Author Archives: Carson Collier

The Digital Journey of an Oyster: Trying to understand meaning through replication by means of 3D printing (Carson Collier)


In this paper, I deconstruct the replication process of a symbol by means of 3D printing. I do this hoping to try and improve our understanding of the meaning making process. Using archaeological remains, I observe the relationship between the symbol and it’s meaning across various platforms of hardware and software that are used in the 3D printing process. I have also provided a list of the hardware and software mentioned in this paper with a few sentences providing a description of main functions.

Hardware and Software:

NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner
The NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner is a table top scanner used to create raw mesh of different 3D objects.

ScanStudio HD
ScanStudio HD is the application that comes packaged with the NextEngine HD Laser Scanner. This application is used for maintaining the scanners hardware, as well as editing and aligning the raw mesh outputs from the scanner.

Meshmixer is a free software application for creating and editing triangle meshes.

MakerBot Replicator+
The MakerBot Replicator+ is a desktop 3D printer. MakerBot provides their own software for all of their printers. The software is used to resize the object if needed and prepare the object for print.

Bongo- Rhino
Rhino is a design software for creating animations.


“Objects made by humans can always be copied by humans” – Benjamin, W. (2010)

Creation and replication have always been key components in human culture. Humans can create things that are physical or abstract, and apply meaning to them. In turn, creating a symbol. Once a symbol is created, it can be replicated repeatedly throughout different mediums. One means of replication is through the use of technology, more specifically, 3D printing. In his thesis, “3D Printing: Convergences, Frictions, Fluidity” Robert Ree explains 3D printed objects as “ technological reproductions of an original digital artifact by means of the process of layerization” (2011, p.69). Layerization is the process of slicing digital models and building them back up one layer at a time. The process that the symbol as a whole goes through to achieve this replication is complex. Therefore, I am applying Alan Kay’s idea of utilizing doing, images, and symbols to build and learn more about the meaning making behind certain symbols (Kay, 1977, p. 230-244). In the following pages I will try my best to take apart the process of replication of archaeological remains by the means of 3D printing and look at each step individually. I believe doing so would not only give a clearer picture of the 3D replication process itself, but support the idea that 3D printing promotes interaction with symbols and can improve the understanding of the meaning making process.

The Replication Process

Selecting an Object: An Introduction to the Eastern Oyster

This process begins with choosing physical objects that someone would want to scan. These objects could range from artifacts, things created by humans, to faunal remains, bones leftover from various animals. This first step of choosing an object brings up a few questions. What is going to be scanned? And why is X object going to be scanned? The “What” portion of this step does not only refer to what the object literally is, but also, what does this object represent. For example, many oyster shells have been found at multiple archaeological sites around the historic Jamestown Settlement located in Jamestown, Virginia. At first, this seems like an obvious find, considering that Jamestown is located on the Chesapeake Bay, home to the Eastern Oyster, Crassostrea virginica. However, these oyster shells hold meaning. Since oysters were so abundant when the Jamestown settlers arrived, they quickly became known as a poor mans meal. During times of political and economic crisis people were “reduced to eating oysters.” Therefore, layers with more oyster shells are associated with times of hardship (Wennersten, 2007).


Before the scanning process even begins, the object (the oyster shell) holds multiple meanings. Peirce’s triadic model distinguishes three ways in which a sign can refer to any object: the relation can be iconic, indexical, or symbolic. The iconic signs represent their objects by virtue of a relation of similarity. Indexical signs refer to and are influenced by the objects with which they share various qualities. Lastly, symbolic signs are bound up with their objects by virtue of a convention. To the Jamestown settlers the whole oyster is a symbolic sign, representing a lower standard of living. Meanwhile, to the archaeologists working at Jamestown the oyster shell alone holds the symbolic value. They are some of the only remains leftover from years of decomposition that have the ability to share a story (Jorgensen, 1993, p. 92).

