When first engaging with this course’s subject material, I often found myself getting lost in the thickets, so to speak. Perhaps it’s due to the unfinished/unpolished nature of Peirce’s writing, but I had a hard time wrapping my mind around some of the connection we were trying to establish between semiotic theory and its practical deployment. But this week’s reading made a lot of things click into place for me.
One of the concepts I’ve found most interesting is the dialogic and communal nature of the meaning-making process. As Floridi says, “In many respects, we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological agents and engineered artefacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere.” Interconnected is a term we’ve encountered many times throughout this course, but this was the first I’d heard of the infosphere. Analyzing now familiar semiotic concepts through Floridi’s epochal lens was fascinating. This computer science and ICT induced fourth revolution has had very significant ramifications for our self-conception as semiotic beings. I’m personally interested in the Internet of Things, so the idea of rendering inanimate objects animate struck a chord with me. What effect does this elevation of information and data, which is decidedly non-alive in the conventional sense, have on us as a society? If information and data shifts to the centre of our ideological framework, supplanting the outmoded anthropocentric (for lack of a better term) model, then anything that can be merged or interact with data and information deserves a seat at the table. This would include traditionally “dead” objects, like cars, clothes, computers and even cities. These objects are now “speaking” to us. This relates back to semiotics because we’re dealing with an inflection point of meaning. Our preexisting conception of the subjects and objects of communication, how messages are transmitted, the “language” of transmission, and the very framework with which we undertake communicative acts are all under review in this new informational age.
Allowing my mind to run free, I started to think of what the next step of this information revolution would look like. Perhaps the next generation will adhere to a neo-animist philosophy based on RFID style implantation. A sort of technological paganism. The pendulum swings back. We can already see this generational rift taking place. A smartphone means different things to a digitally native child than to their digital immigrant parent. Now imagine growing up communicating with Siri, or Alexa, or Cortana. As a tool, or a relation to the world, your way of viewing traditionally inanimate objects is going to be radically different. I was (pleasantly) surprised to see Floridi greet me at the precipice of this cliff when he said “This animation of the world will then, paradoxically, make our outlook closer to that of pre-technological cultures, which interpreted all aspects of nature as inhabited by teleological forces.”
To tie this back to our prompt, cultural context and linguistic literacy are required to effectively derive meanings from messages. I found the reading’s example of the Rosetta Stone to be particularly instructive. Even before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian hieroglyphics were always information. The Rosetta Stone was simply an interface through which their meanings could be rendered accessible to the hieroglyphically illiterate symbolic agent. This is also a useful illustration of meaning not being contained within any specific individual’s mind, as the last person to know Egyptian hieroglyphics was long dead by the time the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Meaning was created within the symbolic system once the requisite elements were integrated. The actual shapes and forms that made up hieroglyphics were more or less inconsequential. They didn’t change pre-to-post Rosetta Stone discovery, yet the ability to derive meaning from them did. Additionally, situating the transmitted symbols in the correct meaning register was necessary, which the Rosetta Stone did by placing the hieroglyphs next to Ancient Greek and Demotic language. So if I were to text someone a fully functional code to which they did not have the decoder to, meaning could not be derived because they would lack the necessary contextual or linguistic literacy.
Lastly, something that caught my attention from the readings was the question of identity in a world of mass production. When Floridi talked of “the metaphysical drift caused by the information revolution”, I was reminded of this passage from “The Conscience of the Eye” by Richard Sennett, in which he discusses the symbolism of our post-modern architectural landscape and urban planning:
“The ancient Greek could use his or her eyes to see the complexities of life. The temples, markets, playing fields, meeting places, walls, public statuary, and paintings of the ancient city represented the culture’s values in religion, politics, and family life. It would be difficult to know where in particular to go in modern London or New York to experience, say, remorse. Or were modern architects asked to design spaces that better promote democracy, they would lay down their pens; there is no modern design equivalent to the ancient assembly. Nor is it easy to conceive of places that teach the moral dimensions of sexual desire, as the Greeks learned in their gymnasiums—modern places, that is, filled with other people, a crowd of other people, rather than the near silence of the bedroom or the solitude of the psychiatrist’s coach. As materials for culture, the stones of the modern city seem badly laid by planners and architects, in that the shopping mall, the parking lot, the apartment house elevator do not suggest in their form the complexities of how people might live. What once were the experiences of places appear now as floating mental operations.” – Richard Sennett
Apart from the term “floating mental operations” reminding me of the location of meaning, the concept of identity is one I believe may hold some semiotic importance. Philosophers from Nietzsche to Georg Simmel to Louis C.K. have all discussed about the effects of modern (urban) living on an individual’s relation to not only the world around them, but to themselves. It seems to me as if a necessary part of semiotic communication and meaning-making is identity, as a person sending a message must have some conception of themselves and the identity of the intended recipient. So I believe it is worthwhile to examine how these large scale revolutionary changes to the very foundation of our society are affecting our self-perception, and how that might alter the ways we utilize language and conceive of its meaning.
- Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Irvine, Martin. Introducing Information and Communication Theory: The Context of Electrical Signals Engineering and Digital Encoding. Google Doc.
- Sennett, Richard. The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. New York: Knopf, 1990. Print.