Author Archives: Mackenzie Gong

Semiotic Perspective of Individual Cultural Identity


Abstract: This article is an analysis of individual cultural identity in semiotic perspective. Discussions are around how cultural symbols and cultural stories have impacts on individual identity. It is also discussed under contemporary context, including how modern media affect the communication of cultural symbols and stories, their effects on cultural identity and how science and technology change the formation of individual identity.



Cultural identity is an important topic in the field of sociology, politics, religions, cultural studies, public psychology, and many others. Although more or less different from each other, the definition of cultural identity usually covers the characteristic of the individual and the whole culturally identical group he lives in. Many fruitful researches have been done about how cultural identity is established and how it affects people’s activities in a community from different angles (Korte, 2007), including comparative culture studying, political, social psychological and others. Here in this article, I would use some semiotic concepts and theories to discuss the construction of cultural identity.


【1】Identity from cultural symbols and stories

When biologists Francis Crick and James Watson first decoded the correct double-helix model of DNA in 1953, they might not anticipate what unprecedented change it brought about, in the way people viewed the nature and the whole universe. In following decades, DNA researches have turned into thousands of applications in both academic field and people’s daily life. Recently, a company called 23andme, whose slogan says “we are reinventing the way you see your ancestry—through science”, starts quite a welcoming business. Through lab analysis of the saliva sample, clients can get a report telling their family history, ancestry’s timeline and trajectory, and “DNA relatives” from the genetic data contained in their DNA.

Looks like just a fancy, high-tech business.

However, it’s way more than that. Science, here to be exact the biology, offers human beings consciousness, and even rights, to build identity by their own, instead of accepting unconsciously what is said and authorized by others. This technology, along with other modern methods, is so remarkable that it can reform the way people form their identity, which hasn’t changed for thousands of years since the beginning of human civilization.

In contrast, before such “high-tech” stuff occur, people define themselves, and the group they stay in, by collective memory.

This is definitely not a new concept. First theorized and investigated by French scholar Halbwachs (Halbwachs, 1958), collective memory has been a phrase commonly referred in social and cultural studies. Generally, based on the fact that humans are social beings, collective memory is defined as a mechanism, by which a group of people acquire some certain mutual views, melted and remolded every time passed to the following generation. The mutual views here include ideology, sense of value, lifestyle and so many other basic aspects of the foundation of a community, and identity of each individual is one of the most vital components.


Then, traditionally, what is meant, or what is covered under, by saying identity?

First, every identity originates from some cultural symbols. For example, the Chinese nation regards itself as “descendants of Dragon” for a long history, an animal usually featured as a long nimble body, countless feet, horns on the head, and fierce lion-like faces. Clearly, dragon doesn’t exist physically in ancient China, or any corner of the nature, but comes totally from imagination. People picture it so vividly, and everyone else bathing in the same culture also buy it and never feel that it makes no sense.

Because such dragon is a culture symbol. Every component of the dragon’s appearance maps to, thus standing for, an existed meaningful concept already accepted by members in the same culture. Therefore, as the creature with mixed appearance, dragon functions as a symbol of many good qualities people value in their culture – lion’s bravery, snake’s swiftness, horn-y animal’s strength. More than the combination of all its components, it also becomes a spirit vehicle, dropping old and carrying new meanings with the time changing. When the empire values Taoism (a traditional philosophy of “doing nothing” in life and less control over citizens in politics), dragon can even be interpreted and appreciated as a symbol staying far away secular struggles, keeping a detached state of mind all the time, and its fierce side will no longer be emphasized. As a result, people living in different times of ancient China may even hold different images of dragon — “what does it mean” in turn reshapes “how does it look like”.

In this way, the mythical, weird-looking animal dragon is constructed into a cultural symbol through efforts by generations of people. A very small group of them contribute in, with all kinds of purposes, updating and spreading the meaning carried by this icon (and its matching written character as long as the writing system was invented), and more people just attend unconsciously in the process of acknowledging, memorizing, then passing on such meanings and their container, namely cultural symbols.

Besides dragon, porcelain, tea, Chinese knit, bamboo, plum blossom, dumplings and many others are all cultural symbols holding its unique meanings and qualities. Being moral, being modest, being exquisite, staying harmony, staying united with your family – these are what such objects eventually imply as a result of long-term mutual construction. Accumulated and recognized by different generations, such objects are then abstracted into symbols, leaving behind pragmatic or maybe aesthetic functions.

This process assists to establish the identity of each individual under the same cultural context. People visualize qualities they value through such symbols and externalize the ideal state implied by the whole group of people in a certain era. These symbols then serve as reminders and spirit models for the young generations, as well as unvoiced answers to questions like “what kind of people we should be like”.

To some extent, such process builds a portion of cultural identity. Identity can’t be only in the form of abstract concepts, or it will be hard to express or last long enough. Instead, identity requires some tangible and flexible vehicles, so people can easily understand and remember, also remove or add contents in accord with the historic context. When Chinese people say they are “descendants of dragon”, they are using all good qualities constructed on this fiction animal from former history, to annotate, also concentrate the explanation about who they are. Cultural symbols play an important role in people’s cultural identity.


Besides cultural symbols, cultural stories are another source of identity.

From myths of ancestor’s origin to heroic legends, almost all nations have own stories as validation of their unique greatness. These stories usually come from oral rhythms or songs, refined and processed through a long history until the invention of writing system, then carved on tablets or written on paper.

However, it’s not the end. In early 20th century, researches of Chinese ancient myths uncovered how nation’s early stories were “accumulated. (Gu, 1926, P80). In terms of ancient Chinese records, researches pointed out that the later the record was, the earlier the story was said to happen, as well as the greater and more detailed the plot was.