Preparing the Object for Scanning:

Now that the object is selected, the next step is preparing the object for scanning. This step is where the meaning of the object starts to become separated from the object itself. At this point, we are not looking at a “symbol of hardship”, but an actual oyster shell. It becomes a question of practicality. What is the best way to set t up the oyster shell on the scanner to receive the best output? Is the oyster shell shiny enough to where it would reflect the scanner’s laser elsewhere, causing a poor scan? Fortunately, oyster shells are relatively easy to work with. However, preparing a small icon for scan may have been more difficult. If it is made out of a reflective material, like metal or some type of gemstone, this can cause the scanner to do a poor job. In order to resolve this problem, it is recommended that a light powder is applied to the object to give it a matte texture that is much easier to scan. The new challenge that arises from this is whether or not powdering the icon takes away from its cultural significance or cause staining. Again, this is where the meaning associated with the object and the object itself gradually start to separate from one another.

Scanner Output:

Using the NextEngine HD Laser Scanner, the oyster’s scan data was captured as sets of XYZ points and converted to a hollow triangle mesh. Without this mesh generating surface technology, all of the XYZ points collected during the scan would just be points placed on a grid with no relation to one another. In “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation” Conery addresses the need for agents in computing, “clearly there must be some structure to the computation, otherwise one could claim any connection of random symbols to a constituted state” (2002, p. 814-816). I believe that the automatic meshing of the XYZ points is a very literal example of what Conery is talking about. The software takes an extra step in order to ensure the 3D object can be recognized by the user, keeping the relationship between the object and the user intact. If the XYZ points did not share this relation with one another not only would it have been hard to see the oyster shell, it would have been very difficult to edit. Also, to ensure all of the scan data is captured, multiple scans are executed. Therefore, producing multiple copies of the oyster shell.

Cleaning & Aligning:

In order to create the completed 3D replica of the oyster shell, the multiple scans of the oyster shell needed to be cleaned up and aligned manually. This was done using ScanStudio HD software. Cleaning up a 3D object consist of taking out any noise that was unintentionally collected during the scanning process. The term ‘noise’ includes any particles of light, or objects in the background that the scanner picked up during the scan. Next, these images need to be aligned. The process of aligning consist of picking out identical features from each scan to use as reference points when combining all of the scans. During this process, the user is constantly zooming in and out of the object trying to find identical points to utilize for aligning. Zooming in and out of the oyster shell created a new kind of relationship between myself and the oyster shell. At this time, the cleaning and aligning process allowed the oyster shell to be completely removed from the meaning it has been associated with coming into this process. This may sound unfortunate, but it is necessary for completing the whole 3D replica.

Fusing & Completing:

After all of the 3D scans have been cleaned and aligned, the oyster shell needed to be fused. ScanStudio HD provides a fusing tool, however Meshmixer is my preferred platform, due to the higher quality output Meshmixer provides. Fusing an object is necessary to make the 3D replica solid and ready for print or animating. This adds a new layer to the layerization process mentioned in the introduction. When the fusing process is finished, the 3D replica of the oyster shell is now an almost identical digital copy of the original. This is where the meaning that was lost during the editing period could be restored to the digital object. Unlike the original oyster shell that will always have a pre-existing meaning, the 3D replica holds multiple possibilities for new meanings.


Once the 3D replica is complete, there are a number of possible outputs that you could utilize across multiple mediums. The outputs that I will address are, a simple STL or OBJ file, an animation, and a 3D print.


STL (Standard Tessellation Language) and OBJ (Object file) are two kinds of formats used for 3D files. Keeping a 3D replica in one of these simple file formats lets a user share, copy, or edit the file with ease. Which allows the people they shared their file with to also interact with the file by sharing, copying, or editing the file and so on.


Animations of 3D replicas provide a dynamic digital medium of the original object. Animations can be created using software like Rhino and can be shared digitally with ease.


3D Printing

A 3D print of a replica would allow a user to produce a tangible copy of the original object. This printed replica could be left as is, painted to look like the original, or turned into something completely different. Replicas can also be minimized, enlarged, or printed as actual size.


Who Am I?

