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Your English Teacher Was Right. Everything Holds a Deeper Meaning. And Here’s Why.

Flashback time. Late 90s. A dozen employees sit scattered under ceiling fans that swivel soundlessly except for the occasional clicking noise. Atop each desk sit a number of standard items.

Two large trays tasked with holding the files that come more than they and go; one labelled ‘IN’ and the other ‘OUT’. A half-used ink bottle, a pen stand and a chipped paper weight huddle together. The water jug and the glass too hold their own uncompromised space.

The office boy stands by the desk of an official, who sits slouched over, skimming through a file that needs to go out with his signature. Two desks adjacent to his sit empty. But they will fill out again when the sales associates return from a meeting that is currently being held half way across the city.

Next minute, the monotony breaks. A boy in his late teens swings into the room with a metal mesh holder, within which nestle steaming glasses of cutting chai. Moving through the room, he places one next to every employee who gladly takes the glass and turns to his nearest colleague, eager to discuss the match from last evening.

Now fast forward to today.

Five dozen employees sit sectioned off by cubicles, the air held steady by central air conditioning. The standard presence of a laptop on each desk has thrown the existence of paperwork into question. A few feet away, glass cubicles individually host workers on video calls with clients.

Chai time has been traded in for a shiny beverage vending machine. A few taps on its touch screen, and the nozzle dispenses a fixed formula into a dinky paper cup. The choice is between draining the cup right there, or taking it back to your desk to sip while you work.

What do you think of the two visuals?

For one, they’re common knowledge. We immediately recognise them as two different work cultures.

The former represents the time before automation took hold of the Indian office set-up. Work was almost a group activity. Processes were people-led. Human interaction was at the forefront. Inefficiency may have been second nature, but things got done.

The latter is a rough sketch of what a corporate work environment typically looks like today. Productivity and efficiency are central to the modus operandi. Technology has become the unchallenged middleman of human communication. Overall, there exists a perpetual pursuit of the instantaneous.

Each culture has its distinct markers so there is no way to confuse the two. And plucking an element out of one ecosystem to integrate it with the other will create a set-up that is neither here nor there. Because each element is a ‘cultural artefact’.

Cultural Semiotics understands an artefact as “everything which is a result of intentional behaviour, whether this particular result is itself intended or not… [and] most often produced in order to fulfil a particular function”.

Consider this concept through the evolution of an element common to both visuals above: the cup of tea.

When the intended behavioural code was human-centred, all comprising elements arranged themselves accordingly. Therefore, tea was prepared by the approximate measures of the human hand, varied in taste every so slightly every day, and had carved up its own time slot and daily significance, regardless of the differing workloads of employees.

And when mainstream culture began to favour the behavioural code of productivity, tea was no longer awarded the same kind of importance. There no more existed a community ritual surrounding it. The employee could now choose to drink the exact same kind of tea, suited to their taste, every day.

Therefore, despite remaining constant in its rudimentary function – to refresh the drinker during their work day – the beverage has come to present itself differently to align with the cultural re-imagining of the day.

Where does that leave us?

This explorative exercise is one of the many examples of how a collective mind space can turn a simple (often functional) element into a cultural artefact.

And finally, it urges the consideration of every object as pointing to something greater than itself.