Topic 1: Peirce and Computer Interfaces

Although Peirce developed his theory of semiotics long before the “digital age,” the emergence of computational devices illustrates the adaptability of his model. Take, for instance, the icons on a computer’s desktop. How might they function semiotically according to Peirce’s schema of representamen, interpretant, and object, and how might a digital example prove more useful in clarifying the theory than one focused on “natural” signs?

According to Chandler, the representamen, or sign vehicle, is often misunderstood to exist materially in all cases (29). If we take, for example, a cloudy sky suggesting rain, these dark clouds would function as the representamen. However, the materiality of the clouds might lead to misunderstanding the representamen as always taking a material form. This is not the case, as we see with desktop icons. When I see a folder icon on my desktop, the representamen is far from material. Although it might rely on the material hardware of the computer in order to appear, I am not able to determine the physical existence of the folder, mainly because it does not exist physically but only as a metaphor for storage. As a result, this digital example precludes misunderstanding the representamen to always exist as a material object.

There appears to be a similar amount of confusion regarding the Peircean object. For Chandler, the object is “something beyond the sign to which it refers (a referent).” However, there are at least two things which exist beyond the sign and to which it refers: the mental concept and the thing itself. For instance, if we take the word “tiger,” both the tiger itself and the concept of tiger exist beyond the sign and, potentially, are referred to by the sign. However, as Prof. Irvine notes,” An object in his terminology is a position in a cognitive relation — a concept, idea, code, or mental rule,” not a “real-world referent” (“Semiosis and Cognitive Semiotics” (21). This, admittedly, confused me for quite some time because structural linguists, notably Benveniste, use the term “referent” to mean the thing itself. However, what Peirce labels the “object” more closely resembles Saussure’s “signified,” or mental concept. Therefore, the object of the word “tiger” is the mental concept of tiger, not the, or a, physically existing tiger. This confusion can be avoided through the use of digital examples. If I am trying to determine the object of a folder icon, I know that the icon does not refer to the real-world referent (i.e. a physical folder), but to the concept of a folder.

In addition, digital examples prove Peirce’s observation that signs point to other signs. The sign of the folder icon points to other signs (such as a conventional folder) which point to yet other signs in an infinite chain. However, I’m still left wondering how this might relate to poststructuralist notions of the chain of infinite signifiers by which the signified is never reached. In this model, meaning is always unstable because there is no transcendental signified by which to ground it. Is this also the case in Peirce’s semiotics?