The oyster shell mentioned above and other 3D printed replicas of faunal remains were used as a part of a game I created, called “Who Am I?”, to educate students about the different species living around the Chesapeake Bay during colonial times. On the front of the card is the 3D printed replica of a faunal remain, as well as some clues for guessing what kind of species the remains come from. On the back of the card is a picture of the species the the 3D printed replica is associated with. The process of playing this game and interpreting the clues in your own way can be associated with active externalism. Clark and Chalmers describe active externalism as the two-way interaction between a human organism and an external entity, creating a coupled system. This system that is created through active externalism is used to answer the question of “Who Am I?” (Clark & Chalmers, 1998; p. 7-19).







All of the steps listed above provide a setting for the user to alter the object in their own way. This agency is interesting because it could easily cause the original meaning behind the object to change. These new meanings are at then determined by the environment surrounding the new copy of the replica. This idea coincides with Simon’s thoughts in “The Sciences of the Artificial” (1996) Simon’s theories about computing discuss the idea that each function only becomes relevant once it is applied to the whole system. Understand that trying to single out one of the various steps listed above is meaningless until it is added to the larger system, is a step in the right direction for understanding the meaning making process as a whole. It is important to point out that this paper only focused on replicating an object that already held a symbolic meaning. Taking a step back and thinking about the creation of an object by the means of 3D design could be even more beneficial for researching the meaning making process.

…whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face of reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction… Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations to which the original itself cannot attain (Benjamin, 2010; p. 13).

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (2010). The works of art in the age of its technological reproducibility (W. Jennings Trans.). (39th ed.) Grey Room.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(no. 1), 7-19.

Conery, J. (2002) “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation.” The Computer Journal 55, no.7. p.814-816.

Jorgensen, K. G. (1993). The shortest way between two points is a good idea: Signs, peirce, and theorematic machines. In P. Anderson, & (Eds.), The computer as medium (pp. 92) The Cambridge University Press.

Kay, A. (1977). Microelectronics and the personal computer. Scientific American, 237(NO. 3), 230-244.

Martin, I. (2016). The grammar of meaning systems: Sign systems, symbolic cognition, and semiotics. Unpublished manuscript.

NextEngine- ScanStudio- surface technology. Retrieved December, 2016, from

Ree, R. (2011). 3D printing: Convergences, frictions, fluidity. (Masters of Information, University of Toronto).

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. MIT Press, 3.

Wennersten, J. (2007). The oyster wars of the chesapeake bay. Follow the water Eastern Branch Press.

Zechini, M. (2014). Digital zooarchaeology: Faunal analysis in the 21st century. (Bachelor of Science, Virginia Commonwealth University).

Couldn’t think of a title- Carson

I like Denning’s new definition for computation, information representations. I believe that it tends to the greater relationship that the mind shares with computing outside of a technology. I believe this touches on what we have learned this semester the most. When I signed up for my first semester of classes in CCT I was not aware of how much they would parallel. Even in 505, the technology my group is looking at the iPod and we talk about extended cognition. So yes, things have become clearer and this big picture of what communication, culture and technology is started developing.  To me, CCT not only focuses on methods and means, but what lies behind those methods and means. We ask multiple questions, not only How are we doing this? But also: Why are we doing this? Can we improve our process? What are other people doing?


Other thoughts:

Simon takes a different approach with the idea that symbols rely on the environment to determine their meaning. Symbols have to be physical real world things “…fabricated of glass and metal (computers) or flesh and blood (brains)” (p.22) This follows his ideas on computing; where computer parts are unreliable and we have to compensate for that by organizing the different (unreliable) parts in a way that works for us. Also, each function only becomes relevant once is it applied to the whole system. I think I understand what Simon is saying, but I am not sure it is something I groove to.

In the Wegner reading he says, “The radical notion that interactive systems are more powerful problem-solving engines than algorithms is the basis for a new paradigm for computing technology built around the unifying concept of interaction”

Can an interactive system be considered an algorithm with interruption and adjustment included? There is still the idea of going through a process of categorizing, but instead of waiting for the outcome to be produced from an algorithm, there is an opportunity to adjust that process to receive a different outcome… maybe?



