Day 11: It’s a Sign!

This one is mostly about the philosophical purpose of signs, because I’ve had a weird week.

We had to do a final project for Community and the Built Environment, so me and two other kids got into a group to talk about how culture gets transmitted via the cityscape, and I a little bit lost the plot and got very distracted thinking about signs all week. Because signs do a lot to shape how people interact with a space – where does traffic get channeled, what gets warning signs, is there a plaque that tells you some important born was improbably born halfway up this here wall – and I find it weirdly fascinating. I read an article recently about a town in California that is trying to sue Google for causing car accidents via Google Maps because the app keeps routing commuter traffic through residential streets, which aren’t designed to handle that kind of through-traffic, and this causes more accidents than if the drivers would just take the highway like they’re supposed to. It’s not a physical sign, but it’s fascinating to me that nothing about the physical layout of the streets changed, and the information about their location didn’t change (decent streetmaps were wildly available pre-Google), just access to information about them changed.

I also read the first couple chapters of a book called Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, which is partially about how modern nation states were built, and lot of that is top-down centralized standardization of, well, nearly everything, for tax purposes. Standardization of last names to make family inheritance and tax forms easier, standard street layout, signage, and house numbering to make towns parseable to outsiders (tax collectors), standardized weights and measures so that cloth and wine and hay and everything only had to be measured once. Individual towns used to have their own money and systems of measurement local to just that town, because unless you’re doing a lot of trade with the next town over, why bother syncing up how long a yard is? Part of the job of being a merchant used to be money changing and unit conversions. So I spent a lot of time this week thinking about this kind of thing, and how signs can render transparent what used to, in a strange way, be private or local knowledge. Once upon a time you just had to ask people, but now maps and signage are abundant, and it’s possible to direct yourself through unfamiliar places. We definitely gain a lot by standardization; it makes travel much more pleasant, for one, but it’s interesting to note that for most of the time humans have been living in cities, being able to understand a place without living in it your whole life was an impossibility.

I’m also deranged about signs because the first week orientation the person who was giving us a tour of town pointed at what I thought was just a random sign and said, “Oh by the way, that means ‘danger falling snow’, don’t stand under the roofs in winter,” and of all the signs not to translate or have a silly little pictogram for.

‘Danger from falling snow’, but without an accompanying pictogram, so really, who’s to say

An attempt at information transference was made, but come on people. There’s tourists in the winter too, ya gotta warn them.

I kept cackling to myself while we were talking about signage because of a running joke in my eighth grade Latin class that I was competently unable to explain well. We had a chapter that was about our characters going to some chariot races, and at the beginning of the race someone raises a white flag which is called a mappa to signal the start. Except the kid who translated this sentence went with one of the other meanings of mappa and so translated the sentence: Look! The napkin! It’s a sign! (instead of: Look! The flag! It’s the signal!). Which, naturally, we all ran with as a stupid joke, and even years later I sometimes want to point at things and say: The napkin, it’s a sign! which is funny to absolutely no-one. It’s even worse that I sometimes mutter the Latin under my breath (ecce! mappa! signum est!) but if you’re going to be inscrutable you might as well go all the way.

I had a brief bit of international banking excitement earlier this week; the boat people said that expenses we incurred for purchasing equipment or clothing we needed was refundable due to the grant. I bought some steel toed boots, and sent the receipt to the professor I’m going to be working for, who is German despite most of the team being out of Corvallis. So he asked me for an IBAN number, which is standard banking routing number that nearly all European banks have and American ones don’t, because in some very stupid ways American banks are living like it’s the Paleolithic outside. So I gave him my Icelandic bank information, which means the money is coming from the NSF, to the people in Corvallis, to Germany, to Iceland, where at some point I have to get the money out of the Icelandic bank and back into an American account, which should be simple because they’re both in my name, and it simply isn’t. And somehow no part of this is money laundering. International fiance in a weird time.

One of the walks we went on this week was up by the avalanche wall, trying to think about how this is still the built environment even where there are no buildings. It was a beautiful day, and the same kid who snagged a picture of me last week took this one of me starring off into space.

One response to “Day 11: It’s a Sign!”

  1. Fab
    This was a fascinating read about the role of signs in shaping our interactions and understanding of the built environment. I especially found the historical context about standardization and its impact on travel and commerce to be intriguing. Have you come across any research or discussions about how digital signs (e.g. digital billboards, projected images) influence our perception and behavior in public spaces?


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