Language is pretty fantastic as a way of symbolically encoding information into lexemes and then written or verbal data. It’s always telling when you learn another way in which culture and language are built around each other, as the translation (lossy compression) process forces the data a ceertain way. To put it another way, thoughtspace is way more infinite than wordspace, and it’s hard to express ideas without distorting them a little bit in the telling.

That said, even relatively simple and long-established ideas still get lost in the telling. We’re certainly getting better at this; in the last few years usability has become a priority for corporate, academic, and governmental designers. Still, we haven’t found a simple lexicon for symbols.

So many of our signs have cultural or lexical meaning attached to them – really they’re encoded and not everyone has the keys to get to the data inside, unless they have prior exposure to the symbols used. Yes, I have some examples!

(At this time, please extinguish your cultural mind as far as possible, and use only conscious reasoning for the remainder of this post.)

  • Dig this faucet. You just got to a new country, and who knows whether cold is on the right or the left here? Good thing you read English, but if you didn’t, you’d be out of luck. That’s encoded data. (Also interesting: if instead of ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’, it were heiroglyphics or kanji, would it be fixed? Maybe, if the characters you used weren’t too lossy.)
  • It’s obvious to us which of these is hot and which is cold, but that’s because we’ve all agreed to the standard. But this is still encoded – hot water isn’t actually red at all. One could make a case for this simple encoding, though – lakes are blue and coals are red – and it’s a pretty good one. There’s simply a little bit of intuition and guesswork going on, but it might be necessary. The red/blue temperature grammar is a pretty common one, at any rate.

One totally culture-encoding free way of conveying information is to use an actual representation – the way some bus stops have a picture of a bus. Not easy mistaking that one. However, look what happens here – we’d have to show the water molecules vibrating in place, faster for the hot water, to show what the difference is in the physical world. Well, that assumes a significant amount of prior knowledge of physics, and more people in the world likely speak English than know very much about molecules. We could do it a lot of different ways, but I can’t think of a perfect one, so comment if you were able to think of it.