Cultural Differences

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


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.


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.


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.