Denning, Peter (2010) “What Is Computation?” Originally published in Ubiquity (ACM)

Simon, Herbert (1996) The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Excerpt.

Wegner, Peter (1997)  “Why Interaction Is More Powerful Than Algorithms.” Communications of the ACM 40, no. 5: 80–91.

The Nature of 3D – Lauren and Carson

In his video and throughout his readings, Alan Kay explains how user interface design is much more than making friendly interfaces or aesthetically pleasing designs for the computer screen like we see today. We take for granted the fact that user interface draw from the very roots of cognitive distribution and meaning making. In Microelectronics and Personal Computer Kay talks about two basic approaches to personal computing: “The first one which is analogous to musical improvisation, is exploratory: effects are caused in order to see what they are like and errors are tracked down, understood and fixed. The second, which resembles musical composition, calls for a great deal more of planning, generality, and structure.” This applies to Kay’s idea of utilizing doing, images, and symbols to build and learn. Lauren and I wanted to put Kay’s thoughts into a different lane. How can this was of thinking be used when talking about natural sciences, more specifically environmental science or zooarchaeology?

E.O. Wilson, the father of biogeography says in Letters to a Young Scientist, “Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist at one level or another … fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.” Dr. Wilson’s book goes on to say that all discoveries are first fantasies and in many ways these fantasies are very visual and the process of making these fantasies is the foundation for new science. In this respect, the future of coding or designing in digital spaces is a new frontier for creative thinking. In simulations, there is also the making process that can lead to new questions and discovery. Today, the affordances of free and open access 3D modeling software is changing the realm of discovery and exploration in science. It allows for the creation of something that one can then look at from many different angles and in making comes method through both process and completion.


For example, I experimented within several 3D modeling software programs including 123D Design and MeshMixer. In the process of making a 3D model of a sea anemone, questions arose about the structure and anatomy of the species itself. A 2­D image of a white sea anemone provided the basis for the creation. In the first trial of making the anemone (Image 1), the 3D object was turned and I noticed that my concept of the anemone still existed in a 2­D space because I only edited the piece on a flat plane.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 5.57.08 AM

In the second trial (Image 2), I had to use my imagination and begin seeing the 2­D photo as if it was in a 3D.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 5.57.40 AM

Finally, the finished version (Image 3) attempted to look like the photograph from a front flat view but then take into consideration how the sizing of each arm would be spaced from each other and how some sections were anatomically different than others.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 5.57.57 AM

The playful nature I had to adopt for this creation aided in my own understanding of the potential anatomy of the sea anemone. I had to edit and reedit the piece to make sure it was physically possible but also resembled the picture I was given. In this context, we see making as method for I began asking new and complex questions about both the anatomy of the animal as well as the affordances of the software program. While this was just a personal experiment exploring software programs, I learned a lot about how my visual and spacial brain operated. I think that this is an exercise that could be beneficial for the development of “non­normal science” education. If ecologists and technologist are looking for a paradigm shift, it could be of their interest to allow more making and fantasy into curriculums and methods. Making instead of just seeing an image of the anemone caused me to ask more internal questions about how this animal might eat, grow, and breathe. The future of 3D modeling can combine the use of fantasy and new making in 123d Design and Meshmixer with the use of other softwares like 123d Catch that would copy and recreate exact dimensions of objects.


While I was at VCU I worked in the Virtual Curation Lab. There we would scan, replicate and print any kind of artifact we could get our hands on. This included some faunal remains. I did lots of work with 3D modeling at zooarchaeology. I preferred working with animal remains, because I felt like not only was I learning about the process of 3D modeling, I was also forced to learn the osteology of different north american animals. Sometimes I would print out the different structures and paint them to look like real bone (I will bring some stuff I have in) to be used in small exhibits around campus. Other times I would play around and try to create a frankenstein like 3D model of whatever animal I was working on, by taking bones from other similar animals (or the same species)  to try and create a full skeleton. Then I would sometimes think about what this animal would look like if it was real. For example, once I almost put together a whole raccoon skeleton by filling in with opossum bones where stuff was missing. I named it “Raccopossum” and kind of pictured an all grey raccoon with a long opossum tail. Also doing this it forced me to ask myself questions like, Would Raccopossum be a marsupial? Would it be able to stand on its hind legs at times like Raccoons can? Well obviously it would be a good climber… and so on. I do not think this symbiotic process would not have occurred without the availability of 3D modeling.  