Similar as, if not more than, cultural symbols, cultural stories are also constructed and memorized among a continued cultural community. The relationship between cultural symbols and cultural stories are not simply affiliated. Sometimes cultural symbols will occur in stories, as critical bricks accumulating into blocks with all bunches of meanings already accumulated on themselves. While sometimes, stories also generate symbols, by concentrating the context and content into simple visualized elements.

Under the same cultural context, stories about early legends usually have common elements. Ancient Chinese great figures are always conceived when a young girl meet a mythical animal, and then born with surroundings of thunders and lightings in the sky or flames in the house. Such common elements, plots and ways of narratives in cultural stories form a unique pattern, which people in the same cultural community will follow when generating new “legend stories” with all kinds of purposes.

As cultural symbols do, such patterns of cultural stories function as tangible and flexible vehicles, yet carrying collective meanings in a combined group and multiple levels. Thunders and lightings imply the philosophic theory of numinous association between the “heaven” and the world. Flame is a sign of the “fire element”, one of the five that claimed as ingredients of everything in the universe.  As a result, such cultural stories and their patterns delineate the frame of people’s views of external world and views of their own positions in this world. Cultural identity is shaped when people start to answer the questions like “where does our world come from”, or “where are we come from”. Identity comes clearer in the process of repeating and enriching stories.

Only very few number of cultural stories can be passed on through history, but patterns of stories usually survive. People use similar patterns to carry stories, refine them by features and values of a specific era, with the ultimate aim to convince themselves and following generations of who they are.

Furthermore, in cultural stories there’re usually enemies. Most heroic behaviors are about killing Others, and the origin of a community comes with a glorious victory over an opposed group. Not to mention that the pattern of cultural stories makes it especially easy to fill in any enemies necessary for the reality. In this way, people who share the same cultural stories will have a clear sense of who they are not, besides who they are. Cultural stories then help establish identity by excluding others.

Given that above, when we say identity, cultural symbols and cultural stories are two implications cannot be avoided. They are both constructed. All people in the same cultural context attend in this process. In symbols and stories, they render, thus visualize, values and traditions of their times and nation. People take symbols and stories as the extended storage of answers to questions like “who we are”, “who we are not”, or “what kind of people we should be like”. Cultural stories also have an important function as excluding Others. Consequently, identity is shaped in contents of symbols and stories and the process of constructing contents, and then passed on generation to generation.

All these compose collective memories.


【2】 identity from modern media and new methods

Back to that fancy “23andme” we mentioned in the very beginning. This technology is so unprecedented because it subverts the tradition way how people get their cultural identity. That long-term construction walks away, instead the genetic data, which is absolutely concrete, objective and unchangeable, takes over the authority to exclusively explain all questions about who you are and how does your family come to this place. Identity here is obtained from a new, modern, “high-tech” source. Humans, as social beings since the first day of civilization, never have such an experience that their positions in this world, in this space-time, have already lied in their own body, and no greater one else is required to tell them the whole story.

It doesn’t mean that all cultural symbols and cultural stories don’t make sense any more. They still carry values and the traditions, show mutual interests and beliefs of a group of people, but have less functions than ever on shaping and explaining people’s identity by limiting them in this frame. Collective memory requires great efforts and exclusive faith, but now there’re more options.

Identity find a more tangible and flexible vehicle in our times. Evolution theory explains how you come here, heredity explains why you are like this and what you can probably be like in the future, anatomy and neuroscience explains how do you physically and mentally function, and all these lead to a reasonable, objective, structurally complicated yet logically simple result. These modern methods not only offer new contents, but the fact that identity can come from other ways.


Besides modern scientific methods, modern media also contribute in changing people’s way to think of themselves.

Originally proposed by Shannon in middle 20th century, information theory studies the process of information being communicated through electrical channel. One fundamental topic is random lossy data during the communication. The theory claims that redundancy is required when encoding the original data to achieve more accurate outcome. When information like cultural symbols and stories are communicated in today’s context of globalization, it also experiences such a process of encoding, decoding, and data losing.

With the help of modern media, it’s much easier to convey cultural symbols and it happens more often than ever. Symbols, as an association of the icon pattern (sometimes also the sound or even taste pattern) with meanings constructed onto, usually more or less inversely de-associate during such process of communication. It is imaginable, since context and the long history of collective memories related to certain cultural symbol are more or less lost when communicated. For example, dragon, the honorable symbol for people in Chinese culture, once raises controversy when touched by other cultures for its fierce icon. Misinterpretations happen when symbols conveyed to a group of people don’t have collective memories, at the same time contexts are also lost, about constructed meanings and the process of constructing.

Modern media enables communication happen extremely fast and often, which makes it also common that symbols are just left as icons yet contexts are not accurate or not enough, so the process of correctly representing meanings is hard to realize. As a result, new contents pop into those incomplete symbols, then new connections are built between the same icon and not exactly the same meanings. The new contents popping into usually rely on exited cultural symbols among the group of people on the receiving side of this communication. Besides the ancient Chinese symbol dragon’s fierce icon, ominous and brutal meanings constructed on this icon in western culture are also the reason for its misreading. It is common that such existed contents pop into the incomplete symbol, joining its icon, lead to an unexpected interpretation.

Therefore, cultural symbols leave others a different impression way from original contents. With frequent communications following, such difference is sent back, building another level on that misinterpreted symbol among its original cultural community. “How others think of us” then reflects upon “how we think of us”. “Negative” impression of the dragon leads to a further clarification or exclusion— “it doesn’t mean……it should be……”—or emphasis on certain values constructed in the past but missed in the process of communication— “in fact, we people are like……”.

