Peirce and WIPP

While reading this week, I found myself frequently searching for concrete examples to help me understand the principles. The primary real-world example that came to mind and can be thought through using these fundamental ideas is an undertaking by the U.S. Department of Energy for its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The site stores waste from nuclear research. (Blissymbols also provided food for thought, but I got the most out of WIPP.)

In the 1990s, the Department of Energy convened a group of experts from a range of disciplines (including linguists, artists, and more) to create a warning system for the WIPP site in the desert of New Mexico. Their aim was to develop “markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion,” according to the final report published by Sandia National Laboratories. The system had to be designed to stop visitors from stumbling into nuclear waste for the next 10,000 years—the period in which the location would be potentially unsafe.

Not only did the expert group have to engineer something that would last physically for that time, but the team also had to design something that would have meaning that far into the future. The executive summary of the full report puts this in clear terms:

The site must be marked in such a manner that its purpose cannot be mistaken.

A marking system must be utilized. By this we mean that components of the marking system relate to one another is such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The most developed design proposals are focused on so-called “earthen berms” of an extremely large scale that mark the dangerous area and, as the executive summary describes, set “the tone for the entire landscape — non-natural, ominous, and repulsive.” There are some terrific sketches of the site in the reports; here is one example:

The expert group also suggested that the area include linguistic messages such as this one:

The designers understood that symbols or general signs, to use Peirce’s terms, would change over time (although, apparently Edvard Munch has a 10,000-year-long reach). They included a message to future viewers about language to illustrate this point: “If the marker is difficult to read, add new markers in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak” (italics in original). And the designers recommended conveying the warnings in a way that would ensure they would be understood across cultures and time:

We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made . . . in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication.

To use Peirce’s terms, both the linguistic and non-linguistic messages recommended for WIPP are representamen, the material-perceptible forms of the unseen object (or the concept/signified thing, I believe de Saussure would say)—in the case of WIPP, the invisible object/concept is the idea of danger or harm. I believe the berms—the physical structures built into the site—would be indications or indices, using Peirce’s terminology, because they physically create a dangerous environment. (Or are they likenesses/icons?) The messages written in words are symbols/general signs that are understandable only in the context of English language conventions and usage. If we or the future inhabitants of New Mexico see these various representamen, we will in theory understand that the area we are entering is dangerous and make a connection to the unseen object we all understand—a response known as the interpretant. (Have I understood things properly?)

This example helped me think through those terms, but it also raised more questions.* A common thread throughout all of the readings this week seemed to be that the human community shares an understanding of what is known as the object in some cases. Different cultures may have different ways of expressing these concepts/objects and may create a variety of artifacts—as Cole, Engelbart, and others termed them—but some fundamental, invisible objects/concepts exist across cultural barriers (correct?). The designers of the WIPP site seem to believe that spiky earthen structures are the representamen most likely to convey the concept of harm across thousands of years and to a range of cultures, and that the concept of harm is a fundamental human characteristic. Is it the case generally that indicators/indices (or likenesses/icons, if my original thought is incorrect) are the most universal kinds of signs? Or is there something more fundamental than that?

To take the questioning further, the designs put forward seem to assume that those creatures coming to the site in the future will be of our shared human background. What if they aren’t? Will they still understand these concepts if there is not a shared legacy of communal memory-making upon which to draw? Or would the site, for instance, need to be capable of actually inflicting harm to convey that message? This may well stretch beyond the pale, but these and other thoughts came to mind as I grappled with the principles and examples this week.

*These aren’t my only questions. I have other, more specific questions about the texts that I’ll ask in class if the topics don’t come up.

Key Works Cited

99% Invisible. “Designing a Nuclear Waste Warning Symbol That Will Still Make Sense in 10,000 Years.” Slate, May 14, 2014.

“Blissymbolics Communication International.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Department of Energy. “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Irvine, Martin, ed. “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: Key Writings.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Trauth, Kathleen M.,  Stephen C. Hera, and Robert V. Guzowsti. “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Sandia Report. Albuquerque, New Mexico and Livermore, California: Sandia National Laboratories, United States Department of Energy, November 1993.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. “WIPP Exhibit: Message to 12,000 A.D.” Accessed September 5, 2016.,000%20a_d.htm.