• Valeria Lopez Torres

Instructions for Humanity

If we were to produce a manual to navigate the social world, how would we depict the complexity of our interactions, step-by-step? What instructions would we write to explain social cues and body language?


: the act or process of changing something from one form to another

[1b] : a change to a different substance, form, or appearance : conversion

In a way, our predictions of a future in which we interact with machines on the daily basis became true; but that doesn’t mean that in the 21st century, human-machine interactions happen smoothly and flawlessly. Our computers, alarm clocks, mobile devices and digital cameras are reasonably complex devices that require specifications from us to work properly. For that reason, an instruction manual is supplied with most of them.

What ever happened to the days in which owners read the manual before starting to use a device? Perhaps manuals have been replaced by common sense and empirical knowledge—and in some cases extremely good design. Yet, owners’ manuals involve a complex process in which the operation of a machine, along with its components and structure, need to be translated into a visual form that comes across in a simple way for all users. Some owner manuals are multilingual, so that a same product can be sold across different markets. In such cases, the cultural biases that translations are subject to must been taken into consideration to ensure clarity and leave no room for misinterpretation. Corporations like IKEA have taken a language-free approach on their assembly manuals and rely on diagrams and numbers to communicate their message, although numbers—and more specifically arithmetic—is a language with its own rules and syntax. In any case, the act of translation almost always involves a certain degree of loss: loss of information; a deformation.

Just as we have experience dealing with machines, we also have experience dealing with humans. Yet, humans—highly complex in their structure and operation—do not have manuals that explain how to troubleshoot in case of a conflict or unexpected situation. Instead, we come up with different ways of letting others know how we feel without the use of words. We rely then, on social cues; body language, facial expressions, and the tone of our voice. In this context, translating social cues is a complex process that gets even more difficult when there is an underlying message that is not overtly communicated.

If we were to produce a manual for the social world, how could we summarize the complexity of our social interactions on a step-by-step basis? Would we solve our problems better? Furthermore, how would we translate body language and gestures when these are highly influenced by culture?

Instructions for humanity is a playful exploration of the relationship between image and text, in a context in which both have to support one another. Photography and instructions taken from real manuals are extracted from their original environments, de-contextualized, and juxtaposed onto one another to produce an “anti-manual manual”. In a way, breaking the rules of logic and common sense shines some light on issues that constantly arise in a world in which cultures, languages, behaviors and communication styles clash.