Perice’s Semiotics and Environmental Education



This paper argues for an enhanced education design in Peirce’s theoretical work on semiotics for those working in environmental conservation initiatives. In light of the recent environmental and climate crisis, our communities are faced with a myriad of complex innovation challenges. The environmental crisis is weaved into faulted economic, technological, and social systems, which lack an understanding and foresight of our impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. A true paradigm shift is needed in environmental science and management, which is both collaborative and complex. Peirce’s work in semiotics values the complex and collaborative understandings of mapping and sharing knowledge on our universe. This paper takes the specific field of cartography as a case study for the argument. Particularly, the principles of semiotics should be applied to the use of new interactive maps such as Google Earth Maps.


“A sign is something by knowing which we know something more. The whole universe is perfused with signs,” said C.S. Peirce. Being that the whole universe is perfused with signs, it is not unusual that humans have been dedicating themselves to depicting the surrounding universe into a symbol form for thousands upon thousands of years through mapping. The complex academic work of C.S. Peirce has led to advanced work in languages, syntax, and computational work as it has enlightened the field of semiotics and provided a base for symbolic theory. As a polymath, Peirce drew connections between logic, math, and linguistics. Notably, he was also a cartographer and is known for creating the quincuncial map. His work hightlights the complex nature of our cultural connections and notes that the study of signs is in many ways the study of relationships between individuals, culture, sign vehicles, time, and the surrounding the environment. It is this focus on the complex networks of understanding that leads one to see parallels in his work with the future of environmental science, map-making, and ecological knowledge.

Throughout history, maps have been used as a symbolic meaning-making system to understand and communicate a shared environment. Maps are persuasive, political, scientific, and explanatory. Humans have culturally evolved throughout time because of our abilities to interact with representations of reality rather than true reality. Maps have allowed people to symbolically render their surrounding environments to make documentations, future plans, and share information to others in the community.

“Peirce discovered that the human social-cognitive use of signs and symbols in everything from language and mathematics to scientific instruments, images, and cultural expression provides a unifying base for understanding meaning, knowledge, learning, and what we call “progress” in developments in both sciences and arts,” (Irvine). I would propose that these principles are being largely ignored in today’s environmental movement as ecological scientists have been unable to have the resources to properly communicate environmental knowledge.

Peirce’s semiotic principals should be more widely distributed as a means for the environmental paradigm shift to begin. The affordances of Google Earth’s Web 2.0 software allows for the potential greatest cartographic collaboration in history. Google Earth attempts to subvert traditional power structures through the use of interface and an demonstrated understanding of the semiotics of maps. Peirce’s theories on semiotics can and should be applied to our analysis of interactive design in Google Earth.

Peirce Introduction

C.S. Peirce’s lifeworks revolved around the process of meaning-making and knowledge as a generative process. With every symbolic experience, one experiences a process of combinatorial information processing. “A sign that by knowing something by which you know more said Peirce. He developed an understanding of the meaning-making process as a triadic experience. This process in explained through Martin Irvine’s evaluation, “A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object [an Object of thought], as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object,” (Irvine).

Peirce expanded this notion by defining multiple different types of signs and categorizing them under icon, indexes, and symbols. Icons were defined by Peirce as, “a mere community in some quality.” Put simply, the sign would share a quality with what it was signifying and also called likenesses. Indexes were “whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact” and this indexical aspect would point in a way to the true thing it was representing. Finally, symbols were those “whose relation to their objects is an imputed character” which had general or conventional connections to the object, (Stanford).

Peirce Cartography

C.S. Peirce begins his essay A Quincuncial Projection of the Sphere, “For meteorological, magnetological and other purposes, it is convenient to
have a projection of the sphere which shall show the connection of all parts
of the surface.” In this essay, Peirce further explains his projection “is formed by transforming the stereographic projection, with a pole at infinity, by means of an elliptic function.” This map places the north and south poles as single points that are then radiated out from with mathematical precision. The map uses squares of varying sized scales from his formula to create the highly accurate spatial rendering of the sphere on the map, (Peirce).

His theoretical work was based around the logic problem of representation, which linked his interests in mapping, imaging, language, and mathematics. With his fascination in geographical mapping, he pondered the regressive element in continuity of the map image itself. He wrote,

“If a map of the entire globe was made on a sufficiently large scale, and out of doors, the map itself would be shown upon the map, and upon that image would be seen the map of the map, and so on indefinitely. If the map were to cover the entire globe, it would be an image of nothing but itself, where each point would be imaged by some other point, itself imaged by a third, etc. But a map of the heavens does not show itself at all,” (Carolyn, 300).

