Wednesday 6/27: Umwelt

Professor Ruby pointed out today that I am drawing my self-portrait tilted, in much the same way that my chair was tilted. At this point, there’s not much to be done about that, and I think it makes it a more effective representation of how I see myself. I spent much of my childhood playing with beagles: is it really surprising that I tilt my head when I’m thinking hard?

Biosemiotician Jakob von Uexküll has theorized that different creatures can have an entirely different experience of the same environment based on their differing sensory capacities. A jellyfish has a different sense of the ocean than a shark does, which is different from the way that a blue whale or a crab understands its environment. This notion of a self-centered environment is called umwelt in semiotics; it’s a clear descendant of various views of perception dating from 16th century philosophy and earlier.

Umwelt is the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds. Everything about you shapes the world you inhabit–from your ideology to your glasses prescription to your web browser

One of the better illustrations of this point that I’ve ever seen is this xkcd comic, which has the above quote as alternate text. Open that link in a few different browsers and on different devices. (For the lazy, a few versions are collected here.) There are dozens of different versions of this comic, and the site chooses a version to display based on your browser, the size of your browser window, the location associated with your IP address, the website that referred you to the page, and lots of other variables.

My environment

I’m struggling with the shape of my glasses and my lips right now, but I’m encouraged in that struggle by realizing that everything I draw accurately and everything I convey about the way that I sense things is helping me to explain my experience of the world and the way I interact with my environment. I spent three hours this morning on it, two this afternoon, and half an hour late at night in which I made actual progress.

Burning the midnight oil to get my glasses right


One response »

  1. Great explanation of umwelt, and I think about micro umwelt–the way a singular animal’s approach (in a shared world) might be framed by the specific time of day, the light conditions, your hunger level– ie how you see “yourself” in the framework/conditions of physical world. Expansive idea!

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