Semiotic Triad

We, human beings, are, in fact, not capable of making immediate observations: our senses are always in between. It’s our senses that inescapably intermediate between reality as it really is and the way we make sense of it; interpret that reality. Without our senses, we don’t observe anything, lose track of reality and our connections with it.
These observed sensory signs are interpreted by our brains. That interpretation is influenced by what it already knows from earlier observations. It’s that interpretation that subsequently incites us to action; to exhibit behaviour. Behaviour that, in turn, is observable by means of new sensory signs which are interpreted by our brains again. And that completes the cycle of us, humans, in our capacity as information (sign) processing beings.

C.S. Peirce (1839-1914) digested this knowledge into ‘his’ semiotic triad (1902). Objects in reality produce Meaning (interpretations) in our brains – never immediate; always via the Signs picked up by our senses.

As said: these Signs are always in between. Signs refer on the one hand to Objects in reality. On the other hand these very same Signs yield Meaning (interpretant) in our individual brains.

Current IT practice, however, takes a direct and fixed connection between Object and Meaning for granted. It’s simply an unquestioned ‘fact’. But as we can readily learn from Peirce, such an absolute connection does not exist. Peirce teaches us that the Object-Meaning connection always ‘goes’ via picked up Signs. It’s the Signs (information) that refer to Objects (entities) in reality as well as yield Meaning (interpretations) in our individual brains.

The semiotic triad explains that one and the same event observed at one and the same point in time by two observers standing side by side can (and often will) yield two rather differing interpretations. For each observer comes with his/her own individual brain – loaded with a unique set of associated interpretations that developed over time by the individual reception of many, many signs.
Even the recollection of a certain event by one person at differing moments in time can (and often will) yield different interpretations. For both memories are ‘separated’ by an entire collection of interpretations – caused by a multitude of received signs. Were you always just as afraid of spiders (or snakes) as you are now? Various and varying experiences with objects over time create a developing interpretation/meaning of these objects. This, of course, greatly influences your relation to – and behaviour with these objects.

At the same time the semiotic triad makes it obvious that human interpretation of information/signs picked up from reality not only is an outright subjective matter, but must also be a highly dynamic activity. Modern information technology makes information/signs available in bulk in less than no time for any one at any time and any place. IT thoroughly permeated and transformed traditional society into full fledged information society. And meaning of information became unmistakably agile as a consequence of ever more and ever varying streams of signs (information) coming in anywhy, from anywhere, about anything and anyone.
In traditional society things and information about these things changed at a rather low pace. As a ‘consequence’, meaning of information could ‘safely’ assumed to be fixed. Nowadays – information society – that assumption lost (most of) its ‘validity’. Meaning of information can’t be defined at forehand anymore – as we used to do. Instead, meaning of information now… happens on the fly.

Ever increasing dynamics of contemporary information society now requires IT to effectively and efficiently facilitate human interpretation of signs. Unfortunately IT still largely fails to meet this pressing requirement. A reality in which change counts as the only constant, requires a new orientation towards the coming about of meaning of information (interpretation of signs). And Peirce’s semiotic triad shows us the onset of a New and Productive path. Don’t you think?

This article is a… Sign as well. A sign that refers you to (objects in) reality. A sign that requests you to further develop and to (re)consider established ideas on the coming about of meaning of information.

What do you think? Does the coming about of meaning of information remain fixed and absolute – do you stick to the good old IT paradigm? Or… do you want to turn off to a far more productive path? A path on which meaning of information comes about individually and dynamically.

September 2011, Copyright (c) 2011 – Jan van Til/Information Roundabout

Note: The picture of Peirce’s semiotic triad, I used above, originates from the book Semiosis & Sign Exchange – Design for a Subjective Situationism, including Conceptual Grounds of Business Information Modeling, written by P.E. Wisse (2002): figure 2.4.2 at p66.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *