who can´t switch minds to, at the most, politely adapt – like the child did when avoiding running into lampposts and people. And if the constructor (designer) is not aware of how prior experiences influence how one looks at a “receiver´s” (users) understanding of what is meaningful, and if a visitor will not get engaged in the heritage collection, impeded by eventual low expectations on visitor´s behaviour, the risk is that the belief will be maintained that some did not understand what was meaningful.

Since the academics do not study narrative as a cognitive vehicle in how we create meaning (even if they construct narratives themselves) difficulties will remain to understand what Pokemon and Tony Cragg sculptures have in common. Because, as long as someone is thinking about someone else that they have to switch mind in order to see what is meaningful it will be hard to detect possibilities in the creation of new experiences.

It will be interesting to follow the project and if you hear anything about it, please let me know.

Katarina Gyllenbäck

Project GIFT. Meaningful personalization of a Hybrid Virtual Museum Experiences Through Gifting and Appropriation.

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