Category Archives: Week 7

Message Delivered (Katie Oberkircher)

This week, the readings got a little meta. They brought up ideas like motivation, context, time and community, and they made me think about how we form relationships that frame the way we interpret signs and symbols. Dr. Irvine in his “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information,” describes “meta-information” to be a collection of our past experiences (individual and collective), social norms, shared meaning, etc. (Irvine, 5).

In keeping with Peirce’s theory of semiotics, signs and symbols are replicable expressions that are only recognized to have meaning because they are understood (Irvine, Primary Texts, 6). It’s a seemingly simple point, but when we think about signs, whether that’s a word a cell phone screen or a key change in a musical composition, we interpret it in a particular context, drawing on our shared knowledge.

So when I send a text message, I assume the recipient will know exactly what I’m talking about. These assumptions are situated in background knowledge, social norms, etc., and they act outside of the signal itself. In this way, communication is never isolated. It exists in the context of past and future messages. If I send a text that says, “what’s up?” to my friend from high school, that single text becomes part of a continuous interaction. And when I send it, I’m drawing meaning from our relationship up until that current moment in time.

This thought process brought up a few thought/questions: Sending a text involves encoding, transmitting and then decoding information, but the simple act of delivery doesn’t really mean the message was “delivered.” To that end, technical, social and cognitive elements of meaning making seem to be directly related to each other.

Since we’re inserting agency into a system that’s comprised of words on a screen, are there boundaries to the meaning we can and should draw from a single text? With context in mind, I often find myself downplaying the significance of a text message because the medium suggests that the content is brief/superficial and it’s devoid of emotion. In fact, sometimes texts invite us to over demonstrate how we are feeling with emojis and punctuation to represent how we feel, or how we want the receiver to think we’re feeling.

Along those lines, what happens if someone sends a joke that is intended to be humorous but the receiver doesn’t understand it? Is this what Floridi refers to as entropy (Floridi, 47)? Does that reflect the nature of their relationship or does it simply mean that there are limits to how we can draw meaning from a text? Or is it a combination?


Floridi, Luciano, Information, Chapters 1-4 (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2010).

Irvine, Martin, “A Student’s Annotable Peirce: Primary Texts On Signs and Symbolic Thought With Transcriptions of Unpublished Papers from Peirce’s Manuscripts”

Irvine, Martin, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information” (and using Information Theory + Semiotics)

Digital Digital Get Down

In my mind, the digital encoding of the physical components of text makes sense, but I am struggling to understand how both image and sound can be digitally encoded. As a result, I am going to attempt to explain the process of digitally encoding text and hope that, in doing so, I can reason out the process of encoding of image and sound.

A 7-bit grid can produce up to 127 distinct characters (64 + 32 + 16… +1 =127). Of course, that is enough numbers to cover all of the letters in the English language (both capital and lowercase), essential punctuation, and then some. Thus, each letter of the alphabet can be represented using binary digits to activate the electric current that encodes the needed digital signal. These individual signals can be combined and sequenced to produce strings of text that we can then interpret and understand via a digital interface.

In theory, I would assume that this process of assigning numbers to text can be replicated with images and sounds. However, I do not understand how the actual image units or actual sounds units are assigned different numbers. I suppose I could see how different shades of color can be assigned numbers that then are activated on the binary level. But that would mean that a computer or digital camera would have to be pre-programed to recognize an enormous amount of shades in color. Sound, in that sense, seems more plausible. Or at least musical notes, because they are defined and structured. – Wait, is this really how it works? Or am I completely off on this? The more I think about it, the more I can see how it could be, but it really blows my mind. Looking at Figure 3 from “The Information Paradox” (Denning 472), I can now see how a CD is just a sequence of bits that can be read to activate certain sounds, texts or images. …But it’s still kinda crazy!

As for meaning, at this point, it seems only natural that signs and messages don’t contain meaning, but rather we interpret and apply meaning through our prior knowledge and the context in which we experience the sign or message. In fact, I feel kind of absurd for not completely understanding earlier in this course. That said, the two concepts from this week’s readings that really sealed the deal for me on that were Rocchi’s model of information and relativity (Denning 477) and Stuart Hall’s discussion of “profoundly naturalised” codes and signs (Hall 511-3). Rocchi’s model, which explains meaning as the interpreted association between sign and referent, alongside Hall’s explanation of certain interpretations as deeply ingrained cultural associations, helped explain my persisting question regarding how individuals can interpret the same meaning from an object if artifacts and signs themselves contain no meaning. What I was viewing before as meaning that resulted from transcendental truth, I can see now is simply a continuously reinforced association. That said, I still believe in universal truths, but I now see how those truths exist outside of the signs that we culturally assign them.

