Postliterate mystic signs

I personally think that reading and writing are the keystones of our intellectual development. Without it, goodbye structured thoughts, communication, programming, everything.

However, there are many many languages out there and these days, the main problem is crossing the language barrier when we need to communicate. My students told me earlier that having the class taught in english, rather than french, didn’t really help them. They mostly are set on the idea of thinking in their native language, and then try to translate it in the recipient’s one.

While I don’t speak many human languages (3 to 5 depending on the desired abstraction level, and my alcohol levels), I really think that perfect communication requires to think directly in the target language, to avoid translation bugs.

Out there in the real world, most people are reluctant towards foreign languages, new syntax/rules to learn, etc… And I won’t comment on the general culture in most people’s own language. Most manufacturers now agree on the fact that we are getting “postlitterate”, and therefore should use pictograms instead of written things on buttons, signs, etc.

The reasoning is threefold : First, everyone agrees that our brain is better wired for shape and picture recognition than actual sentences. It’s true. After all, we still have animal brain parts leftover from our evolution. Instant recognition is better than full comprehension, they say. I don’t agree, but I’m not in the decision making process… Second, a picture works in any language. It doesn’t matter if “cat”, “chat” and “gato” are not the same words… they are used to describe the same object. Everyone will recognize a cat if they see one. You can’t really disagree with that either, but it has to be a good picture of a cat. I’m not sure everybody knows what a possum looks like, or how to represent objectively a bridge… And third, with the growing image culture, we have a more or less standard way of representing kind of abstract concepts such as on/off, actions, or gradation. For example, green means good, and red means bad, concentric arcs means radio waves, etc… I strongly suspect that these too are very tightly connected to a society’s background culture, and not universal.

The thing is, if every manufacturer out there respects the same codes, we will have a common culture ground to interpret these signs. Green will forever mean good even though we won’t know anymore why it does.

In the meantime, we have to interpret these signs daily, and sometimes, they are plain weird. I was in an elevator and I saw this.

I know what it’s supposed to mean. Or I think I do. But the iconography is just… bizarre. And where in hell am I supposed to press that button? is it the top one? or under the stylized finger?

Possible interpretations:

  • press the ring button repeatedly until someones shouts at you
  • keep the ring button pressed until someone shouts at you
  • press and talk

These are the probable explanations, and I sincerely have no clue as to which one it really is. And then you have the wacky I’m-not-from-this-world explanations:

  • scratch the button if you have bad breath
  • ring here for male prostitutes (sorry, but to me, the icon is a guy’s head, and the red X has a meaning ;) )
  • press here to have the music, and sing along
  • each time you press the button, please imitate the sound you’ll hear

More interpretations are of course welcome in the comments ;)



  1. – If you lost your voice, enter Time Machine to recover it by pressing the ring button.
    – If you see several buttons, just talk.
    – In case of earthquake only, you may scream out loud.

    Errr… hi :)

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