As i’m sat in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport, waiting for the flight to Singapore, my mind turns to meaning. Take Starbucks: i’m drinking my skinny latte out of the familiar paper cup with the green logo on it. As a brand, it’s universal, or as close to it as counts in my world. I’m sure i’ll be drinking from the same cup when i land and throughout the week. But the cup itself has no meaning: it has weight, colour, shape, texture, reflective properties and is currently filled with coffee, but nowhere could you quantify the meaning it has for me.
There is no intrinsic quality of ‘Starbucks’ that inhabits this space, but rather the meaning is conjured up through associations in my brain between physical properties (the logo, the shape) and my memories. The meaning of Starbucks sits within me.
Take writing: Singapore is a pragmatic country with four official languages and a variety of alphabets. The modern Malay alphabet is familiar, even though the words are not, but the lesser used Jawi is not. It’s an Arabic script and totally unfamiliar to me. I can see shapes, but they have no meaning.
The green Starbucks mermaid is a symbol that has meaning to me because of my associations, but the curious script of Jawi has no association, or rather, very little: i assume it’s a written language and not just artwork as it’s laid out on a page in lines, but what the letters or words mean eludes me.
Jawi, at least, is a contemporary language, written and spoken by millions: but what about older languages, lost languages? Proto-Elamite is the worlds oldest undeciphered language, some five thousand years old. Undeciphered, at least, until now, when scientists are beginning to tease meaning from the hieroglyphs. Just think about that: the words had meaning, to many people for many years, but then, gradually, that meaning was lost, until all we knew was that it was a language, much like my understanding of Jawi.
And now the researchers are trying to reconstruct that meaning, to rebuild or create anew the understanding. In doing so, they will unlock the stories held within, stories that are beyond our reach right not, stories that may further unlock our understanding of the people who wrote and formed that language.
Meaning is elusive: contextual, subjective, rarely, if ever, absolute.
In learning, we try to share understanding, to build common meaning in subjects, to build commonality and stories. We rely on a certain level of shared meaning to even start this process: i need to understand what a cup is before i can really comprehend what Starbucks means. I need to understand something of the nature of coffee, not just the physiological effects of it, but the sociological phenomena of coffee shops, gathering together to consume it.
As we move to different cultures, meaning becomes harder to understand. We have less commonality, greater potential to miss the meaning. In some ways, this has driven Singapore to adopt a Latin alphabet: there’s no doubt that communication is easier when we share certain things.
In the taxi on the way up i spoke to the driver, a retired engineer, who was just back from Cairo where he had been touring the pyramids. He was marvelling at how advanced Egyptian civilisation had been when we were still running around hitting each other with rocks. It’s a fair point. It’s the communication of that knowledge, through shared trade, shared languages, shared needs and shared thirst for learning that has pulled us forward and that continues to drive us. I’m flying half way around the world to share meaning with hundreds of people who i’ve never met before at the conference: drawn together to find our shared language, our shared meaning. To learn together.
Throughout the week, we should build commonality, some relationships based on shared interests, maybe ones that will persist, perpetuating the flow of information, facilitating our learning over time as those people transition from my physical location to our virtual learning community, as our learning transitions from formal to informal, to social.
Throughout this week, i want to explore knowledge and meaning as i build my own understanding of a new culture and make new friends. The desire to learn motivates us to come together.