In this sense, incomplete communication and misinterpretation cause a reflection on individual cultural identity. In addition, the globalization and gradually frequent cross-culture contacts in the past few centuries also smashed down the sense of “uniqueness” of the self culture. People realized (might quite unwillingly) that its symbols, its stories, were no longer the only orthodox in the universe. In other cultures, the symbol Dragon experienced another way of construction, which valued different things, told stories in completely different patterns and narratives.

It should be emphasized that such decentralization happens by various means, and the conflict in cultural symbols and stories is only one of them. As a result, collective memories on certain symbols may be forced to narrow down, focusing on something more specific and special. For instance, by emphasizing the Green tea, ancient Chinese intellectuals reinforced their identity as being in a civilized, ethical and knowledgeable class, which was traditionally obtained through just the “tea” symbol yet blurred for the popularity and traditions of Black tea in other cultures became known on ancient Chinese land with increasing ocean trades. Such inner-adaption of the cultural symbols’ construction is driven by an unconscious need for unique cultural identity, and certainly in turn has impacts on the way people view themselves.


Modern media contribute in frequent and mass communication of cultural symbols and stories. They not only function as the medium, but sometimes reshape the information flowing through.

In early times, writing system and paper were the main medium to convey cultural symbols. People from outside could investigate the culture, then wrote down the introduction of a certain symbol in their own languages, and record the whole history of how meanings were constructed through generations. As a type of media, books are expected to be formal, knowledgeable, overall and logical when conveying information, in both the content and the way of narratives. So for Others, if they read a book about Dragon, they will very likely to be informed of the context and the process of how meanings are constructed behind this cultural symbol.

But in modern society, more media are designed to be in favor of images, videos or other more visualized forms, which is also preferred by the audience. They are expected to be vivid, impressive, attention-catching, dynamic yet superficial and segmented. Under this circumstance, the result of communication of cultural symbols like Dragon will be different for sure. Through the image-based medium, it’s very likely that the context is incomplete, which is required to fully generate accurate meanings. People watch a lovely icon of dragon on the screen, probably with lines of annotation aside. These are all they have to piece together into the symbol Dragon.

The affordance of different type of medium cause different degrees of the communication of cultural symbols and stories. It isn’t necessarily true that one type of medium does always better than others. But it’s true that the symbol, with an icon and the content constructed onto, is partly lost or changed in this process. Incomplete decoding, over decoding or misinterpretation may also emerge. All these may have effects on cultural identity as discussions before.


【3】 Conclusion

As described, in the long history of human civilization, cultural symbols and cultural stories are closely related to the formation of cultural identity. For one thing, symbols and stories discussed here are both constructed by a group of people sharing the same cultural context. They put qualities and traditions they value in symbols and stories, take them as a reminder and illustration for themselves and others who are identified with the same group, also a visualized model for younger generations to follow. For the other, cultural stories also serve the functions to exclude Others by showing the uniqueness of the self.

All cultural symbols and stories are dynamic. Every generation attends in the process of constructing meanings for the purpose of emphasizing the priority of a certain class, enhancing relationship among members, motivating fights against enemies, etc. All things happening in this long-term, continuing construction compose collective memories of a community.

All these have impacts on individual cultural identity. People identity themselves by reinforcing certain qualities and tradition, by answering questions like “who are we”, “where do we come from” or “what we should be like”, also by constructing an imagined community and excluding others.

In modern times, however, things become more complicated. Frequent communications between cultures usually lead to some data loss of cultural symbols and stories. The icon and meanings constructed on the icon are sometimes disconnected or missing, which makes the representing of meanings in the receiving side go beyond original intention. As a result, new meanings may pop into the original icon, combined together as different cultural symbols even though they look similar. Frequent contacts then make people realize their symbols and stories are no longer unique. Also, affordance of different types of modern media will cause different degrees of the communications of cultural symbols and stories.

Modern medium and communications result in changes in cultural symbols and stories, which further result in changes in individual cultural identity. People see their reflections through others’ eyes, reinforce their own identity by clarifying or specifying their original symbols and stories. Of course, some symbols and stories may be disappeared in this process.

What’s more, new options are also provided. Science and technology enable people to view themselves in completely new ways. Identity is no longer obtained from collective memories, but lies stably and objectively in everyone’s body. Cultural symbols and stories are experiencing a new way of construction in modern times.



French, B. M. (2012). The Semiotics of Collective Memories. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41(1), 337–353.

Gentz, N., Kramer, S., & ProQuest (Firm) (Eds.). (2006). Globalization, cultural identities, and media representations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gu, J. (1926). Preface: 自叙, Doubting Antiquity: 古史辨. Peking: Peking Pushe Press.

Halbwachs, M. (1958). The psychology of social class. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press.

Kellner, D. (1995). Media culture: cultural studies, identity, and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London ; New York: Routledge.

Korte, R. F. (2007). A review of social identity theory with implications for training and development. Journal of European Industrial Training, 31(3), 166–180.

Nora P. 1989. Between memory and history: les lieux de me ́moire. Representations 26:7–25

Posner, R. (2003). Basic tasks of cultural semiotics. Semiotics, 307–353.

Ideology of the Art


……No museums exist, none has ever existed, in lands where the civilization of modern Europe is, or was, unknown”

This sentence, cited from the opening statement of Malraux’s The Voice of Silence, impressed me so much. We modern people are so getting used to the museum. It never occurred to me before, as depicted by the author, that museum or such kind of organizations, didn’t exist until some point in history. What’s more often neglected yet important is that, museum is not only a place to materially preserve artworks from the past, but a “naturally authorized” judging system, which delineates a linear development of artworks, selects what is defined “valuable” under certain standard, and posits those artworks on certain points in the whole system.

