Meanings matter to people.

Meanings are our symbolic representation of the world. They help us make sense of life and communicate with each other.

We constantly define, interpret, translate and express meanings. Often unconsciously, usually implicitly.

Many philosophers and psychologists would say that meaning-making is an intrinsically human activity. In fact, possibly, THE defining human activity.

But that’s changing.

In the future, we will need to share meanings with computers, artificial intelligence and robots. And that makes meanings matter even more.

Why now?

In the past, computers didn’t participate in the human world. We programmed them little simulated worlds in their own language. They figured stuff out in that world, and then passed a result back for us to use in our world. Remember the old saying: garbage in, garbage out.

But now, computing objects are coming into our world. They are sensing what is going on around them in real-time and being asked to respond directly in our own language.

Our non-human companions not only need to sense, they need to make sense. They need to smell the rotting garbage and throw it out.

Computers won’t be human. They won’t have human consciousness. But they will have sentience, the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.

We don’t think like computers and computers don’t think like us. But we will need a shared language to communicate between our ways of thinking and making sense of the world.

And I think that shared language just might be meanings.

Making meanings explicit and systematic

Spoken language is the first frontier for human-nonhuman communication. Anybody living with Alexa or Google Home is getting a glimpse of how talking to your computer changes the relationship.

But we are also painfully aware of the limitations of that language. So much meaning doesn’t live on the page, but in the implicit and unspoken. Words are limited and limiting.

Meanings are rich, contextual, shared. They create relationships, communities, cultures, markets.

Meanings are also easy to dismiss as transient, invisible, abstract, difficult.

But as they become the de-facto currency of collaboration with technology, we need to acknowledge they exist, understand more how they come to be, and learn how to create new ones more effectively.

From the accidental to the systemic. From the shadow to the light.

From human centred design to meaning centred design

At a recent event, I told fashion designers that technology in the future will need its own clothing. Our computers will need fashion and accessories to participate effectively in this world.

We will need to understand the subjective experience of these sentient, but non-human objects. When they are confused and overwhelmed. When they need our care and attention. When they have a new perspective to offer that could improve, or even save, our lives.

To do this, we will need to understand our own meanings, and translate them to machines, so the machines understand humans. And we will need to translate meanings back, so humans understand the machines.

Is your business prepared to think about meanings and technology in this way? Probably not, but it’s time to get started.

Because meanings matter to people. But meanings will matter to the robots, too.