Note: Kelli has also published an updated version of this article.
In the film Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry takes advantage of Noam Chomsky’s open-door interview policy to see what he can learn about him.1 Over the course of several visits, he greets the elder linguist, gets comfortable, revs up the clickety Bolex camera, and reads a prepared question—smuggled in, we imagine, from another universe entirely.
As viewers, we can only hear them. (Gondry later sets the words to a visual track of hand-scrawled animation.) Standing in for facial expressions are the audible artifacts of attentiveness: the variations in pacing, the backing up, the stopping short.
Beloved for his you-just-have-to-see-it videos, Gondry initially seems an unlikely fanboy of the guy known as “the father of modern linguistics.” However, Gondry’s experiments with film’s illusionistic loopholes and Chomsky’s discoveries of how language acquisition works share something remarkable in common. Both men abandoned the prescribed methodologies of their fields and instead tested hunches into unknown territory.
After a deferential pause, the filmmaker falls out of step with his subject by posing a question that’s uncharacteristically far afield. It’s about bees. But just as quickly as a buzzing motif is rotoscoped in, Chomsky shuts the thing down. The serene colors abruptly turn to confusion, capsizing the frame into waves of colored lines.
Gondry’s question relates to how bees build ambitious, complex worlds for themselves by crafting the single shape of a hexagon over and over again. Since the hexagons probably weren’t mandated by some sort of bee-zoning committee, we must assume that bees simply “think in hexagon.” Of course, Gondry’s bees in this metaphor are really us, and he is really asking Chomsky, “Is language our hexagon?” Does language define the limits of everything we dream up?
The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein2
Gondry would have been better off asking cognitive scientist and linguist Lera Boroditsky the bee question. For the past ten years, she has been researching how language shapes thought, documenting the relationship between our word-reality and our sense-reality. Her experiments demonstrate that our brain’s aptitudes really do differ according to how different languages frame the world for us.
For example, the language of the Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal Australian group, designates space in terms of the cardinal directions (your north leg, a south turn, etc.), rather than our relative left and right.3 When dumped in a maze-like building for a few hours, the Kuuk Thaayorre performed far better than their western counterparts in signaling researchers back to the entrance. It turns out they are superior spatial thinkers and better navigators.
Boroditsky explains why this is the case: “An obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly.”
A similar observation led Boroditsky to test whether differences in color terms leads to differences in how we see color, comparing English and Russian speakers. In Russian, there’s a word for light blue and one for dark blue, but not blue. They’re simply two different colors, like orange and yellow.
Boroditsky tested the two groups in a lab to see if light and dark blue actually look more distinct to Russian speakers’ eyes. Judging by differences in the time it took them to identify the colors, they do. The Russian speakers could distinguish between the two colors instantly, and the English speakers lagged behind, sometimes by seconds.
Boroditsky’s research suggests that language shapes our sensory experience of the world because it directs us to pay attention differently—language focuses our gaze on concepts for which there are words. An obvious conclusion, perhaps, but this has broad implications for the deprioritized zones. Even in an age when we can collect deep, nuanced data on almost anything, there are big holes in our scaffolding. For example, when we get sublimely dizzy staring up into a cathedral ceiling, shift to and fro to see the end of a long corridor wag, or glance back at an empty apartment, we feel—through our senses—the profound weight of spatial events. But try to tell a friend about it and it evaporates like a dream.
In the final essay written before his death, sculptor Donald Judd noted that his life’s work with space yielded “particular and plentifully-diverse knowledge” to him, but that “to almost everyone it doesn’t exist.”4 Why do we have terms for linguistic minutiae like “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” while we lack granularity for visual, spatial, audible, and tactile phenomena?
Try to find the words to describe a normal, everyday something—like how cilantro smells—and you’ll quickly find the edges of language. All interfaces create the illusion of comprehensiveness, as if to say, “This, and only this, is what you can do.” It’s to be expected then that language, as an interface, pulls the imagination into its own orbit.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.
— Paul Valéry5
So how do we ask a question beyond the bounds of an interface? Is there a way to converse with the material world in its own vocabulary? Many art and design thinkers have attempted to give proper, permanent expression to those unlabeled experiences we encounter.