All these form a multi-level dialogic network, contemporarily or over a very long time. Artworks no longer separately exist, no matter what initial thoughts and motivations the creator put in them. This dialogic network forms in following process:

  • First created, each artwork is interpreted as a “token”, where some emotions are implied, intentions are expressed.
  • In the museum, each artwork is still a “token”, but also a “type” which stands more than the contents of itself. The color, stoke or the layout of objects in the painting maybe abstracted into a “style” of this artist, or of a period of time. In the museum, a painting hang on the wall is usually treated as one side of a conversation with the painting just in the left created by the same artist, or with those in two rooms away. These conversations construct, for example, the “development” of a painter’s drawing technique in different life stages, or the “development” of a region’s art level over centuries.

The question is, what does museums and this dialogic network bring to us? And why we need it?

One answer of these two questions is, art history completes the overall history of human beings, serving as a footnote of some more centered focus in the past thousands years. In other words, when we mention the concept like “development” of art or culture, we usually put them in the context parallel with contemporary politics and ideology (also sometimes in the other way, that we view the art with the scope of politics and ideology). Artworks as a inner-interactive meaning system here get connected with, or to say, inserted into other fields. The symbolic signs that artists use to create and the audience use to understand, are equipped with a new level of meanings. For example, the “red sun” in paintings created since 1950s’ China, represents very specifically the respect for the leader of Chinese Communist — Mao Zedong.

How politics and ideology affects the meaning system of arts also reflects in Morse’s idea of art gallery. In Metapainting and Interfaces, we can know that what Morse’s metapaintings try to express is a different political perspective of arts, which is,

an idealized representation, a virtual museum, a catalogue of the paintings that he wanted Americans to learn about. The painting is an interface to the grand tradition of European art history that the French Republic just opening up to its citizens

Both French Republic and Morse tried to provide for more civilians, who were traditionally seldom considered the audience of artworks in museums like Louvre, with access to those so-called aristocratic, intellectual appreciations. In his metapaintings, Morse represented great number of paintings in such a different interfaces, however, still under the same value and meaning system. Morse still adopted the already established standard to understand the European art history, so what he selected to compose his metapaintings were those regarded as masterpieces by former empires and aristocrats who controlled the writing of art history for centuries.

What presented by Morse’s metapaintings was still the same meaning system as that by Louvre.  On this level, Morse didn’t change a lot, or to say, not completely enough.

So, how about the Google Art Project? Does it change a lot?

At least, with the modern digital technology and HD interfaces, the availability of artworks becomes more than ever. You can now study carefully every pixel of some great paintings at home as long as you want. The copying of masterpieces is also much easier — you can now find the “Starry Night” all over the world and decorate you living room with the printed copy of any great painting in a very moderate price. The most critical change from Morse to Google Art Project is that the technology makes people treat the art differently — arts are no longer aloof treasures mysteriously preserved in the museum and only accessible for a few very wealthy people. As a result, the attention turns more to the contents of art itself, in other words, this symbolic system is getting more differentiated from others (e.g. politics and ideology).

What’s more, media and the Internet also enable more “civilian arts” to gain recognition and appreciation, which also desacralizes the traditional “aristocratic art”.

In The Google Art Project, the author Procter mentioned that all these digitalized artworks should be better designed to “create network effects and new forms of engagement“. The “new forms of engagement”, from my perspective, is a return to the content of artworks. For its availability and civilianization, digitalized artworks like Google Art Project can now complete the symbolic system only for any certain form of art itself.

With Google Art Project and other interfaces and technology, human beings are understanding art, and writing the history of art in a completely new way.


the Way We Become Smarter and the Future


In Murray’s book Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, she delineates the development of human beings with some nodes of significant inventors in history: from language, to writing system, to printing, to the computer technology in our times. People may have different opinions on the most important inventors from different definitions and aspects, but these four, at least from my perspective, are definitely the most important steps in development of human’s cognitive capacity.

When we look back upon the history, now it’s quite clear that what certain inventor at that time — language, writing, and printing — affected and altered the following path of our whole species. But it remains unclear for now that how this time the computer, computation and all the technology related will eventually change our cognitive capacity, since we ourselves are still in this current process of being altered.

However we have some consciousness now, and can make some anticipations as well, since such kind of changes never happen overnight. 

Obviously, all means mentioned before are a kind of extended mind beyond human capacity. Language helps us think about the past and future, writing enables more materials and thoughts to be “tokenized” and passed through generations instead of drifting away after several bardic works, and printing make the copies proliferate, which brings more opportunities for great minds who would disappear physically but to be mentally eternalized. In terms of computer, they were initially designed as an extended minds for doing powerful and complex calculations with pre-designed algorithms.

In Wegner’s and Denning’s articles, both of them are trying to figure out precise definition of computation and the study of it, by reflecting on what has changed and developed during their times after Turing. One concept they both pay great attention to is the “interactivity” of computers.

In his article Interaction More Powerful than Algorithms, Wegner distinguishes the “interaction” from algorithms by emphasizing its ability to learn from and adopt to the environment and response to external unfolding events of time. Similarly, Denning also indicates such features of interactive systems and further emphasizes the “incompleteness” and “uncertainty” of interactive machines. These arguments brings a new understanding of computer’s role of our extended minds. With the interactivity, computers are no longer only unprecedentedly powerful weapons to tackle tough maths calculations, or unprecedentedly huge libraries to store information, they enable human beings also take part in these magical process.

Interactive system makes computers mobile phones “smarter”, so as it did human beings. In our times people can approach data so easily thousand times in amount than people 10,000 years ago. New data are processed by human’s cognition and then become information and meanings among a group or the whole society, so new meanings are tokenized, becoming patterns that people can recognize and use to generate more meanings. In fact this process continues to happen since the moment human beings gain the cognitive capacities, but the availability of data today accelerate this process. On this level, we human beings are “smarter” than ever.