With that in mind, when we receive text messages there is no meaning in them. Rather, the messages are represented in a meaningful way, which allows us to interpret and understand them. Specifically, text messages rely heavily on the context and preexisting relationship between the individuals that send and receive them. For that reason, it can be relatively difficult to relay text messages with emotional or even ironic meanings. In order to successfully do so, the sender and receiver must understand to a certain degree the mannerisms, speech tendencies and general personalities of each other to motivate meaning in the words and symbols they send via text messaging. Even emojis become more meaningful if the relationship between the sender and receiver is more intimate.

In that sense, it is interesting to think about people’s online profiles as a map of meaning motivation. What are the different photographs and digital artifacts that they chose to represent themselves and what meanings to individuals interpret through them? What are those meanings before you meet a person? How do they change once you get to know that person? I think that’s a pretty typical example of how we already understand this concept without knowing we understood it.

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

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 507-17. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

The medium is the message…or is it? (Jameson)

In working through the concept of meaning as it is signaled, encoded, and transmitted in various mediums, I couldn’t help but think of the famous Marshall McLuhan concept, sometimes known as the McLuhan Equation: “the medium is the message.” A more obvious and literal interpretation of this phrase seems to suggest, contrary to the Peircean model of semiotics, that meanings are in fact properties of signals or sign vehicles. In this conception, the content of any piece of communication is secondary to how it is communicated. Upon closer examination, it’s clear that this isn’t quite what McLuhan was saying, and that his claim (placed more in the field of media theory than communication or information theory) may not be at odds with our in-class understanding of where meaning is situated in symbolic systems. [1]

Looking a little deeper about this phrase, McLuhan seems to be analyzing communication in a wide, historical, systemic way. He says that, overall, the content of communication (the message) has historically been less important in shaping society than how it is communicated (the medium). In our modern world, mediums are constantly changing and evolving. These mediums are tied directly to societal changes, in that the invisible, multitudinous forces shaping society also exert pressure on the kinds of mediums that develop. These mediums in turn shape how we think by altering the environment in which we operate in new ways that were previously inaccessible. What has been more important, the text message conversations you have or your mobile phone? Arguably, the text message conversations would not even exist without the mobile phone in the first place. Additionally, the mere existence of the mobile phone technology has completely altered the way in which we communicate—using abbreviations/acronyms/slang; the speed at which we communicate; how many people we can communicate with at one time; how we plan; how other technologies build on this—which has altered how we think and operate in ways we can’t even realize. [2]

To McLuhan, a medium refers to any physical tool that is an extension of ourselves, similarly to how a symbol is a theoretical cognitive extension of our thoughts. Ultimately, I don’t think this is at odds with the understanding of meaning we’ve discussed in class because McLuhan is making more of a social commentary, and is not literally saying that there is more meaning in a medium than in the content. But who knows!



[1] Federman, Mark. “What Is the Meaning of The Medium Is the Message?” N.p., 23 July 2004. Web. 12 Oct. 2016. <>.

[2] Olson, Dan. “Minisode – The Medium Is the Message.” YouTube. Folding Ideas, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2016. <>.

png vs. jpeg

So one of the best memories of taking 505 in CCT was FINALLY understanding how jpeg works. It actually felt like opening a black box and unlocked the secret of a magician.

With one question answered I have a dozen more. I started to wonder how other image formats work, especially why PNG can create transparency in image and jpeg cannot. Hence I did some research and found out why. Instead of using difficult jargons, I will try to explain the difference between PNG and jpeg through my crude words.

So jpeg is made with different segments, each segment has a marker in the beginning telling what color a pixel is and how many pixels of the same color exist sequentially. These segments are structured using binary codes. With the correct way of decoding, one will be able to view the image on any device that supports jpeg. Because jpeg’s syntactic structure, it will be difficult to represent absent of color and how absent some colors should be, therefore it is difficult to represent transparency.

Though PNG is also coded in a binary manner using only 1 and 0. The structure of PNG allow it to do more than just tell what color a pixel is and how to arrange the order. Each segment in PNG has a special task such as organize the frame, adjust the color, and how much space is between one color and the other. Therefore, PNG can have transparent background and jpeg cannot.

What is so cool about these two format is that one image can totally different syntactic structure in different formats. This also an evidence to Pierce’ claim that signs as vehicles do not possess meanings. Like these images, they are only meaningful to us when they are properly decoded, or decompressed in this case. Taking a photo and make that into a jpeg means to translate that into a string of binary codes. These codes become vehicle of what the photo represent. These codes are then decoded on our computer and then we can interact with the image and create meanings out of it.

It is remarkable how much we can achieve through digital representation, and how much we can make the convey of meaning more efficient and accurate. Here is an example. The video shows the compression speech difference between PNG and FLIF, a newly developed image format.

Though the meaning we can get from these images are the same, the speech of FILF makes the delivery of meaning so much faster and that is meaningful in a different manner.