Kay, Alan C. “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer.” Scientific American 237, no. 3 (September 1977): 230-44.

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media” (1977), excerpt from The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Originally published in Computer10(3):31–41, March 1977.

Alan Kay’s original paper on the Dynabook concept: “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” Palo Alto, Xerox PARC, 1972).

Wilson, Edward O. Letters to a Young Scientist. New York: Liveright Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton, 2013.

J.A.R.V.I.S – Carson

Computing as a Symbolic Process:

I found Mahoney’s point about computation as a symbolic process very interesting. He states “Computation is about rewriting strings of symbols [and]… The symbols and their combinations express representations of the world” (p.129). Like we went over last week, this is very apparent in programming languages. The symbols Mahoney refers to are probably functions, variables, for loops and other commands within programming languages. This idea carries into Conery’s article. Conery talks about the need for agents in computing, “clearly there must be some structure to the computation, otherwise one could claim any connection of random symbols a constituted state” (p.815). There needs to be reason and order for there to be an output. I believe that the fact that there needs to be these things to create an output, makes this process symbolic.



J.A.R.V.I.S Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, created by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man, aka Robert Downey Jr.), is an operating system with the ability to complete complex tasks and communicate using context.



I am not 100% sure if this is what Engelbart, Sutherland, Licklider or Bush had in mind at the time for HCI, but I don’t think this concept would seem too out of reach for them. J.A.R.V.I.S is the ultimate memex, not only can Tony Stark store all of his “memory” but he can also communicate with J.A.R.V.I.S to access these memories at a rapid pace. J.A.R.V.I.S also fulfills some of Licklider’s Man-Computer Symbiosis ideas. There is a developed partnership and relationship between Tony Stark and J.A.R.V.I.S where they problem solve together. Obviously J.A.R.V.I.S is a fictional operating system…that I know of… but the functions presented do not seem unattainable.

Random thought:

Would Google’s function “Did you mean…” be an example of a kind of Man-Computer Symbiosis?


Bush, Vannevar (1945)  “As We May Think,” Atlantic.

Conery, S. John (2002) “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation.” The Computer Journal 55, no.7. p.814-816.

Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Ivan Sutherland,(1963) “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System”.

J. C. R. Licklider, (1960)”Man-Computer Symbiosis”.

J. C. R. Licklider, (1986) “The Computer as Communication Device”.

Mahoney, Michael S. (2005) “The Histories of Computing(s).” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 p.119–35.

Game of Life- Carson

The Game of Life is a program created by John Conway back in the 1970s ish… In this program, cells can live or die depending on binary, true/false statements. In Conway’s code each cell had neighbors. The number of neighbors each cell possessed during one sequence determined if that cell would live, die, or reproduce in the next sequence. The program would repeat itself (recursion) until there were only still life clusters of cells left. These were cells who had the correct amount of neighbors to live, but not the correct amount to reproduce.

(Sorry for this poor explanation… here is a gif to make up for it)


(jk… here is an image)


The Game of Life has been re-created a countless number of times using various programming languages. I believe this is because it is such a straight forward visual example of what programming does. Everything is apparent, an abstraction of an abstraction if you will…


After working with Python for a few hours, I gained the confidence to try and create my own game of life via python. However, the software did not get along with my computer. So I had to stick to JavaScript. Below are a few frames from my game of life program. Instead of using squares to represent the cells, I used lines to show how the code can be manipulated.




Here is a link to the Game of Life Wikipedia page for general info.



