Symbolic acts such as doffing ones hat, throwing a gauntlet, offering a wedding ring, bowing and shaking hands are associated with a very rigid social systems: heraldic knights threw gauntlets, handshakes are reserved for the formality of corporate boardrooms, and bowing is still appropriate in the presence of a the queen. Ring exchanging in western marriages is associated with the socially-enforced and formal act of bonding for life.
Yet symbolic acts are proliferating with the use of networking applications. ‘Friending’ someone or ’liking’ their post is an interaction, and they even come, in the ‘Facebook’ image with the icon of a hand in the act of a ‘thumbs up’ or an ‘new head’, as though a universal physical gesture is involved.
Habermas and Artaud, Lanier and Benjamin all theorized on a new artificial language, related to technological change in some cases, where symbols would be used in an ideal communication that was primarily visual – thus there could not be any untruths or misunderstandings associated with words, which could be interpreted in many ways and also used to deceive.
These idealists were right: hypermedia graphics present a language truth. The semiotic language proliferates in road signage as it is a context in which it is vital that language be interpreted clearly and immediately. Perhaps increasing demands for rapidity in interaction is why it gains popularity online. There is only one way to interpret doffing a hat, and there is only one way to interpret someone accepting your ‘friend’ request. It can be understood as passivity is a negative response and any other response is positive.
The symbolic acts are different however, because they are not binding. Sending emails, ‘friending’ someone, running an application, or posting a photo are not associated with the formality of real symbolic acts. They are too easily done and too easily be undone. And it can be argued that they represent reasonably temporary commitments.
At the same time, the acts can be easily be seen by many people and then socially enforced, e.g. if you ‘friend’ the wrong person, your friends may comment on your choice. A new expansion of the public, the iron fist of social rules, into the realm of the private, to such a great extent it is as if ‘hat doffing’ had undergone flourishing revival.
Theorists such as Gombrich have ousted the idea of an ‘evolutionism’, or that contemporary art is more realistic and evolved than primitive art. They favour the an idea that representation is a different, culturally acquired way of seeing the world.
In a parallel argument, the language of Hypermedia cannot be considered not any more evolved medium of expression than print or cinema, Manovich stated. Arguably, speech has evolved from grunts to rhetoric to sound bytes, but even this may or may not be ‘evolution’. Manovich claimed that human machine interface (HCI) is ‘not necessarily suitable as a cultural machine.’
While not the ideal communication proposed by many people around the turn of the century, hypermedia ‘symbolic acts’ constitutes a substantial change. The change amounts to the equivalent of being presented with a virtual wedding ring every day of your life so that the real presentation of a wedding ring feels redundant.
Additionally one must note that if indeed words are being replaced in the profusion of symbolic acts, our vocabulary has shrunk to what Lev Manovich calls a ‘few tools and commands’.
What is necessary then, is for artists to develop a larger vocabulary of symbolic acts to adapt the new language of ‘gesture icons’ to something equally poignant and varied enough to express a gradation of emotions more intense and subtle than ‘liking’ or not.