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Things That Aren't The Actual Things

magritte

I'm re-reading Scott McCloud's excellent Understanding Comics. Early in the book he "talks" about Magritte's The Treachery of Images ("Ceci n'est pas une pipe") and things that are not really things.

His comment on the fact that in the book you're looking at a printed reproduction of a drawing of a painting of a pipe is intriguing. It seems absurd to paint a pipe and then write underneath that it isn't a pipe, but it's entirely correct, and a wonderful statement on too many things to talk about in a short blog post.

However, this prompted me to think back on a number of conversations I've had recently, around the danger of things that are not the actual things; more specifically the things we choose to communicate other things, and how our entire world is built around these.

I suppose I'm also talking about a particular type of communication: the sort we use to communicate something complex to someone else so that we can create a shared understanding. In the absence of a better term I'd probably call these "abstraction layers".

We create abstraction layers through a need to standardise the interfaces between different things. Let's take architect's blueprints as a case in point. Why do architect's produce blueprints? Well, one of the main reasons is to help communicate with people who aren't architects: builders, quantity surveyors, engineers, etc.

On the face of it those blueprints seem like a great idea. Here are widely understood methods of communication that many different professions can work with. But the problem with these, and with many other things in the same category, is that they begin to grow in importance, they begin to suck everything else into them.

Everyone's working practices start to bend to the will of the blueprint. Systems are put in place, there's version control, things become legally binding, components become standardised and, ultimately, compromises are made to accommodate the needs of the blueprint.

And so, ultimately, do we sacrifice more than we gain through our focus on these abstraction layers and interfaces between people? And do we stop thinking about the things itself: the building?

Let's take a simpler example: qualifications. Why do we have these? We want to be able to communicate all of our knowledge and experience in shorthand. We want to present to a potential employer, in a couple of lines of text, everything we're capable of.

And what does this lead to? It leads to a fetishism of qualifications. They become what we work towards, instead of working towards what they represent. We look for shortcuts, work-arounds, quick-fixes. They become the focus, the things that aren't the actual things.