So what’s gonna happen in the future? To which end will computer this “extended mind” extend , or alter our inner-mind? According to some researches in our era, almost everything in the world is about data and interactive “programs”. Some biologists say people are just tons of data caused by DNA, whose activities are restrictedly decided by certain rule and algorithm, as well as some mutations stimulated by natural conditions. Some neuroscientists claim that people have no Free Will at all. Our emotions, behaviors and consciousness are totally the result of data transitions between nerve cells and biologic response-mechanism to the environment. Some economists and sociologists also model the social activities and humanity events as data streams and their effects with each others.

It seems quite a paradox — data are only meaningful when people process them with cognitive capacities, but the genitive capacities themselves are claimed to be nothing more than data and biologic algorithms.

What’s in the future? It’s really hard to say.


media refashion meanings

We have talked a lot about semiotic systems. According to Peirce’s triadic model, the “interpretant” process weighs a lot, almost the most, in the whole meaning-representing system. Contexts, collective memories, social traditions, cultures, personal experience and so many other factors decide the meaning eventually emerging in receivers’ minds. This week’s readings, however, reminds me of another part that plays an increasingly critical roles with the update of technology in our times in this whole semiotic process, which is, the SIGN (the vehicle, the signifying element) per se.

We have created many kinds of media to carry meanings in the previous five thousand years’ civilizations of human beings. This stable quantitative accumulation seems to result in a qualitative change, sharply in recent decades stimulated by the computer and information science and technology. In Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich coins the term “metamedia”, referring to the software-sized media on the basis of all information, digital, computational and other technologies. What he emphasizes in the book repeatedly is that, it’s new media more than “remediating”, or “imitating” the old ones, but the fundamentally new semiotic and technological system which includes most previous media techniques and aesthetics as its elements (P81). In short, the metamedia collects all features of old media and generates into new characteristics, enabling to hold all the already-existing, as well as not-yet-invented media in the future.

If we compare the text-processing software with traditional text media, for example MicroOffice Word with a notebook, we may get how unprecedentedly the metamedia functions. Both of them can be used to write articles. By Word, the author can easily delete a passage when he reviews previous works, insert a new one, change the order, search a paragraph with key words, or use different font and size of the characters as much as he wants, all of which however, cannot be done on a notebook. We’ve all seen how a master’s manuscripts look like — they are filled with messy characters, lines, marks, corrections and deletions. It can’t be searched, even very hard to be recognized, but what a notebook keeps is the process of the thoughts forming — all errors and changes are kept, as well as the trajectory of great minds.

The result of Word is a neat, accurate, mature text, like an ending point of the writing activity,  while what the notebook presents is a whole developing process. Therefore, even though we assume it’s the same author writing the same article just by different media, clearly what we eventually get is the same outcome, but contents and meanings in that notebook and the software Word are hardly to be regarded as the same.

Such words said by Marshall McLuhan are mentioned in one reading:

The medium is the message.

This can be better understood with Bolter & Grusin’s works Remediation. In this book, authors raise terms “immediacy” and “hypermediacy”. To my understanding, these two indicate two contrary features of medium that the new media now is trying to realize — the transparency of the medium, in contrast to the extreme expression.

For the former, kindle is a good example. This digital book reading device, launched by Amazon years later than people start reading online, is a new media with the desire to embrace the oldest text-vehicle — books. The appearance looks like a book and the screen is as fade as paper, of course with some modern digital functions such as text-searching and downloading. As a modern reading device, kindle in fact is trying to minimize its existence as a digital medium, trying its best to bring users the feeling of reading an authentic, printed book.

For the latter, we can compare those novels with their adopted films. In the film the Grate Gatsby(2013), the story is authentically represented in general. However, traditional film elements like music, camera language, gorgeous settings, as well as new techniques such as large numbers of digital graphic effects, all make this film contain more or less contents than the original novel. The art designer’s understanding of the book results in the setting of the film. The director’s understanding results in the camera and editing. In this case, the medium extremely expresses itself, and the medium itself brings about new meanings (and loses some as well). 

The medium is the message?

Well, according to Bolter and Grusin’s ideas, some of the medium is, like the modern film adopted from novels. While some maybe not, like the kindle.

Why the medium is the message?

Because some medium itself contains a process of understandings, like the modern film adopted from novels. Also, none of the medium we use is naturally existed in accord with our cognitive capacities. All of them are created with certain contents and boarders. Each language has its own semantic fields, leading to each nation’ s different cognitions towards external world. Other symbolic system, including maths, dancing, paintings etc., also has its own limited  coverage of meanings and emotions, which brings certain messages coming with signs of the system beyond contents.


Week 10

It’s so interesting and thought-provoking to look back upon some original ideas of the technology we are so familiar with and take for granted today.

According to these historic records, computers, at the very beginning were designed to augment people’s abilities to coping with more complex problems in the reality. There two key features I notice that scientists commonly pay attention to in these articles. First, computers are delineated beyond the pre-formulated programming, but an “intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure”. In Lickliner’s article Man-Computer Symbiosis, he claimed that computers would free people from thinking through the problem before programming, with some logical structures and an trigger by human at the beginning.

Second, the concept related to “association” and “trail” is emphasized. In the article As We May Think, Bush realizes that at his time, the way computers using to select items from subclass to its subclass is ineptitude and inefficient — it’s not the way human beings use in their cognitive process. Inspired by this, Bush says rather than indexing, the association of thoughts and some intricate webs of trails should be applied to the design of computers. This kind of associations form a “library”, taking on an enlarged supplement of people’s memory. Moreover, it’s stronger since data stored in computer won’t be faded, as what in people’s memory will usually be if the association hasn’t been recalled for a long time.