Okay so the gif does not show up on the blog post, but the link works if you want to check it out…

p5.js I Guess… -Carson

Even with the introduction video and the introduction Dr. Irvine wrote for us, I found the concept of Information Theory difficult to grasp. Until… I got to the Denning and Bell essay, The Information Paradox, and everything started to make sense.

In Denning and Bell’s essay they say “Computing without reference to meaning works for communication channels but not for computation in general” (p.476). Then they go on to talk about how people who pay to play Word of Warcraft do not pay for the physical computing, but for the story that the computer generates. So the gamer is only on the meaning side?

This made me think about the art work I make in p5.js. I start by creating a program. I take bits that don’t mean anything on their own and put them together in a code like this:


Screen Shot 2016-10-13 at 12.58.35 AM


Then, when I run this program I get an image like this:




In this case, am I on both sides of the spectrum? Or does this not count because I already have knowledge that when I put these bits together they are going to command the computer to do something specific?

Other Random Thought I Had:

My high school librarian once bet the senior class she would be able to guess a word of our (the senior class) choice out of the whole Oxford English Dictionary in less than 20 guesses. The catch was, that every word she guessed wrong we would have to say “before” or “after” depending on whether or not the word we chose was before or after the word she guessed. With every word she guessed her odds grew while the selection of words shrunk. This reminded me of Shannon’s use of bits. Asking simple Yes/No questions until you arrived at the correct answer. The librarian won the bet, it only took her about 11 tries before she got the word. It was “graduation” so not very clever on our part.



James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011).

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information“.

Peter Denning and Tim Bell, “The Information Paradox.” From American Scientist, 100, Nov-Dec. 2012.

Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.



Carson Collier

As most of you probably do not know, it is illegal to curse in the commonwealth of Virginia. If caught and found guilty, there is up to a $250 fine for each profanity used. As you can imagine, this law is not enforced very often. Until you take a visit to Virginia Beach and see the signs attached to street lamps all over the boardwalk. (Image 1)



Image 1

Looking at the sign as a whole, we can apply it to some different models. With Saussure’s dyadic model there is a Signified and a Signifier, and the relationship these share creates a sign. “A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified…” (Chandler, p. 15). In this case the signified would be the actual sign and the signifier would be the indication that you are in a ‘no cursing zone’.

In Peirce’s Model there is the representamen, an interpretant and an object. The representamen is the physical sign itself. The interpretant is that this is a no cursing zone. The object is that the combination of the physical sign and the indication of a “no cursing zone” evoke a feeling of ‘warning’ or ‘no’.


Let us look at the different aspects of the sign. First, we see a big red ‘no’ symbol (Image 2). This aspect of the sign is iconic, it is commonly known to indicate some kind of warning. This indication of a warning is almost instant and you know to look for what the warning is referring to.


Image 2

After our brain processes the ‘warning’ or ‘no’ aspect of the sign, we see a sequence of characters meant to convey profanity. What I find interesting about this, is that any sequence of characters can covey ‘profanity’. This particular order does not have a different meaning then something like this:


Or this:


Does this idea fall under a different set of rules?

Fun Fact
According to the fines associated with this law brought it over $6,000 worth of profit for the city. 


Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Irvine, M. “Introduction to Meaning Systems and Cognitive Semiotics“.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs


Linguistics 101 with Prof. Carson (0.5 stars on rate my professor)

What is language?

Language is a kind of meaning system used for communication and expression. Language can be expressed three different ways, through speech, writing, or signs. Language is something that is unique to humans. The main question linguists have about language is “Where did it come from?” Was it developed by human cognition because of the development of culture? Or, Is the ability for language already wired in the Homo sapiens brain?  [1]


What is “a language?”

