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Tibetan taggers

This is a couple of years old, but it’s interesting. (Thanks to Norm Jacknis for the tip.)

Tibetans living in Switzerland and non-Tibetan Swiss were asked to provide tags for an exhibit of traditional Tibetan work. Then those tags were analyzed, wondering what cultural differences might show up. Some were fairly obvious:

Taggers disagreed in their perceptions of the esoteric deity Chakrasamvara. Tibetans tagged it frequently with “buddha”, accurately identifying its wisdom aspect; however, Swiss Germans found it böse or “angry-looking” and associated it with death. This exemplifies how tags can help uncover cultural misunderstandings: rather than anger, Chakrasamvara actually embodies the union of bliss and emptiness.

It also revealed (or suggests) some differences in how people approach tagging itself:

When Tibetans were asked which images were easiest to tag and why, their responses were contradictory. One person said artworks she knew were easy to tag because she already has something to say about them. Another found unfamiliar works easier to tag because they seemed “freer” The rating indicates that symbolic and familiar works do elicit less diverse responses from Tibetan taggers. And although some people may find them easier to tag because their meanings are culturally pre-defined, the way in which viewers react to them is likely to be less personal and even “less free.”

2 Responses to “Tibetan taggers”

  1. Some images and artworks are iconic and culturally specific. The images reflect the precepts of a specific religious system. Without the necessary religious context, the images are misinterpreted or interpreted according to the cultural contexts of the observer.

    A statue of a woman with multiple arms or a tantric image of male and female making love have specific religious, cultural, and contextual meanings for buddhists that westerners may not be able to access without adequate information about buddhism.

    Other images are less culturally dependent and more universal and archetypal. Circles, crosses, rivers, and tempests are common aspects of many different cultures and so can be more readily accessed by members of different cultural groups. They still, however, may be interpreted through the cultural filters of the observer.

    In the quest toward omniscience, there is a need to preserve unique cultural inflections while simultaneously transcending cultural contexts in order to apprehend universal archetypes and truths.

    In the archetypal viewpoint, there are many expressions of one principle. In the cultural viewpoint, the culture of an observer is given priority and often exclusivity over the expressions of other observers from other cultures.

    We may choose to recognize that all colors blend into the wholeness of white light, or we may choose to defend one color above others by either a missionary program to convert other colors (cultures) to our own, or by an imperialistic program to eliminate other colors (cultures) by force.

    The archetypal, however, outlasts the cultural. In Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, the sands outlast the culture of the King. As older cultural expressions fade into exhibits at museums, new cultural inflections are born.

    And so the plays of Shakespeare are not merely iconic expressions of Elizabethan culture, but they are archetypal expressions of universal human truths and mysteries.

    Despite the groundbreaking writings of Carl Jung, the modern world remains fiercely cultural and archetypally ignorant.

    The promise of the technology of the internet, is that it can become a technology of archetypal significance rather than a technology of merely cultural disseminations. Can technology open viewpoints that transcend cultural restrictions, or will it seek to annihilate some cultures to promote a hegemony of other cultures.

    My greatest fear of all is that the culture of technology itself will replace all other cultural expressions. Neither the King, nor the Pope, nor the President, nor the CEO rules; the internet rules.

    And so isn’t the internet just another structure of power for a different and emerging cultural group. A group that understands tags and pixels and a programming language that few others can read or interpret?

  2. This is obviously interesting, but the flaw, as in much tagging research, is to divorce the act of tagging from the social context. Ethnicity is obvious a social factor but, for tagging, the key questions are about why people are doing it, and what sort of group that incentive creates.

    In this case, the participants were selected and then *asked* to tag the images. That’s an inherently artificial situation. One might design a similar experiment where you brought together a group of people, gave them a fake social network and told them to “friend” some of the other people on it. What would that tell you about online social networking? Not much, I think.

    More interesting would be to collect what people tagged these images who were drawn to do so. My guess is that, Tibetan or not, the people who’d spend time tagging images of this sort would be much more likely to appreciate it from an “inside” angle. Again, however, it would all depend on why they were doing it. In the case of museum objects, I haven’t seen anything that worked–a motivation that’s drawn a really useful number of tags. For I at least don’t think tags mean much until you have a lot of them.

    My anecdote, showing a similar effect. On LibraryThing the “Ireland” tag is disproportionately fixated on Angela’s Ashes. Irish people groan at that but, well, there are more Americans on LibraryThing than Irish people. (And Irish people don’t necessary tag their stuff as “Irish” to the same degree.)

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