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Cultural Differences

An artist and a technologist pair up to find the cultural meaning of words through pictures

by Karen Day in Tech on 16 April 2012

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Recently presented at Rhizome's annual Seven on Seven conference, Aaron Swartz and Taryn Simon's "Cultural Differences" application culls the top six photos from a Google image search for a specific word in 15 countries, displaying a visual comparison of its meaning among an array of different nations.

The concept was born to follow the conference's purpose of pairing a technologist with an artist to see what they can make in a mere 24-hour time frame. "Cultural Differences" highlights the incredibly talented and informed pair's individual interests while showing where they connect. Swartz, a brilliant programmer and activist played to Simon's background as a photographer concerned with exposing truths.

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While they'd like to expand the app to cover every country, the duo began with the randomly organized selection of 15 currently shown on the site. The user simply types a word into the search field and hits enter to get a pictorial portrayal of how each culture sees the word. Swartz and Simon pointed out in the presentation that Obama yields a variety of results—while most are classic presidential images, in Syria Obama is linked to Beyonce and North Korea obviously prohibits any images of the American president. For the word "Jew" a variety of images pops up in various countries, but in Germany, the word for "Jew" is "Jude", bringing up nothing but images of Jude Law with that search.

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All politics aside, the app is a valuable tool for designers, who can immediately see that, for example, in Saudi Arabia, a search for an Eames chair generates few relevant results. By gleaning results from each nation's local search engine, Swartz and Simon's app refines results, thus usurping the limited scope of a Google image search.

Conceived and developed in less than a day, "Cultural Differences" marks an impressive concept sure to entertain, enlighten and inspire new ways of visually contrasting cultural conversations through simple technology.

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