These two ideas both indicate an intention to build an — what we have just discussed — extended mind of human beings. Compared to those pre-modern machines, computers in Lickliner’s blueprint are required to do more than pre-formulated programs, which means that what computers process will result in something unknown or even unexpected by its human manipulators. This design enables people to “off-load” not only memories, or to say “mental data” into an extended storage, but the procedure of process, the “intellectual” behavior of “thinking”, to computers. This idea is really a leap in the history of technology.

In that early times, the concept of “interface” in the design of computers is also phenomenal. On the level of computer science and technology, the interface makes computers become a “layer” underlying other interfaces we use, for examples words and images. The screen design of computers creates a meeting point between signs and the network of meaning that our society associates with them.

This kind of associations collected by the whole society also reflects on the affordance of interfaces. The good affordance of a design fulfill users’ expectations, and expectations themselves are results of users’ long-term habits and historic traditions of a society.

This has some similarities with how semiotic system works in people’s communication process. And in the article, all natural languages are covered under the definition of interface — the materials between ideas in mind and objects in external world. This is quite a fresh and fascinating idea and provides new ways to understand semiotic systems.

codes of mind


We were talking about the “black box” all the time, when learning theories about the human cognitive process. In the computer coding, this “black box” is everywhere. For one thing, in general, any computer program is a black box. It takes our instructions and gives results, in one per million second, and we can’t, and don’t have to, and most times are not allowed to, see the process. What’s happening behind the polished, good-looking window of softwares are all packaged and hided inside that “black box”. For another, the code of every program is also consist of thousands of small “black boxes” — the “function”.

Here’s a simplest sample of the function named “even_odd”, which functions to tell whether the input number is even or odd.

By defining this function, I can now call the “even_odd()” instruction, input a number, then get a string telling me the result in the language I can understand. All codes between the second and ninth line are the mysterious stuff inside that “black box” — and in fact they are not mysterious at all! They are just several steps of logical judgement and arithmetic.

First it defines a variable from the input, then does a yes/no judgement whether it’s an integral. If it is, then another “if” line will tell whether it can be divided by two. Then we get the result.

Deconstructing this function can help us get some knowledge about the cognitive process. In this case, the input information is processed step by step, logically and arithmetically. It’s so well organized and always right, without any ambiguity. Computer programs never hesitate about the “content” of the information — what people always do in communication — it always and only can end in one outcome, as long as it isn’t stuck. That’s the most different part of artificial processing from human mental cognition — it doesn’t try to “understand” things. In other words, artifacts don’t go to semantic level.

But it makes me consider what is the “semantic level” seriously.  When designed to tell the “odd/even” feature of a number, the function seems to simplify this feature into a division calculation, instead of “understanding” it. But isn’t that also some people would do when they are told to do this judgement? The meaning of “even”, in our cognition, is closely related to, or to say, defined by this calculation, and what computer does here are just slowing down and decomposing the process.

We can even code this function a bit differently:

Here the “division calculation” part is changed to more steps. It seems more complicated, but in fact it performs more like the cognitive process of more people would do when processing the meaning of “even”, which is, the number ends with 0/2/4/6/8. It may exactly the same process happening in people’s semantic level.

Of course this is much easier an example than what people would meet with in reality everyday, and not to mention all the history, culture, tradition, life experience and all other things that we call “context” when we try to get any meaning in semantic level. But computers can also be equipped with the “context”, if we spend as long as our life time to write those codes. We can also write codes to enable computers to make speculations when faced with new words or read facial expressions of people. Emotions, at least some of them, are also results following some certain conditions, which means we can also decompose them and code it. Anything can be concluded into a pattern, or a relationship between cause and effect, can all been coded.

What i’m trying to say is, is it possible that our mind, our cognition, our mental process, functions in a way just like those lines of codes? All in the “black box” are just sequential millions of simple steps, logical or arithmetical, as a result of the activities of neurons in brains, just like those of “0” and “1” in the very basic of computers.

In Wing’ s article Computational Thinking, the author claims that “computers are dull and boring; humans are clever and imaginative. We humans make computers exciting“. That’s pretty true. But since the “exciting” can be made, maybe it is just a very complicated accumulation of the “dull and boring”.

Calendar and Cognitive Process


In Clark’s impressive article The Extended Mind, the author uses the example of an Alzheimer patient to elaborate that the material out of human’s physical body boundaries, in this case Otto’s Notebook, should also be considered in the cognitive process. This statement is astonishing, yet persuasive, since the author has eliminated almost all disputations that why couldn’t the “Notebook”, to certain extent, be regarded as the analogue as regular human memory.

But I have some tiny doubts about this brilliant theory:

1) Alzheimer patient Otto is an extreme example, whose brain has almost totally lost its capability of memorizing so the Notebook here takes on a complete substitution. But if we consider a bit general situation, then it seems that so many things play more or less the role of that “notebook” in everyone’s daily life, thus becoming the so called “extended cognition” and taking part in the cognitive process. Then where’s the border of this extension? To which point does this process end?

2) Back to Otto’s example. As an Alzheimer patient, Otto can only remember things for a very limited time. Then even if he wrote the information down before, like the address of a theatre, then when he heard something related again, how could he remember the fact that he heard this before and his “writing down” action, which led him to check the notebook?

For the first question, I find in Clark’s another article, Surprising The Mind, some statements can explain. Discussions on whether the mind is extended and how it works come from and aim for practice and application in reality. External material symbols are meaningful and regarded as “extended cognition” because they have effects on humans to make judgements and then take actions. So the “extended cognition” should only extend to those symbol systems closely related to people’s actions, and the cognitive process ends as soon as the judgments are made and actions are about to being taken.

Calendar is a good example. Calendar is a database storing number information, like date and week, which is hard for people to precisely remember all of them. People will check the calendar what’s the day of a certain date, or to see whether they are available for a date. They can then take notes on the page, which serves as a reminder when that day comes. By the definition of Clark’s, calendar is a kind of “Notebook”, an extended cognitive process.