The artist Robert Irwin may be the unofficial mascot of coherent discussions with the unnameable. In 1977, and then again in 2013, he installed a piece so large that it consumed the entire cement fourth floor of the Whitney.6 However, when the show opened, people often walked right by it. Irwin recalls, “People would step out of the elevator, say, ‘Hmm, empty room,’ and hop back in before the doors shut.” But the floor was not quite empty—and in Irwin’s work, “not quite” can mean “the entire world.”
When I visited the reunion tour in 2013, there was nothing I could name—no sculptures, vitrines, frames, hardware. The space appeared to contain only a single stretch of sheer material dividing the room into a grid of four chunks. It was all dramatically oriented to a single window.
Traditionally, one would call this an empty room, but to the senses, it was full—loaded with shifting shapes, corners, shadows, surfaces, dramatic lines, textural changes, rays of light, blurriness, and sharp edges. Lines pivoted and cascaded around me in an orchestrated slow shift as I walked from corner to corner. This new sensitivity stuck with me beyond the museum walls, as I noticed the skyscrapers bending in a canopy above my head. All of those instances of nothing had been filled with an exhilarating something.
“The purpose of art has always been to wake people from such non-thinking,” Irwin writes.7
Much like adding a word to one’s vocabulary, experience itself is indeed transmittable and readily becomes part of the beholder’s world. Indeed artists, scientists, and craftspeople pass their ideas forward through demonstration.
Everything is an event on the skin.”
— Ludwig Helmholtz8
To start his conversation with Chomsky, Gondry simply had to pick up the phone and make an appointment. To start a conversation with a material, we only have to pick it up and “play.” Prolific designers like Charles Eames have already encouraged us to have faith: there is much to learn from the firsthand.
However, there is an undervalued but essential second step in the conversation: observing the reply. Irwin says that his job as an artist is more about listening than doing. The passivity of his approach belies its radical implications. Letting a thing begin the conversation is often appropriate, but it threatens the structured assumptions of the professional world.
“Curators would call and ask me, ‘If we invite you [to create an installation], what are you going to do?’ and I would have to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ll just spend some time there and then decide.’”
Rather than forcing his will upon his subject, Irwin thinks we make the best use of our most sophisticated hardware when we keep our antennae up. We can gradually attune our senses to subtlety in much the same way that we’d slowly train our brains to speak French. In Designing Design, the man behind MUJI, Kenya Hara, echoes this sentiment when he expresses that the joy of paper is not about what we do to it, but what it does for our minds.
“It’s not the delicacy of the paper in and of itself … but the finely-tuned human senses paper can awaken … the distant universe and our immediate world can both be found here.”9
Hara notes that touch—as well as sight, smell, taste, and hearing—are all responses to pressure on the skin. Skin is our single natural interface on the friction of the world—whether that friction is a pin prick or a photon of light bounced from a magazine page onto our retinas. It’s the turnstile through which all information must pass—our first front in understanding anything, not just the touchy-feely stuff. It’s keeping our brains in check with material fact. In this way, we navigate the friction of the universe intellectually, through our skin.
Perhaps even abstractions and logic—while resolutely immaterial—can be accessed by hand. Mathematician Masao Morita asserts that sensory thinking plays a more vital role than expected in his field. For example, researchers believe that the geometrically perfect circle was first discovered by hand.10
Morita explains that Stone Age technology succeeded where thousands of years of artists later failed, through a gesture that just happens when you work with stone tools. By rotating a small, hard stone into a larger slab of softer clay, a fixed centerpoint is established. Further rotation scrapes away the softer clay at a fixed distance from the centerpoint. The one and only shape that can result from such an action is a circle, a perfect one.
Similarly, some logic concepts are best transmitted through touch. Most third graders have taken a strip of paper, twisted it once, and taped the end together to make a one-sided object.
In spite of its simple recipe, the Wikipedia article describing the “non-orientable” surface of a Möbius strip is unreadable at best. With an elegant little curl, the Möbius strip tears apart everything we’ve been told about flatness and dimension in our world. To backtrack on those labels—to explain exactly how this shape defies seemingly fundamental boundaries—requires a tangled web of language.
In a Möbius strip is a profound mismatch between what we can see with our eyeballs and what we believe is true. It forces us to reconcile with our minds, by scrambling with our hands, something that subverts our inherited understanding of reality. In these instances, the vast feedback-generating machine of the universe is literally yelling back at us: requiring that we intellectually understand with our hands to make new, novel sense of an experience with our brains.