He often noted his own quincuncial projection map as being superior to the standard map of the time as he stated, “a Mercator’s projection shows the entire globe (except the poles) over and over again in endlessly recurring strips.” He continued, “many maps, if they were completed, would show two or more different places on the earth at each point of the map (or at any rate on a part of it), like one map drawn upon another.” His quincuncial projection map is analyzed by Pierpont as “representing one-to-one correspondence of the interior of a square by the interior of a circle of unit radius about the origin on the plane of the stereographic projection,” (Carolyn).

Peirce’s quincuncial projection map was successful as the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey recently published its principals while working on a major international plane air routes. Due to the accuracy of his map, the air routes are shown with the least distortion of any other map and in most situations are depicted as straight lines. This aids in understanding the true angles of intersection for air traffic as opposed to Mercator or the stereographic projections (Carolyn,307). This work is further built upon in digital mapping such as Google Earth Maps. While interacting with Google maps, users experience satellite rendered images that are overlaid into appropriately sized squares. These image overlays continue into smaller and smaller squares in conjunction with earth’s longitude and latitude coordinates.


Cartography and Semiotics

            Beyond his work on the quincuncial projection, all of Peirce’s semiotic work has stood as a platform for others studying the sign systems within cartography in both politics and sciences. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have created a new phenomenon in cartography as the digitization and high information based renderings of the environment has dramatically changed the work of many fields of science. Due to the increase of use and influence of such systems, it is imperative that the new users understand the fundamentals and traditional representative capabilities of cartography.

As users begin to gain an understanding of the ways in which maps have traditionally represented space, time, and other natural phenomena through expressive communicative powers, they are then aware of their own role in the semiotic process. Their meaning-making literacy goes through a meta-experience of not simply knowing what a sign stands for, but also being cogitatively aware of that process through interpretation. I would argue that this education could vastly increase political engagement and empowerment.

Ferdinand De Saussure discusses the recognition of two dimensions of meaning – the context-free and the socio-cultural value. This distinction is crucial for understanding any system of symbols that we come across. In the context of the complex meaning systems of maps, I found that socio-cultural value is key. Mapping is valued as a specific social sharing device, but in the case of GIS technology within environmental science, most citizens have no socio-cultural understanding of these maps because they lack relevant symbolic meaning. This socio-cultural component is, in many ways, a missing link in the sphere of environmental messaging. This missing link can be traced back to understanding symbols in a messaging language form. While each map acts the same in what Peirce would call its material-perceptible form, we as a collective then have the initial learned associations. However, in the triadic form, the response formed by such a map was only held within my own personal experience.

Our cumulative experiences with maps have changed throughout time simply based on our ability to change between the three basic classes of signs from icons, indexes, and symbols because of our abilities to capture the surrounding universe in different symbolic forms. While hand drawn historical maps are known for their geographical inaccuracies, we now use satellite and photo imagery to gain precise details of the planet and surrounding universe. However, it is important to remember these new and highly accurate depictions of the universe are still symbols of instances in time.

“These models are mash-ups of the iconic, indexical, and symbolic—none of which the interface makes clear, until one considers another element of the Peircian model of semiotics: that all signs must have an interprétant: an agentive, cognitive frame for reference,” writes Helmreich, (1226). In the case of Google Earth, we have a conglomerate of images and data collected by Google camera missions, satellites. publicly shared initiatives like data from environmental or oceanographic research studies, or the everyday citizen. It is here that we can see that see that systems of meaning can pre-shape what will count as a sign.

These interpretants are tools of use that have cultural influence. Helmrich futhers analyzes the role of semiotics in the Google Ocean application within the Google Earth application. He writes, “Artifacts in the data reveal some of the assumptions built into the human and machine intepretant ecology. The image of the real, filtered through the model, indexes its social and institutional conditions of possibility, underscoring the way that systems of meaning can pre-shape what will count as a sign,” (1226).


A simple example for Google Earth is the blurring of images over the government security areas or the on going security debate between countries like China and Saudi Arabia and Google. While icons, indexes and symbols are perfused across the Google Earth platform, there are interpretant experiences that already craft what type of icons, indexes, and signs the individual interpretant has access to view, (Helmreich, 1226).

