When i met with Valerie yesterday, she gave me a gift: a small wooden pebble, decorated with some indigenous art, inscribed with the word ‘vision’. She gave different pebbles to other people, each different: considered, kind, meaningful. And worthless. At least, without a specific sense of worth. There is negligible financial value to be found in a second hand wooden pebble. There is negligible fuel value in the wood. The item is not a functional or extrinsically useful gift: it’s value comes intrinsically, in it’s meaning, in the context, in the generosity, in the thought, in the imbued value. It means something to me.
As maybe she knew it would, it got me thinking about rituals, artefacts, and the cohesive (or divisive), functions that they serve within our respective communities. Within experience design, or community building and engagement, we can consider rituals: what are the rituals of joining, where are the graduation points, do we associate artefacts with these transitional points? Some contextual cultures do this well: military ones, uniformed services, they often carefully mark change with rank and insignia. Social systems tend to do it more subtly, sometimes invisibly. Reputation is awarded, respect is invisibly earned.
When we join an organisation, we are often given extrinsic artefacts with functional value, but little in the way of intrinsically valuable artefacts of belonging and pride. And yet our cohesion, engagement, and trust, all are deeply affected by these intrinsic forces.
Rituals carry a significance, even when they are informal and socially moderated: the giving of gifts, the receiving of gifts, sometimes the reciprocity of gifts (although often the value comes from the simple gifting itself. Of course, some rituals come with implicit associations of control: they move us from one space to another, they change a dynamic of ownership, rank, or structure.
Artefacts have meaning, but that meaning is contextual and culturally determined: so whilst i may be able to discern the physical aspects of the artefact, i may entirely lack an understanding of the cultural significance (which is why Valerie, when she gave me the piece, explained the distinctive line structure and context of the indigenous artwork on it: i lacked context and understanding, so as with many rituals, the story was an inherent part of the validity of the ritual). Had the pebble been thrown at me, left on my seat, or slipped in my pocket, it would have lacked context.
Artefacts and rituals can reinforce group cohesion, although they can also be used to divide: skinheads use tattoos and uniforms to show unity and intent as much as priests or pilots. Artefacts carry their imbued meaning so strongly that sometimes they are banned: they are too dangerous to be allowed free expression.
Artefacts can signify embodied trust: the sharing is incidental to the thing itself. But, as with all these things, trust is an emergent feature, not deterministic. So if i give you a wooden pebble, it will not make you trust me more. The thing is not a pill, it’s not a mechanistic or biological effect. It’s an emotional one.
Social systems are governed by complex social rules: visible within the system, often incomprehensible outside of it. Belonging to a community, learning the rules, earning trust, these things take time and are a specific skill set. Being able to read the meaning held in culture.
And of course, the giving of gifts is kind: as our paths crossed in our global travels, i value the gift not for it’s material value, but for the friendship and shared journey that it represents. A gift given meaning through experience. Artefacts are manufactured, whilst shared stories are earned.