This uniquely human method of physical reasoning is being used to tackle complex modern engineering problems inaccessible by other means. The authors of Geometric Folding Algorithms explain, “Because the topics are tangible, physical intuition makes them accessible via a wide variety of preparations.”11
On the screen, when Gondry wants to know something, we hear a pause, and he can simply ask his interview subject a question. We anticipate that Chomsky might answer in return (unless: bees). In their careers, however, both men had to interrogate the unknowns of their respective fields with a creative and nimble form of give-and-take.
This process is much like bouncing a ball off of an object in the dark to assess its shape. The feedback we receive when engaging an idea this way is always better than the models we construct in our brains. This is how friction helps us think, learn, adapt, and eventually understand. It keeps us tethered to material facts in a way that other investigation methods do not.
With questions asked through actions and answers received from the senses, we use friction daily. We experience it when we push to assess the stability of a chair, wait for an echo to locate distance, or walk across an empty room to assess its size. And when we press our fingers into spinning clay to feel it bend, we’re using sensory wisdom to converse with the pre-existing mechanics of the universe.
By simply feeling it out, we can conduct a conversation with a line, a sound, a color, a taste, a chunk of code, or a material: “Does this work? … No … OK, well, what about this? Huh. Interesting … Oh! What about this?” The surprises that occur along the way often present as nuisances—roadblocks to best-laid plans—but are also exactly how we get to new information.
When something that we didn’t ask for happens, it’s a gift. We get answers in places we didn’t even realize we should question. By observing responses to physical questions, we can get out of our own minds and enter into an empathic understanding of how things really work.
By the time the film ends, Gondry has successfully navigated a conversation with a man who is notoriously difficult to know. He does this by listening and deftly recalibrating according to his subject’s signals. He has broken past Chomsky’s talking points and has revealed some underlying truths.
The shape of the conversation was far too idiosyncratic to have been hatched using the raw ingredients of knowns, assumptions, and expectations. It had to play out unscripted, as a genuine experiment with all of the glorious uncertainty, messiness, improvisation, and misunderstandings that entails.
While talking to people will always be unpredictable, in the future there will be fewer opportunities to be surprised by our conversations with things. The rise of haptic (touch) tech will means that more of our stuff will behave exactly as expected—invariably lightening the load on our give-and-take physical intuition.
Designers like me are building a new sensory world of interactions with a single goal in mind: to accommodate exactly and only what the user wants to do. We will work to eliminate all physical and psychic friction. We will shape interfaces that are an exacting mirror on the user’s intentions—a mirror that signifies nothing about the structure underlying the exchange. No balls need to be bounced in the dark here.
The real reason bees “think in hexagon” is that the hexagon is—undoubtedly—the best and only shape for the job.12 Pack a bunch of circles together and there will be gaps at the corners. Pack a bunch of triangles together, and you’ll find yourself needing twice as much wax than if you had employed a more capacious shape.
The hexagon is the logical and elegant conclusion to a specific problem—an example of perfection in design refined by millions of years of natural evolution. It is also an endpoint, precluding any further investigations into the unknown. Human beings, however, need the unknown. Without it, we are just talking to ourselves.
Unlike the interface of physical reality, there is only the illusion of exchange in these digital haptic experiences. We will no longer listen for an echo in response. We will no longer push to feel the structure and principles beneath. It will be harder to justify persistently asking how and why when there is nothing beneath the interfaces except our own intentions reflected back at us. Our future will be response-free: populated with things that don’t push back.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, directed by Michel Gondry (2013). ↩
George Pitcher, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Prentice Hall, 1964). ↩
Lera Boroditsky, “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” Edge.org, June 11, 2009. ↩
Donald Judd, Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular (Sikkens Foundation, 1993). ↩
Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (Expanded Edition): Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin (UC Press, 2009). ↩
Roberta Smith, “Ineffable Emptiness, From Dawn to Dusk: Robert Irwin’s Light-and-Space Work Returns to the Whitney,” New York Times, July 25, 2013. ↩
Weschler, 2009. ↩
Kenya Hara, Designing Design (Lars Mueller, 2011). ↩
Hara, 2011. ↩
Kenya Hara, Subtle - The 47th Takeo Paper Show (Takeo Co., 2015). ↩
Erik D. Demaine and Joseph O’Rourke, Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra (Cambridge University Press, 2007). ↩
Robert Krulwich, “What Is It About Bees and Hexagons?” Radiolab (blog), May 14, 2013. ↩