This interpretant holds an immense amount of power. To further expand upon the role of the interpretant in maps and in particular Google Earth Maps, we can look at the political acknowledgements of sovereign nation-states written and highlighted on the map. These maps are not simply satellite images taken of the planet, but highly edited and stylized renderings of the world we politically associate with.

“What we have learned from Saussure is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs,” (Wood and Fels, 95). In this sense, signs allow for systems of relationships to exist through the creation of distinct working parts. In this sense we are faced with understanding the nature of systems of complexity in meaning-making systems. Wood and Fels explain this as, “what the map does (and this is its most important internal sign function) is permit systems to open and maintain a dialogue with one another,” (96). Maps form a complex systems through the distinction of these varying signs in a spatial representation of the relationships they have to one another. These distinct working parts operate interdependently acting as individual components, but also creating a hierarchal and combinatorial sign that is the map itself.

They continue that “There is nothing in the map that fails to signify,” (96). Each symbol for a river, political border, mountain is acted upon by the others. Even if there was to be a blank space left on a map, that blank space is relationally interacting with the other pieces and therefore symbolizes something. In my Fijian map example, we see just lines mostly distinguishing land from ocean. In the absence of line exist one or the other as we create the spatial representations of our universe.

Overview of Google Earth Interfaces

Google Earth provides an abundance of information for users in a variety of interfaces. It was originally only accessible via desktop but as of 2008 began to be used as a mobile app for iOS and Android. The mobile ability created a new future for Google Earth as its geolocation technologies were now used in a Web 2.0 format with mobile users producing an incredibly new amount of data. On the mobile version as well as the iPad and i-touch, Google Earth uses the multi-touch interface to explore the globe and other Google Earth spaces. The multi-touch allows for zooming and moving throughout the mapping system. It also allows for the use of the iPhone Assisted GPS to aid in crowdsourcing data.

The dependencies that must be in place for such a technology evolved from the evolution of remote sensing technology with the ability of satellites to collect data on the dimensions of earth objects below. This data is rendered into image format. This technology can be traced back to earlier remote sensing technologies combining from airplane companies such as Boeing. Google Earth users actively participate in the creation of Google Earth through taking pictures on mobile devices and also using the SketchUp software for 3D modeling. The whole program uses software to superimpose images onto the same mapping system that is interactive. The imagery is updated to higher pixels as satellite and remote sensing technologies are updated and more participants engage with the 3D rendering software, (Google Earth).

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Through the use of these interfaces, users come into contact with a varied collection of icons, indexes, and symbols. The likeness or icons are directly implemented through a number of interactive features including adding photography to street view. As users begin to create and formulate important locations on the map, they are able to make place-makers with descriptions and names in an indexical fashion. Finally, users are interacting with the varying sized squares of image information to better understand space and relational distance as the map acts as an entire symbol meaning-making system constantly creating generative cycles as each piece of symbolic representation interacts relationally with each other adding more and more meaning to each piece as other pieces are added and relationally observed.

Google Earth and Environmentalism

Every year, Google hosts the “Geo for Good” conference in which they discuss their goals as a company partnering with city planners and conservation organizations as a way to have their technologies such as Google Earth used for aiding projects for health and the environment. This partnership gives both Google and these NGO’s positive public support. Google Maps and Earth ended up beating out the competition of Map-quest and other’s such as Microsoft and Yahoo by making a bold move. Google avoided advertisements on the site and instead slowly integrated local businesses into their mapping, provided information about the business, gave indoor imaging to some, and fulfilled these partnerships through Google Business, (Geo for Good).

Distributed agency is given by those that use this technology as substantial amounts of scientists have begun employing Google Earth technology. However, the use of the mapping system is mainly for communication and cause marketing rather than scientific analysis. Because of this, conservation organizations have begun employing the technology in their campaigns. These organizations include the Jane Goodall Institute which provide digital mapping and ecosystem management visuals for potential donors and communities in areas of conservation. Beyond these NGO’s, we see that Google Earth has components such as offering traffic data thanks to crowdsourcing (The Jane Goodall Institute).

Affordances of Web 2.0

Manovich’s example of Google Earth as a Web 2.0 software opened my thoughts about our perceptions of globalization, computer technology, and the physical nature of our planet, (37). Never before has the physical space of our planet been so heavily monitored and documented nor have we had the capacity to use software as a precomputation with Google Earth users as distributed cognition. If societal advancement comes from our exceptional symbolic ability to offload cognitive memory, emotion, and logic into forms for reuse and distribution, the potential of computer technology in the form of Web 2.0 as a source of data monitoring in geography and planetary change seems infinite. As I continue to learn about technology for conservation, I am curious how to best design software for “precomputation” of environmental data and how to best use the internet for “distributed cognition.”

