Apologies for the recent dead air. I have been taking some time over the last month or two to refresh my brain and focus on other priorities, one of which was a planning a trip to Tanzania (with some travel through Nairobi, Kenya). It has taken some time on the back end to get over the jet lag (much worse on the return trip) and to begin organizing all the ideas floating around my head.
It was a well timed trip. In the prior months I had noticed my writing beginning to stagnate and I eventually decided to give it a break. Three weeks of travel – mostly off the grid – was exactly what I needed to reset the monkey mind.
The primary objective for the trip was to reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. That hike alone took six days – 4.5 days up, 1.5 down – covering 100km of trail and over 13,000 ft (about 4100 m) of elevation gained and lost. [The picture on the right was taken from camp on night three.]
For much of that time I had nothing on my mind aside from the intention to continue putting one foot in front of the other. As the air got thinner everything slowed down, at times into a trance-like state. Whatever free cognitive cycles I did enjoy were mainly spent getting to know my traveling companions (most were friends of friends) and fantasizing about food, showers, soft beds and the like.
Musings on Signal Density
It was also refreshing to escape my usual routine and to see how people immersed in a different culture go about their daily lives. One of the challenges while traveling is becoming attuned to unfamiliar signals embedded in new surroundings. Picking up the basics of a foreign language is the most obvious but by no means the only such challenge.
I found my attention particularly drawn to the local uses of signage. Signage may seem like a trivial thing, but that is only because we take it for granted until it stops working. We react to signage unconsciously, rarely examining the connections between the signs themselves and our reactions to those stimuli.
In the United States most signage conveys very little explicit information. Instead it uses simple imagery to evoke rich conceptual arrangements that the perceiver has internalized through prior exposure. A visual stimulus like a corporate logo immediately activates a complex web of associations. For example, a 7/11 sign (right) might lead you to infer:
- What kind of establishment this is…
- retail, open to the public, self serve, etc
- What kinds of goods will be available within…
- coffee and donuts but not freshly made hoagies (for that you would need to find a Wawa)
- The approximate price and quality of the items offered…
- inexpensive, mostly mainstream name brands
- What interior motif and layout to expect…
- logically organized isles, well marked prices, sterile atmosphere
- What forms of payment will be accepted…
- credit cards welcome, personal checks not
- What level of customer service to expect…
- helpful with simple queries, no personalized service
To be clear, most of this information does not consciously enter your internal monologue. Rather, this web of associations (and many more) constitute the conceptual entity “7/11″ triggered by the sign.
It is this compression of countless association into a simple operational concept that allows us to act decisively with minimal deliberation. For example, when you notice a 7/11 sign on the road a couple blocks ahead you might spontaneously remember that you need to pick up AA batteries. That thought might then trigger subsequent associations:
- you haven’t eaten yet and your stomach is grumbling
- you have a weakness for deliciously unhealthy taquitos
- 7/11 stores often have taquitos simmering under a heat lamp immediately adjacent to the cashier
- the parking lot is full
Inference: You may have to wait in line for several minutes with those tasty indulgences staring you in the face the entire time, and your willpower is not up to the task of resisting the temptation.
In that instant – without consciously articulating any of the reasoning above – you decide to drive out of your way to the nearest radio shack where you won’t face such temptations.
Unpacking the Decision Process
If someone asked you to explain your decision you would probably dismiss the question by saying something like – “Oh, I just didn’t feel like stopping.” Only after some dedicated reflection would you tease apart the web of associations that was implicated in the decision.
In fact, you might be quite surprised to realize that taquitos were such a critical factor in your decision. If you had to describe a 7/11 to someone from another culture, taquitos would probably not be among the first hundred things you would mention. Moreover, there was nothing in the visual stimulus (the sign) itself to prompt one particular cascade of associations of another. Nevertheless, the taquito association was lurking somewhere within your operational understanding of 7/11 and it readily asserted itself once implicated by the appropriate set of conditions.
Peeling Back the Layers
The commercial landscape in Kenya and Tanzania was largely devoid of dense signals like the 7/11 sign…at least to this foreigner’s eyes. Instead much of the signage conveyed a voluminous amount of explicit information. Below is a picture from Khan’s Barbecue where we ate one of our better meals in the city of Arusha:
As you can see, both the seating area and the storefront were covered with messaging, both pictorial and textual. It turned out that Khan was a restaurateur by night and a supplier of auto parts by day. This physical establishment also accommodated a mosque (you might notice the prohibition on alcohol in the image above), and the back area appeared to house Khan’s family residence as well.
