SEMIOTICS: FROM NANDO’S TO OUTER SPACE
SPACE DOCTORS AND PAUL COBLEY
Space Doctors is excited to explore collaborative, hybrid thinking that combines and cuts across disciplines. We recently reconnected with the fundamental tools we use every day, and enriched our perspective by exploring their intersection with Biosemiotics, framed by expert Paul Cobley, Professor in Language and Media at Middlesex University, Biosemiotics specialist, and true sage. Here some of our findings:
When we make a statement, wear a t-shirt, style our hair or choose a smoothie, we are making decisions about what messages to send out into the world – we encode signs and send them out to be received. Those around us receive these messages, and decode these signs to construct meaning.
How these signs are decoded differs between cultures. A particular shade of green may be decoded differently by a millennial in Sweden or a baby boomer in the UK. Some signs are decoded the same across cultures and as humans there are basic agreed meanings such as: fire is hot, it will burn us; music is loud, it may annoy us.
Our shared human sensorium can transcend cultural differences but individual cultures promote different interpretations and entirely unique concepts (e.g. Japanese ‘kawaii’ or Swedish ‘lagome’). As Semioticians, we analyse the culture surrounding each of these recipients, we seek to understand how the signs they receive will be decoded – this is our bread and butter. For a Biosemiotician, we see that all organisms communicate in this way, from humans to bacteria.
Unlimited Pools of Meaning
While walking down the high street, the Nando’s logo may remind me of that memorable evening spent eating chicken and drinking unlimited glasses of icy Coca Cola with my friends, Jake and Jill. But Harry has his own set of associations, perhaps a fateful attempt to assert social dominance through his choice of extra-extra-extra-hot. When a new customer, Hannah, enters a Nando’s for the first time, she brings this infinite, unlimited process of semiotics to an end in a moment of pragmatic decision making—to enter Nando’s—and creates an entirely new personal meaning of the brand to contribute to the unlimited pool of meaning.
The Medium is the Message
While thinking about cultural objects in the context of Marshal McLuhan’s statement, “the medium is the message,” Paul had us walk around the South Bank to find “mediums.” Presumably they would be some mechanism similar to McLuhan’s original inspiration—television – a way of transmitting information that fundamentally disrupts how that information was received. What in the world around us could be so revolutionary? What and how do objects tell a story? What is a medium and what is a message?
Immediately the significance of the every day was changed. We saw street signs, pedestrian crossings, and ATMs, all of which are vehicles with a message. ATMs remediate a culture’s relationship to money by making it feel accessible and unlimited. In this way, a medium transforms or remediates a preexisting message. It intervenes and changes culture with its own mechanics. Pedestrian crossings don’t just signal that it’s safe to cross the road, they communicate that urban environments are controlled, safe, and possibly restrictive. Tattoos aren’t just body art, but are body language. Body language has many guises, and tattoos intervene to speak where gestures might not.
The Human Sensorium is a Dynamic Construct
Media don’t exist entirely outside the human sensorium but are extensions of it. Each new medium extends our sensorium outwards – all the way to the edges of the observable universe in the case of telescopes – thus altering the quality of our perceptions, and revealing new details both near and far. This impact on our collective consciousness unites our species and makes a fundamental difference to how we view our planet, and how we see ourselves—just as the Voyager made our planet, in all its history, its billions of individual human and animal lives, a minute pixel against the backdrop of a yawning void.
Transhumanist and cyborg use of technology could potentially expand these faculties further, opening out the sensorium and adapting our sensory scope to create more fundamental changes to what the world means to us.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel posed the question “what is it like to be a bat?” to illustrate the difficulty of imagining sensory experiences so different to our own. How can we imagine what it feels like to spread paper-thin wings and launch ourselves into flight, to be near-blind but hear with razor sharp acuity? We can imagine what it would be like for a human to behave like a bat, but that’s an entirely different answer. Now, the pressing question in the face of absurdly intelligent AI and cybernetic human augmentation becomes, “what is it like to be a computer?” What’s unbelievably exciting is that we may soon have the tools to answer.