The use of Google Earth and other conservation technology tools are beginning to be broadly distributed by technology companies through non-profits. Using design principles to simplify products such as Android tablets, Google has been able to cross language, cultural, and educational borders to provide services and employment options to communities deeply affected by deforestation or other environmental hazards. These products have been specifically given to local communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo working on primate monitoring. If the design of these products allowed such technologies to remain “blackboxed” and mystical, such institutions as the Jane Goodall Institute would be unable to access these technologies for research purposes. Through proper training of the user, these technologies are de-blackboxed into simple experiences that allow for efficiency. This user-interface design model is the key to de-blackboxing and distributing these cognitive artifacts globally (The Jane Goodall Institute).

On a more scientific note, field data scientists are able to track the range of species and create ecological niche maps based on population densities and sprawl of the species. This saves scientists an incredible amount of time in the field and allows for data collection and visualization to be collected directly on the computer for further study. Often, this visual data is used for forest monitoring and even carbon credit analysis.

Furthermore, this visualization allows for conservation organizations such as Earthwatch Expeditions to explore citizen science projects and educational sessions within classrooms. This organization uses Google Earth to reach a wide range of individuals by placing markers on participants’ local Google Earth maps that explain an ecological issue facing their environment. It then gives information about how the citizen can collect simple data or pictures of the area for scientists looking to build their research, (The Jane Goodall Institute).

One of the grand affordances of Google Earth Maps is the Web 2.0 functionality and “Google Earth Community.” The program allows citizen participants to engage in the social network of the Google Maps by making placemakers and contributing to central community knowledge of certain locations. Of course, this function does need to be monitored as any one can contribute individual knowledge that may be false or inaccurate to the local cultural standards. One such example is individuals have be observed placing false business locations in an attempt to boost advertising. However, this function is mostly used appropriately. Community members can even create overlays which can provide augmentations of their local street view or even storm paths.

Increased Semiotic Education in Environmental Projects

“We are able to store and forward symbolic thought from one generation to many others. Enabling a cumulative cultural ‘ratchet effect’ also known as ‘progress,’” (Irvine). This storage through time allows for the cumulative process in which all symbol systems evolve including maps that are known to hold the knowledge of geographical landmarks, political boundaries, and pathways to resources. The knowledge within these maps are also made from societal needs and created from the knowledge of many members of communities. They are created to be referenced over and shared throughout time while still holding the knowledge of a time in which they were created.

If we are to hope for any sort of amelioration for the environmental crises, we must employ this type of thinking into our environmental management and mapping projects. As there has been a movement towards creating distributed cognition in environmentally threatened sites through citizen-engaged projects. As the realm of environmental science is reaching out and engaging with those not trained in some of the symbolism, icons, and indexes known to the niche group of environmental scientists in the area, it has become more important than ever to not simply teach meaning to contributing citizens, but also teach the project team and citizens the meaning-making frameworks. The semiotic work of C.S. Peirce is largely overlooked in active fields of environmental science, but as stated, Peirce is potentially one of the greatest minds in foundational scientific thought.

Overall, it is imperative that citizens contributing to the Google Earth Maps have had an education in Perice’s theories of semiotics. Through the dissemination of these concepts, citizens participating in citizen science initiatives through interacting and adding to Google Earth Maps can better involve themselves in the collective symbolic creation and interpretation of the signs and symbols of interactive digital mapping. With these principles, citizens and scientists can both be reflexive about their own patterns of understanding the cartographic information in front of them and progressive in their work to collect, interpret, and disseminate their own work.



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Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. 1911-1916. English translation by Wade Baskin, 1959. Excerpts.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 2013.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Peirce’s Theory of Signs. Stanford University. 2006.

Peirce, C.S., A Quincuncial Projection of the Sphere. American Journal of Mathematics. 1879.

Eisele, Carolyn. Charles S. Peirce and the Problem of Map-Projection. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 1963.

Helmreich Stefan. From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures. Social Research. 2011.

Fels, John. Wood, Denis. Designs on signs. Myth and meaning in maps. North Carolina State Univeristy.

Google Earth. 2016.

Geo For Good. 2016

Pintea, Lillian. The Jane Goodall Institute. 2015.