For myself and my fellow travelers this amalgam of food, mechanical equipment, and religious worship was both novel and perplexing. However, after a bit of reflection it doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. To put it in context, you have to take into account our own confused conceptual entities here in the west…
Is Khan’s Barbecue any more bizarre than a retail establishment that sells prescription drugs and back-to-school supplies under the same roof?
The ubiquitous CVS or Walgreens would be a sight to behold if it explicitly listed all its offerings across its storefront in the same manner as Khan’s Barbecue. We overlook the bizarre medley of products offered at corporate drug stores because a) they are familiar, and b) we interact only with the conceptual entity – “drug store” or “CVS”. What if we were to unpack this concept in midst of a casual conversation?
As a thought experiment, imagine how a friend or coworker might react if you were to casually explain:
I’m headed over to 123 Market Street to pick up opioids, rat poison, baby formula, crayons, chocolate cookies, an extension cord, and a bottle of bleach.
That statement would sound like a cry for psychological intervention if it weren’t too disorienting to be taken seriously. Yet, that is exactly the array of products we encounter on a typical visit to the drug store. The co-location of those products only seems strange once the concept is elaborated…and for good reason. In normal usage, high level (abstract) concepts allows us to get on with our business without getting hung up on the absurdities of daily life.
Conceptual Density and Economic Development
At Khan’s Barbecue my fellow travelers and I initially enjoyed dwelling on the absurdities. In small doses, recognizing absurdity helps us to identify unquestioned assumptions and to adopt new perspectives. However, the experience of excessive absurdity may imply that the conceptual frameworks necessary for effective communication are either lacking or insufficiently shared between the communicating parties.
Once we all got over the novelty of kabobs and carburetors under the same roof, we found ourselves left with more questions than could be answered by visual chaos splashed all over the walls. Those questions had to be answered by Khan himself:
Confused Tourists: Can you seat ten people?
Confused Tourists: Can we see a menu?
Khan: No menus. I will tell you. We have chicken and lamb kabobs and…and…and…
Confused Tourists: Ok, no menus…so, how do we order?
Khan: No need to order. You try some of everything.
Confused Tourists: Ok, what does it cost?
Khan: 10,000 shillings per person (about $7)
Confused Tourists: [mental calculations...] Fair enough. Should we sit down now, or…?
Khan: Follow me, I will show you…
That is the abridged version anyway. Charming though this experience was, it certainly was not the most efficient way to conduct business. In contrast to the hypothetical 7/11 decision described above, negotiating the terms of our meal at Khan’s Barbecue required 10-15 minutes of deliberation. That was in addition to the guidance we had previously received from Lonely Planet, which pointed us to Khan’s in the first place.
The inefficiency did not arise from lack of technology, lack of capital, weak rule of law, poor education or any of the other commonly cited impediments to economic development (at least not directly). The difficulty was due entirely to the lack of shared concepts (otherwise Khan spoke English very well). Notions like “buffet” or “family style” would have greatly simplified the situation.
This idea, that economic development is a function of conceptual development, is less novel than it may sound. We are all familiar with euphemisms that say essentially the same thing. One example is the cliche that success – whether that of a corporation or a national economy – comes from “moving up the value chain“. For a developing country, “moving up the value chain” implies gradual adoption of the abstracted conceptual frameworks necessary for industrial production and “knowledge work”. That transition may require technology, capital, and so on…but as the situation at Khan’s Barbecue demonstrates, those are only proximate requirements.
Apple and Foxconn both have access to investment capital, rule of law, educated populations (read: formally educated) and all the rest. Apple sits at the pinnacle of the value chain because it manipulates more complex conceptual entities. That is the fundamental distinction between design and assembly - conceptual depth. Likewise, it wasn’t a lack of technocratic infrastructure that prevented Khan adopting concepts like “family style”.
This is where top-down economic development runs into trouble. Investment capital can be imported through foreign aid. The institutions necessary for rule of law can be designed and dictated by well-meaning outsiders. Formal education can be administered bureaucratically.
But all the technocratic resources in the world will be imported onto faulty foundations if – as is so often the case – they prevent the necessary conceptual frameworks from developing organically…out of the local cultural milieu. If Khan needed anything it was denser language with which to better understand and communicate his value proposition. Unfortunately, the necessary concepts cannot be imposed top-down or installed into people’s minds overnight. Language evolves at its own pace…