Calendar is a symbol system, with concrete contents that every one living on the earth share and acknowledge its meaning (like the custom of 7 days a week, 12 months a year). In Chinese culture, as well as some others I believe, the calendar functions as more than a “database” or a “reminder” in people’s life.

This is a typical page of the calendar used in old times, while many people especially in rural regions still use today. As you can see, a lot of information is presented on the page, among which the “auspicious” and “unpropitious” categories value the most. In traditional Chinese culture, owe to the season, the position of a star in the sky and some other reasons (from generations’ life experience to pure superstition), every date has its own features, according to which people should and should not do some activities. All these information is decided by an official agency (such as an Imperial Astronomical Observatory in old times), printed on the calendar, and then annually issued to the whole country.

The most common example is marriage. Until at most twenty years ago, it is a quite rare incident in China that a couple get married on a random date. Elderly members in the family will carefully check the calendar, pick an auspicious-for-marriage date, then the couple is allowed to get married.

This cultural tradition, materialized and reflected on the calendar, controls every one’s significant events from sowing the field, moving into new house, going for traveling, to even cutting hair in old times. The calendar here is clearly an extended cognitive process, as Otto’s Notebook, weighing a lot when people making decisions. This symbol system, at most time completely makes no sense why today is great for cutting hair but tomorrow is not, is collectively formed as part of the culture and everyone accepts. The calendar is just an external storage, which people will turn to and retrieve information from when necessary. In fact, there’s a group of people who can really memorize all these stuff and the “theory” behind (there’s an occupation for these “professional” people, usually respected!). In this case, the calendar serves the same as these people’s memory.

This role of the calendar as an extended cognitive process, however, is also dynamic. For most young people now, they don’t buy these “auspicious” and “unpropitious” stuff any more, and obviously they will not decide when to cut hair or when to have a date by the information on the calendar. So the calendar here doesn’t function as it used to do. When the information has no effect on people’s actions, the calendar ceases to be part of the extended cognitive process, even though all information still printed and announced as usual. Then some other things may replace the calendar as extended cognition to determine young people’s behavior, like constellation.


Limits of “IRP”

\First of all, I want to say this week’s readings are my favorite so far!!!\

What impresses me most in the information theory is the “IRP” formula — “Inverse Relationship Principle” — simply speaking, there will be more amount of semantic information carried by data when the proposition/event/given language has more uncertainty. It sounds against common sense at first. If thinking over for several seconds, however, it totally makes sense — uncertainty means more probabilities, so it is reasonable to define it more informative.

According to Floridi’s work VSI: Information, this formula works well on the mathematics level, where the efficiency of encoding and transmitting data is the most concern, and information is just treated as data communication. On this level, theories including IRP can explain a lot of phenomenon and develop what we call hitech like telegram and telephone. “Redundancy” is used to counteract the inevitable loss and interference of data in the transmission, and “entropy”, a concept from thermodynamic, is introduced to information theory, and embellishes the theory with incomparable logic and scientificity.

But Floridi soon points out that the “IRP” causes problems on the semantic level: the “scandal of deduction” and “Bar-Hillel Carnap Paradox”. Deduction, by which people make conclusions from lots of given conditions and knowledge, is claimed to have been completely contained in known information, that is, it’s 100% certain. What people “only” do is to draw them out, or reorganize them into an obvious shape, so deduction results in nothing as information. This may annoy countless mathematicians. With regard to the paradox, it infers from the “IRP” that completely contradictory situations create the most “informativeness”. About this paradox, Floridi explains it as the result of a lack of the role “meaning” taking part in this whole process of communication. If the meaning of the language/proposition/event and whether it’s true or false on the factual level is considered first with common knowledge, the paradox can be easily eliminated.

What I get from all these fascinating examples and Floridi’s works is, “meaning”, as well as people’s mental process of understanding the meaning in communications, with whether the most traditional methods or the most advanced technology, cannot be absent when trying to understand the information theory. When it comes to digital or other modern forms of information coated with technology, concepts like “IRP” and “entropy” should play their roles in the explanations of physical theories. Digital and other forms are the vehicle of natural language (or paintings or dancings or other relatively traditional semiotic system), which, we have discussed before, are vehicles of “ideas”, that is to say, technologic forms are the vehicle of the vehicle of ideas. So how can we skip the semantic process in information theory?

Another problem appears when information is just defined as logical, scientific models and theories including “IRP”, according to Day’s article The “Conduit Metaphor” and The Nature and Politics of Information Studies, which is written under certain political context of Cold War but still quite valuable for me. To my understanding (Day’s article is quite readable in general but sadly I don’t get some parts in the middle), the author wants to add more literary, poetic, humanistic and cultural colours to the information theory, along with the strictly and precisely scientific treatment.

Language/information should not just be treated as a transmission or communication medium, but”it’s an agency for social and cultural and political change“. Knowledge is not a self-evident, self-intentional, systemic process, it is “hermeneutic”, “poetic” devices. Otherwise, the scenario has been depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, where languages and information are only treated in the sense of rationality and accuracy, by continuously amending and censoring the NewSpeak Dictionary. That would be creepy. 

At last, I have some questions about Floridi’s theory. 1) In his classification of “data content”. Floridi distinguishes the “instructional” information from the factual one. What’s the point of this difference? 2) In chapter one, Floridi defines different generations as “digital immigrants” and “digital natives”. I’ m wondering, whether, and how this new methods of communication would change the cognitive process of human beings?

