Strange Semiotics


Linked from Ron Cobb’s ALIEN art pages, this one is entitled, “Nostromo semiotic icons.”

I don't like to re-hash older work (well maybe sometimes), but this was on-point regarding how we interpret messages based on the medium and/or device in which they are written. [To David Bowie it might be rechaufee (or leftovers), as used in the lyric for Strangers When We Meet from the excellent (then underrated) Outside album (1995)]. No peachy prayers, No trendy rechauffé...

I've noticed messages getting shorter and even compressed into emojis (or Likes), even when it is just as easy to type the few words that they represent. Emoji can add just as much ambiguity that it is intended to resolve. They are what the Danish physicist Tor Norretranders called "exformation" in his book The User Illusion.

"The shortest correspondence in history took place in 1862. Victor Hugo, famous for writing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, had gone on holiday following the publication of his great novel Les Miserables. But Hugo could not restrain himself from asking how the book was doing. So he wrote the following letter to his publisher: “?”  His publisher was not to be outdone and replied fully and keeping with the truth: “!”.... Measured in bits, a "?" isn't much for a letter home. If there are 30 odd characters in the alphabet, letters plus a few punctuation marks, each of them contains about 5 bits on average. So the entire correspondence consisted of about 10 bits. But it worked. It was not the number of its transmitted that was decisive, but the context of that transmission….Both messages represent many considerations, thoughts, feelings, and facts, which are not present but nevertheless are."

People respond less to anything long form because perhaps our brains are adapting accordingly to the existing technologies.

An excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2002:

"In the 1960s, anthropologists conducted studies in the African bush where they would show the natives photographs and asked them what they saw. Many of these people had never seen a photograph before in their lives. One woman, when shown a photo of her own son, failed to recognize him. However, when they were shown the same images on cloth or stone, they were able to relate to them. This may indicate that certain cultures may have invisible frameworks in the brain that prevent subjective interpretation of the outside world. It’s encouraging to think that music and art can be effective in breaking these barriers, as they transcend a language comprised solely of words. Music and art have their own language largely based on context (as in  the photo recogni­tion problem of the bush people) and you encounter similar problems with people understanding artistic intent. In music, especially instru­mental music, you can more easily understand a culture, as what they value in the community is reflected in the musical product, generally speaking. Western music and art tends to defy this explanation, as it  is very often conceptual and ironic, and conceals its intent from the surface of the work. In this sense, it creates a boundary around itself, such that only people attuned to the intent of conceptual art can understand it. While music can be the “snapshot” of a culture in a metaphorical sense, Western variants tend to obscure it, or at least partition it off from the culture for purpose of “taking sides” with a subculture. But the true essence is in the cadence of the voice, and the music we instantaneously hear in it.



    * Obviously, the medium is the message
    * Social media exchanges are exformation, but leads to ambiguity, perhaps misinformation
    * Is an example of high context where cultural norms are tacitly implied--but the norms never last long enough to become norms.