What I talk about when I talk about ‘user outcomes’ #3

This ongoing series is a way of explaining the focus of this blog. In previous posts I’ve discussed Douglas Adams on metaphor and Borges and embodied cognition whilst below I discuss symbolic action and the importance of stories.


freedom or not:across the city

Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories. Through television, film, novels and video games, we may be more thoroughly bombarded with narrative material than any people that ever lived. What is peculiar, however, is the carelessness with which these stories are channelled at us — as entertainment, a distraction from daily life, something to hold our attention to the other side of the ad break. There is little sense that these things make up the equipment by which we navigate reality. On the other hand, there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders. These are not presented as stories at all, but as direct accounts of how the world is. Choose between competing versions, then fight with those who chose differently. (The Dark Mountain Project manifesto, p.13)

Everything we say and do has at least two elements: the connotative and the denotative. That is to say, there is a symbolic element to everything we see, say and do. The problem is that the interpretation of those symbols can be tricky.

  • A film you watch with a friend may have had religious and positive undertones for you, but meanwhile reinforced your friend’s belief in the futility of life.
  • What one person sees as ‘sharing good practice’ is someone else’s definition of self-promotion.
  • A look across a crowded bar is a search for a friend to the looker but a flirtatious advance to another.

Open up Heat magazine (or any other low-budget weekly) and what do you find? The surface (denotative level) celebrity gossip could also easily be interpreted on a connotative level as telling a story to keep the herd in line. This diet is good, this skirt is bad, this is how you should treat others, and so on. For celebrity (and other) magazines they’re cultivating a tribe for the sake of advertising and profit. Organizations such as Purpos/ed do so for the sake of social change.

That’s why it’s all about the story – both the story you witness and interpret, and the one you tell. They don’t have to be one and the same. And remember, you tell yourself a story when you say you can and cannot do this or that. Don’t internalise other people’s stories; tell your own.

Image CC BY visualpanic

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