Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 13 August 2023

The Writing on the Wall



The discovery that one can buy shit-jumbles word clouds as wall art (see previous post) raised an interesting analogy, and, perhaps, a suitable musing for a Sunday post. 

Once upon a time, the walls of many British and American homes were adorned with texts of a religious nature - ‘Thou God seest me’, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ - often carefully crafted by friends or family members. These days, the writing on the wall is likely to be rather more secular (and effort-free); a plethora of mass-produced variations on ‘Love’, ‘Home’ or ‘Happiness’ can be picked up from the supermarket shelves along with the bananas and yoghurt, while larger framed or self-adhesive versions can be acquired at the click of a mouse. 

All of this got me thinking; for whom is this display intended? The framed religious texts of bygone ages were intended to serve a spiritual purpose for the occupants of the house; a comfort in hard times and a reassurance of divine protection, perhaps, or an exhortation to stay on the straight and narrow. While such texts, whether embroidered, carved or hand-written, were often a demonstration of skill and diligence of the part of their creators, the choice of subject matter reflected a greater purpose founded in belief. 

Today's words on the wall are far more likely to be aimed at impressing an external audience; social media has provided a way to share the contents of a private space with the world in general and show that you are keeping up with fashionable trends. While I can see the appeal of a specimen of elegant calligraphy as something to enjoy in one’s own home, much modern word art, bypassing the levels of interpretation required by more complex images, is designed to send a direct and somewhat peremptory message about what the observer should think or feel, making it the perfect art form for today’s lazy and emotionally incontinent social media culture.

Rather like the lettering on a bowl labelled ‘Dog’ - the dog can’t read and no one else is likely to eat out of it* - the content of today’s secular domestic texts is largely irrelevant to those living with them. However beautiful the lettering, written instructions to ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ in the kitchen or ‘wash’ in the bathroom are surely an exercise in redundancy, while a loving family is hardly likely to need a word cloud to testify to their mutual affection (though it’s grim to think that there are probably deeply unhappy homes out there lavishly decorated with words like ‘BLESSED’, ‘FAMILY’ or ‘HOPE’.)

Where our forebears would surround themselves with texts reminding them of a higher power, the focus of mass-produced word clouds leans heavily towards self-congratulation and outward show. Religious word displays and scripture quotations are still widely available, of course, although, in keeping with the spirit of the age, the painstaking craft of the past can now be replaced by wipe-clean vinyl, but, for the most part, the performative aspect of today’s word art is a striking testimony to the destructive cult of the self and the dual powers of ego and social media.

*update - just when you thought the things couldn’t get any more ridiculous: personalised word clouds for your dog, available in 17 different colour schemes...


Wednesday 2 August 2023

Lost For Words

Some years ago, a work colleague, having been on some kind of development course, was appointed to ‘cascade’ the content down to the rest of us, including the classroom use of what she called a ‘word salad’. (Unfortunately, it being an utterly unmemorable term for a completely pointless exercise, I had difficulty recalling it afterwards and somehow replaced it in my mental lexicon with ‘shit-jumble’, which has been my private name for the things ever since.)

It was thus something of a surprise that, looking for an example to illustrate the previous post, I found no online reference to ‘word salads’ as an educational tool. Instead, the Oxford Dictionary defines a word salad as ‘a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words’, while Merriam-Webster goes one better:

‘Word salad began as a term used in psychiatry to describe the nonsensical syntax of the mentally ill. [...] In recent years, however, a slightly different use of the term which means something closer to “nonsense” has emerged. This use of word salad usually reflects a judgment on the logic or intelligence of a person’s language, rather than on the person’s mental state.’

Given that the ‘word salad’ was enthusiastically taken up by the management and the more progressive staff, I’d say that hits it pretty squarely on the head. Despite having negligible educational value, subject-related word salads soon adorned everything from classroom walls to exercise books, while pupils were even being set to create them for homework using off-the-peg software (not exactly a demanding task; with the help of an online thesaurus, the one above took about five minutes from cut-and-paste to publication, including time to try out three different colour schemes).

My online searches eventually bore fruit; it turns out that my colleague (or the leader of her course) had the official name wrong, although she was well up with the Zeitgeist. The ‘word cloud’ has broken free of its original purpose - facilitating the analysis of metadata by visually representing keywords weighted by frequency or significance - and taken the corporate world by storm; its combination of eye-catching display with easily-generated content makes the concept irresistible to a certain type of manager - as well as being very tempting to teachers looking for an instant result with minimal effort.

The word cloud - or word salad - used in this way is a perfect manifestation of style over content, shouting keywords in a nonsensical context on corporate documents or the walls of offices and public buildings everywhere (and even, bizarrely, in a domestic setting). If you set out to design something that screams ‘shallow thinking’ or ‘empty PR gesture’, you couldn’t do much better; to borrow a singularly apt description from Shakespeare, it is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

(Although I still prefer ‘shit-jumble’.)