An Alphabet of Meaning

A college friend of mine once told me something that has stuck with me for nearly a decade and a half. She was considering a film major because, she told me, “film is a better form of communication than language.” She ended up studying neuroscience and computers instead, but that statement changed the way I think about art and media forever.

I never would have thought to put it in those terms, but of course film is a better form of communication than language. Film can contain language, of course, but it also wraps that language in music, lighting, scenery, characters, a story, camera angles and special effects, all edited to the microsecond with surgical precision, often by dozens or hundreds of people. It’s hard to imagine a better tool to convey meaning, precisely because it encompasses and integrates so many other things that convey meaning.
Meaning is a tricky thing. No matter how carefully one tries to express it in any form, it’s always liable to be missed or misconstrued, sometimes for better or worse. Any form of communication is inherently a two-way street, whether it’s really interactive or not (books, for example, can be misread or expounded upon, depending on who reads and interprets them). But it’s in that dependence on an audience that meaning comes to life. I find it useful to turn to musicologist Christopher Small and his concept of musicking, (that is, music as a process (verb), rather than an object (noun)):
“The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world.”
This incomprehensibly vast network of relationships is where meaning is created. And as we become an increasingly global society, this network of relationships grows evermore vast and incomprehensible. One strange side-effect has been the proliferation of CGI-heavy summer blockbusters (jokes don’t always translate into other languages, but explosions do, so these do better than comedies in overseas markets). However, I refuse to believe that exploding robots are the only message worth sending to a global audience. But more messages to send depends on more messengers to send them.
I’m not suggesting that the next step is to democratize filmmaking — that’s already happened. And moreover, film (broadly defined) is having a moment now because every person on earth is staring at a screen for most of their waking hours; but as we’re frogmarched away from our screens to mixed reality contact lenses or neural lacing or whatever terrifying sci-fi bullshit comes next, film as we currently understand it will go the way of the zoetrope.
To truly universalize communication in its most effective state, we need an alphabet of meaning, a catalog of things that cannot otherwise be expressed, and might mean different things to different people. For instance, one symbol might refer to a day at the beach for one person, a hug from their grandmother for another, or the smell of fresh cut grass to someone else. Alternately, another symbol might mean the feeling of just missing the train when you’re already late for work for one person, or that time in second grade when you called the teacher “mom” to another person.
It’s hard to imagine the form such symbols would take, and at this point I don’t really have a clear concept. Some combination of art, linguistics, neuroscience, and deep learning may approximate it, but in all likelihood our current technologies can’t quite get us there. However, I believe that it is essential to work towards in whatever way we can. The challenges that we will face over the rest of the 21st century (and hopefully beyond) will depend on our ability to communicate increasingly deep and complex ideas, to look past differences of language and culture and to focus on what we all share as humans.