Semiotic Analysis in Literature


In ancient Chinese poetry, there’s one literary technique called “Yong Dian“(用典). By using the methods, poets write down in poem a word or a very short phrase, which represents a story, an event, or an anecdote having been — or should be — very well-known among all readers. The words or short phrases can be a name, a place, a “Nian Hao” (年号, a phrase decided by each emperor to label the period of his reign), or a short combination of Proper nouns and verbs. These words or combinations, called “Dian Gu”(典故), can represent either something did happen in history, or fiction ones created by former writers, or just a very personal moment or concept recorded by famous previous poets in their works.

This technique was so commonly used in ancient Chinese poetry. It saves poets a long passage to express some complicated meanings or emotions, thus expanding the range of content a piece of poem can cover and convey. For example, a very early, famous piece of Chinese poetry talks about how the author feels so sad when seeing that the site used to be a gorgeous palace of his past country is now full of “Shu Li” (黍离, a kind of weed), for a new dynasty conquering the old one. After that, all poets only need to mention the word “Shu Li” in poem, then readers will get the meaning of someone losing his homeland and all feelings related to this event.

In this case, “Shu Li” in all literature is not a kind of plant any more. Readers will unconsciously relate this word with the background of war and the change of dynasty, as well as a depressed tone of emotion. In fact, in no case that this word can just be understood as a kind of plant in the whole history of Chinese literature, even if the author intends to.

According to Peirce’s theory, “sign-responses are frequently expressed in other signs/symbols, interpretants generate further development of meaning expressible in future interpretable signs”. In the case of ancient Chinese poetry, many such kind of words like “Shu Li” are the sign generated from some original signs (plants, country, war, time passing by) by one or several poets’ creation. With continuous literary activities of inventing new signs and passing by from one generation to another, the “prototype” words are invented, or may gradually altered, and then form a dynamic meaning system. This meaning system, however only makes sense in a limited space, which may broadly defined as Chinese Literature. After all, “Shu Li” would still only be related with the object of the plant in a botanical context. To some certain extent, it is the combination of these dynamically generated signs, not only in the space of literature but other intelligent activities, that defines so-called “culture”. 

It should be clarified that “Shu Li” is quite an extreme example. The earliest piece of creation about it, which generated new meanings that used in the following 2000 years, was so strong that there’s no other options. But in most cases, new generated meanings are also inconstant, or many poets would create their own meanings in one sign, which all become well-known, at least for some time among some certain readers, then different levels of meanings are formed.

That is what will happen in Peirce’s “interpretant” process, when all kinds of responses to signs appear in people’s minds when receiving the signal to “decode” a symbol. Different levels of meanings are all presented in front of the reader in that moment, then different kinds of understandings are made, and as a result, diversity emerges in the analysis of literature. Of  course, each school has their own theories on how to explain literature works. Some claim it’s exclusive because signs in literature have certain explanations, while others indicate the writer has done all his job when finishing his works, and readers have all rights and freedom to explain it.





Semiotics and Aesthetics


One of the most important foundations of linguistics and semiotics is its generativity, that is, limited units can be combined and generate infinite meanings. Another convincing model in language study raised by Jackoffend about how people process information is the “parallel structure”, claiming that generative process in language happens by simultaneous interface among phonological, syntactical and conceptual structures. On the basis of these two presumptions, it occurs to me that aesthetics may can also be included into this whole semiotic structure.

I’m not an expert in aesthetics and also realize that pages and pages of words are required to define the concept “aesthetics” first if I want to discuss it precisely and flawlessly in logic, which will be unreadable and certainly beyond my capability. So I just simply define what I’m talking about here as “how people feel the sense of beauty”.

Many of you must have experienced a feeling before–at least I have for many times– that when you meet something marvelous, like a Picasso or a piece of Bach, you are just caught by a sense of beautiful and amazing even before you realize what it is about. In other words, a sense of beauty, or the process of aesthetics, happens meanwhile, if not before, people’s perception-meaning system. On this point, the mental process of aesthetics is highly similar, or related to which of semiotics.

Why do people regard something beautiful? The first cause, I assume, depends on the accumulated construction of the “beauty” word by the whole society, which is dynamically changed and accepted by all people taking part in this process as a collective memory. People feel something beautiful, because the object they are faced with fits their collective definition of “beauty”. It should be clarified that, as meaning system, besides the whole social/cultural context, construction of “beauty” also varies to some extent, thanks to some relatively personal experience of each person, which causes different judgement of beauty we can see every day.

But whatever the beauty is for any individual, it happens in these two steps. The first resembles Peirce ‘s model, but the process between the “signified” and “signifier” also generates all related memory of beauty judgement, besides the meanings related with the “signified” itself. Then a process of comparing follows, judging whether the object fits the accumulated memory of “beauty”. Beauty judgement here is a process parallel to meaning-generative system. Sometimes people feel it happens before figuring out what the object is just because the feeling is so strong that other outcomes in mental process are temporarily covered at that moment.

What I have as a result is that aesthetics is another part in the parallel structure of semiotic process. It derives from the conceptual part probably because beauty judgment, even more the moral judgement, is so important in human beings’ social activities that it evolves finally as a salient process independent on other conceptual contents.

Different genres of arts triggers people’s sense of beauty in slightly different ways. In Lessing’s work Laocoon: an essay on the limits of painting and poetry, he explains how a painting and poetry brings about pleasure to people, and furthermore, how should the author present ideas according to the form of his work to satisfy the audience at most. In general, Lessing claims that when watching arts in static form like paintings, people generate the sense of beauty mostly from imaging a series of associated situations, since the information provided is limited. But in the front of arts like poetry or drama, where complete stories develop with time, the audience usually generates the feeling designed and expected by the author.

Consider both Lessing’s theories and what I mentioned before. Static semiotic systems like paintings require more attendance and collective memory from the audience to generate aesthetic meanings than dynamic forms, such as poetry, drama and movies. It seems like a paradox that objects with less information offers more connections to broader meanings for each one.