All the World’s a Trading Zone, and All the Languages Merely Pidgins

In my last post I wrote:

People are different. We obviously act differently, but differences don’t start with the decision to act. We act differently because we perceive, parse, think, feel, want, need, react and judge differently. There is a substantial core of humanity in us all, but the older I get the more convinced I get that we seriously underestimate how different the inside of other people’s heads are to our own.

There was a footnote attached that grew long enough to overpower the main post, so I split it off into a new one.

Thinking about the differences between people’s inner lives and how they manifest outwardly brings to mind an article from my history of science days that I decided to re-read. Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief[1][2], by Peter Galison discusses how physicists with different specialties live in different (social) realities and what happens when they interact.

Experimentalists, theorists and instrument makers are all physicists but since they do different things and have different priorities they tend to develop their own separate vocabularies and value systems. They do have to interact sometimes for physics to progress — experiments must be run, technological systems must be built.

For this they need to establish common ground, a shared understanding of how the things they do together are to be done and what the words they use with each other mean. This, says Galison, is not trivial.

The logical positivists tried to define science as the accumulation of observations towards complete knowledge, and they failed in the end because they couldn’t construct a perfectly objective and unambiguous language in which to encode observations without tarring them with interpretation. That just isn’t how language works. The meaning of words and actions vary by context and is always in flux, so we can’t assume communicating across contexts is straightforward.

Galison calls the borderlands where the various brands of physicist interact “trading zones”. The concept is lifted from anthropology and means a place where cultures come together for the purposes of exchange and new intercultural practices and terms emerge. He says:

I intend the term trading zone to be taken seriously, as a social and intellectual mortar binding together the disunified traditions of experimenting, theorizing, and instrument building. Anthropologists are familiar with different cultures encountering one another through trade, even when the significance of the objects traded — and of the trade itself — may be utterly different for the two sides.

Practices and terms are assigned different meanings by each specialty and their meanings inside the trading zone are simplified local versions[3],  While these “skeleton concepts” are different from the ones used internally by the participating cultures, it all works out as long as everyone understands that the trading zone is a special place with special rules.

Sometimes the chasm is even greater. It happens (in history often as a result of unsavory imperial practices) that people with no language at all in common are thrown together. Over time they learn to understand each other and a combined, simplified proto-language emerges from the interaction — a pidgin language. Pidgins are not ”full” languages with maximal expressive power, and they’re no one’s mother tongue (if they develop to that point they’re called creoles).

Trading zones and pidgin languages both describe peculiar special cases in human communication: when symbols cross a boundary from one system of meaning to another, losing complexity and nuance on the way. Only a rugged, bare-bones version survives the trip and only its hardy descendants can live on the frontier[4].

But hang on just a minute. How special are these special cases? Maybe trading zones and their pidginoid vocabularies are not that special. Pidgins’ function is to facilitate coordination, and they are low-complexity representations of what has rich meaning in the original languages; ordinary languages’ function is also to facilitate coordination, and they are low-complexity representations of what has rich meaning in the speaker’s head[5].

Ok, but so what? There is a major difference between communicating across cultures and within a single culture, right?

I’m not so sure that difference is as big as it used to be. In modern pluralistic societies we’re all franken-humans, built from cultural and subcultural fragments. Unlike a hunter-gatherer tribe or old-timey farming village where everyone shares virtually all of their culture, modern western societies are experiencing unprecedented cultural fragmentation and constant recombination of symbols and meaning[6].

Take me for example. I’ve read an enormous number of books and articles, I’ve seen an enormous number of movies and tv shows and I’ve listened to an enormous amount of music. They’ve all had a hand in forming me and they are now all part of me. No one else has the same set, few even come close. We are on some level truly alone when we don’t have anyone else in the world that shares all of our cultural influences and experiences[7].

With people living in their own little one-person culture, all communication becomes cross-cultural and all social spaces start to resemble trading zones, and our languages to resemble pidgins.

• • •

Galison’s article is worth reading in full, it’s wonderful erisology — a synthesis of two models of scientific progress: incremental empiricism (of the logical positivists) and grand paradigm shifts (of Thomas Kuhn and others).

Galison’s article was an important step for myself for realizing how different people can be. We were given it and another text to read before a seminar, and the professor told us to make sure we had enough time because one of them was unusually difficult. He was right. I can barely remember what the other article was about. It was tough to trudge through the boring, pointless story full of arbitrary details about how some machinery was developed in the middle ages or the 17th century or whatever. I almost gave up.

Of course, it turned to be Galison’s article the warning was about. Note to self: try to avoid relying only on intuition and ”putting myself in their shoes” when trying to predict what other people will think and do.

This rings true to me personally. I’m an engineer working on the tech side in a consulting company and it’s entirely normal for consultants to talk about and sell complex services and technologies they don’t understand. In my experience, working in heterogeneous teams makes it clear that the marketing-meanings and the tech-meanings of terms like ”artificial intelligence”, ”algorithm”, “analysis” and ”big data” (sometimes even ”data”) are different enough that local re-negotiation is necessary.

If the frontier is eventually tamed and settled, the trading zone becomes a new system of meaning with its own natives — the pidgin becomes a creole.


The distinction between thoughts and the language they are expressed in is a thorny issue and there’s a continuum of views between “our thoughts are constructed out of language” and “our thoughts are independent of language and verbal statements are simply a representation of them”. I lean towards the latter, and I think this has something to do with my own psychology. My thoughts do not feel verbal at all, they’re more spatial, geometric and conceptual; made of shapes and relationships, not words. I usually have to work quite hard to convert them into sentences and when I do it often doesn’t feel quite right. If it’s intuitive to you that the medium of thought is language, then your mind is distinctly different from mine.

In the past individual differences in temperament, perception, predilection for various thinking styles etc. was randomly distributed across (geographically local) cultures. With increased physical mobility, niche media and the internet people can sort themselves into (sub)cultures based on psychological similarity. This is a godsend for everyone even slightly outside the mainstream, and it’s given so many of them/us a place to call home.

The downside is that cultures formed around real psychological differences build upon and reinforce those differences and therefore risk growing more disparate and mutually incomprehensible than cultures have ever been before.

At the same time everything is a click away on the internet, which makes encountering weird and outrageous statements (and other people finding your normal and sensible statements weird and outrageous) a common occurrence. Galison’s research suggests trading zones could help alleviate some of these problems, but trading zones spring up when people interact positively and repeatedly, and if people don’t need anything from each other and don’t have to learn to work together there probably won’t be any. Maybe diseased public discourse and online slap-fights are here to stay.

This is why it’s such a wonderful experience to find a writer or artist who expresses thoughts and feelings you recognize but never encountered outside yourself: there is someone out there! In a piece of meta-deliciousness, Can You Hear me Now?, a favorite by Venkatesh Rao gave me that feeling while discussing the feeling itself.


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