Have you transcended the Umwelt today?

Transcending the Umwelt

If you’re wondering what that is and why it matters, the Umwelt is a way of thinking and feeling that is specific to individual brains of different species, (and artificial intelligence).  Transcending your own Umwelt to understand others is crucial to being a planner and creating great communications for brands.  Understanding the Umwelt of power is crucial for your career.  Empathising with the Umwelts of others is the key to creating diversity of thinking in your organisation.  Being clear about the Umwelt of AI  is important to maintain your edge.   

Jakob Johann von Uexkull was a German biologist who first coined the term Umwelt to explain how different organisms perceive life because of their particular biological characteristics and their environments.

For instance, as animal behaviourist Con Slobodchikoff explains, bees and some birds see in ultraviolet but humans don’t.  Dogs have a million times better ability to detect different smells than we do.  Bats, dolphins, dogs and cats can hear ultrasonic sounds that we can’t, or at least most of us.  If you are under 25 then you can detect sounds that older people cannot and as a result of understanding here there exists an anti-loitering product on the market that makes noises undetectable by most people to deter teenagers from hanging about and behaving badly in public spaces. 

Uexkull called the worlds that every organism exists in their Umwelt.

In The Book of Minds, Philip Ball shows how different umwelts transform how we react to things.  For example, if you are in a dark and sinister forest, and are a bit lost, a woodland path is a relief, a sign of civilisation.  If on the other hand you are a vole the path is an open space, and therefore dangerous, as you might be swooped on by a predator, whereas the more vegetated areas are safer.   The Umwelt shapes how you react to things, and even how you imagine things.  A teacup placed to close to the edge of a table will make most people instinctively reach out to prevent it falling.  A gerbil is unlikely to be bothered by this.

The Umwelt that you belong to differs not just between species but also from human to human. 

This starts to explain how one person may instinctively, and perhaps incomprehensibly, react differently to another person to the same scenario.

The craft of planning relies on understanding signals and interpreting them to connect with audiences.  The skill of leadership requires empathy, listening and understanding of people who are gloriously different from each other.

If we fully embrace the concept that we each have our own Umwelt, based on background, circumstances, our friends, family, level of privilege and education, regionality, gender, age and sexuality (and all the other things that make us different), we will become better at communicating both commercially, and in creating a sense of belonging and inclusion at work.

We don’t resent the octopus for having a different outlook and Umwelt from our own.  We don’t disrespect dolphins for their differences.  The popularity of David Attenborough proves our innate curiosity and love of different worlds.

Sharing the workplace with diverse teams of people and creating work that different audiences will respond to is rewarding. 

As the Economist writes, thinking of AI in human terms is understandable.  But it is wrong.  ChatGPT doesn’t “hallucinate” when it gives an erroneous answer to our questions – it follows the logic of how it has been programmed.  Hallucinations happen to people, not robots.

Love the Umwelts, transcend your own Umwelt.

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