The essential features that enable a language to be “a language” include sounds, words and sentences. An example of “a language” could be French, English, Chinese or Hindi. Each one of the languages listed has a specific structure that has to be learned in order to communicate in that language effectively. I took French courses throughout high school and college. In these courses I had to learn the correct structure of a French sentence vs the English structure I was comfortable with. For example, in English I could say “Jane is wearing a red bathing suit” this translates to “Jane porte un maillot de bain rouge” in French. If I were to take this sentence word for word and translate it back to English, I would get “Jane is wearing a bathing suit red.” This is cool because these rules can be recorded, documented and tested. However, when it comes to the idea of language as a meaning system, it is much harder to record, document or test. [2]

What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

In this case the chicken is symbolic thought and the egg is material culture. In Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage Renfrew implies that we are living in a world that we have created, “without artefacts, material goods, many forms of thought simply could not have been developed” (p.2). This is backed up by Donald’s thoughts from Social Brain Matters. Donald believes that “culture is not secondary” and that culture forms the mind before the mind forms culture. On the other hand, in The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think, Barrett argues that the human conscious has not “evolved as a product of mental representations, but by a means of what I will refer to as an embodied empathy” (p.6). Barrett also goes on the critique the inconsistent meanings for the term ’symbolic’.

In order to evaluate these contradictory ideas, I think we have to look further back. Wong’s article The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture gives evidence that the human behavior (cognitive behavior) had emerged much earlier than initially thought, “modern human behavior emerged over a long period in a process more aptly described as evolution than revolution” (p.91).

This leads me to my main questions (some are a stretch):

Do we need to come to a collective agreement about the term ‘symbolic’ and what it consist of in order to move on in the field of cognition? Or does this debate fuel further inquiries into the origin of human cognition?

Where is the line between instinct and intentional/learned behavior? Does early tool making count as instinct or learned? What about organized hunting? Other species hunt in groups, is it the lack of weapons that draw this ‘instinct’ line?

When Barrett talks about human consciousness evolving by a means of embodied empathy, is he referring to evolution in a linear sense? There are multiple studies/theories out that claim dogs are empathetic creatures as well. Does this notion that other species could evolve to be cognitive thinkers? Or, regarding Barrett, is this not possible due to the lack of “cultural networks” within other species communities? And this is not evolution in a linear sense, but in a nonlinear, more arbitrary sense?



Barrett, J.C., “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23, no. 01 (2013): 1-17.

Donald, M. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain,” from Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, ed. Oscar Vilarroya, et al. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.

Renfrew, C. “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.

Wong, K. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Ehhhh…: A Story of Unreadable Annotations By: Carson Collier

During undergrad I took an ‘Anthropological Theories’ class. One of the PowerPoint slides was dedicated to semiotics, and my professor spent a solid five minutes trying to explain this concept to the class. Back then it was a very difficult concept to grasp. And…Muchmuchmuchlater

… nothing has changed.

With that, I present some of the notes I jotted down while reading for this week:

Martin Irvine, “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics”

“We will not seek to follow or establish a doctrine, but develop the best and clearest tools for thought and models for meaning processes that we can assemble from an interrelated knowledge base across many disciplines” (p.1)

  • My biggest issue: We are trying to create the testable models to measure meaning processes, but wouldn’t the process of coming up with a testable model be a meaning process itself? How does this work?

“However close we can get to describing the neuro-bio-cognitive bases of the symbolic faculties, we will also need to recognize that “meanings aren’t in our heads.”” (p. 12)

  • This reminded me of agency, the idea humans act independently, but only within in the social constructs of the community. That being said, I ask: Do these meanings come from our surroundings and are then produced in our heads? Is there always an outside factor triggering our thoughts? If this is true, and we are not always aware of said ‘outside factors’ are hiding in the unobservable interfaces of the human mind?

Martin Irvine, “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Keys Texts” 

“Now spoken sounds are symbols of mental experiences, and written marks are symbols of spoken sounds.” (p. 2)

  • Honestly, I just think this is very nice, you go Aristotle!

“…something only becomes a sign when interpreted as such in a system of correlations understood by someone in a community sign-users acting intersubjectively as cognitive agents.” (p. 15)

  • So according to Peirce a sign has to be understood by a community. Are there limits to what a community can be? How many agents are needed for a community? For instance, if I come up with something arbitrary, like a nickname for my computer, would that count as a sign if I am the only one aware of the nickname? Or is it not the actual nickname itself that is the sign, but the concept of nicknames within a community?