An ongoing cognitive semiotics experiment to preserve the commensurability of specific information; exploring the complexity of sign relations when representing meaning between differing minds across expanses of deep time for practical discussions, and engagement with custodianship of stewardship materials.
Archive the ‘Essentials’. Conserve Records for Posterity. Bridge the Long Communication Distance.
MEANING BEYOND THE MODERN MIND
UNPACKING THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES
'This is a message, a message addressed to you constructed in a code-system called English marked with Roman letters in ink on sheets of cellulose, or as liquid crystals on the screen. It is here and now, perceived by the senses, interpreted by a being with a brain, body, and history, living in the world… By using this code-system I evidently hope to make myself understood, to awaken in the mind of the receiver similar thoughts and ideas I have when I formulate this message’ – David Dunér.
Dunér’s candid remark sentiment draws into sharp relief some of the varyingly latent steps involved when interpreting and assimilating information between communicating parties – living mind with histories who share many commonalities and conventions with one another to garner a signified ‘meaning’.
Often, we do not need to excessively examine modern cultural formats like language or pictures to (in a Peircean sense) ‘abduct’ what they depict. In broad strokes, these abductive faculties are owed to mutual life-world features and joint experiences such as; a common mental architecture; shared perceptual preferences; distributed cognitive interactions between other living minds, environmental settings and material things; and a historical scaffolding of socio-cultural conventions (amongst other affiliated worldviews and value codes), all of which covertly operate on different spatial settings (internal, interpersonal etc.) and varying temporal scales (e.g., neural, cultural, generational) in global syntactic patterns for inducted audiences. The ease by which we navigate these complex networks when leaping from, in this case, a visual percept of a recognised sign (e.g., a lingual expression in script, or conventional pictograph) to signified meaning between present-day individual brains, belies the complexity underpinning these cumbersome deductive steps that usually operate in the mental background for competent ‘readers.’ Let us briefly unpack some of these features to elucidate how ‘meaning’ is inherently bound up and exchanged between living societies, with significant lessons for our capabilities to project any meaning across timescales using dissevered signs and isolated artefacts.
WAYS OF SEEING
Drawing out some of the most salient constituents involved within our cognitive information processing faculties, naturally requires us to begin by firstly touching upon the realm of perceptual psychology. This detour intends to simply highlight what stimuli we are prone to respond to, and how preferences in (for instance) our visual system collectively underscore our particular domains of seeing through what is, essentially, abstract mark-making practices. We do not wish to meaningfully tackle gestalt principles here, or the dimensions of related neuroscience, perceptual ecologies, and cultural material engagement theories that disparately identify and discuss human cognitive predilections in specific niches – otherwise known as human ‘umwelt’ experiences. Without straying too far out into this expansive and often discordant literature, some dominant visual preferences underscoring our perceptual experiences are primarily framed by several optical triggers which our visual system actively responds to, including; bilateral symmetry, the presence of corners, occlusive boundaries, chiaroscuro in shading or colour, motion parallax, proximity, contour integration, observed similarity ‘or feature saliency, canonical perspectives, and directionality for regions of contrast. Collectively, these optical predispositions enable us to pick out which features in images or text are of significance to our minds, and why. We occasionally become aware of how our minds overrate the naturality of these perceptual value codes from an external prerogative, for instance when we disabuse ourselves in viewing ambiguous Rorschach inkblot patterns or Müller-Lyer illusions. However, each of our other sensory channels possesses its own unique evolutionary partialities, maladaptations, and other stimuli preferences for responding to our encompassing ecologies and broader planetary surroundings.
WAYS OF THINKING
Coupled with these predispositions in sensory perception is our shared practice of varyingly expressing mental thoughts across an established semiosis framework; cognitive skills useful for thinking, endowing meaning, intracranial management (i.e., internal self-ordering of our beliefs, philosophies, thoughts etc.)and conceptually conveying our ‘human lifeworld’ experiences to others. Generally, we do not think about ‘real’ objects, but rather the surrogate memory values and typologies of encoded signs that collectively substitute for experienced referents (objects) in a participant’s inducted mind – indexical, iconic and symbolic expressions whose meaning is varyingly shared, and continually re-shaped within living social settings as functional contexts or ‘implicit cues’. Natural languages – regularly regarded as the most influential, erudite inventions of the human mind – are a perfect example of such a framework; functioning upon substitute ‘word’ conjugations for experienced referents (strings of symbolic characters that in no way reflect the properties of the objects they refer to). For instance, if we wish to invoke our neighbouring ‘red planet’, we do not need to physically point at the fourth planet from the Sun as a representational cue, rather we can rely upon merely uttering a shorthand syllable or inscribe a four-letter, Roman-script word (i.e., the sign) to convey what we intend to signify to an English speaker (though deducing the correct, interpretive context between the planet Mars and confectionery product requires further social context for referents between sender and receiver).
Often these social signs operate as stylised, highly ordered conventions for expressing short-hand referents in resident cultural settings (as language, depiction media, body gestures etc.). But this abstraction, in turn, comes at the expense of rendering these experiential signs largely unintelligible for external agents to access without aids, due to the oft-lack of clear epistemic, cognitive or isomorphic associations with referent objects or concepts. For instance, readers will need a Hindi dictionary to interpret the meaning contained in मंगल – an abstract symbol which clearly does not provide any relatable context for the object it represents (Mars). Moreover, while the flexibility of cultural formats, like natural languages, enables us to beneficially invoke ‘all that matters’ amongst living users of the code system for communications between parties, this elasticity comes at the cost of slowly annihilating what these code-systems previously signified for prior generations. The ‘drift’ in a language landscape naturally occurs after long (and even shorter) intervals of time, resulting in differing dialects and eventually distinctive language branches, but it also causes an irrecuperable loss of how the languages were used by past societies; ‘imperative contexts’, which are usually the first interpretive threads to erode when a language falls out of everyday use. Working through the complexities underpinning these phases of ‘making things mean’ outside of direct contact is unfortunately a realm we are not readily familiar with. Many of the admirable translation precedents set for deciphering ancient languages reveal a rather discouraging prospect; successful translation campaigns have historically relied on the investigating agent possessing some evidentiary resources from ancient-to-modern knowledge transfer systems to ‘decode’ what past minds meant within their internal cultural exchanges. Most of these untranslated ancient languages are also only separated from our present era by ‘mere’ millennia.
The field of cognitive semiotics, in part, studies our comprehension of, and the origins for, these mental meaning-making signs as expressions that stand for, refer to, or denote something else, alongside the triadic relationships established between the interpreter’s mind, signifier expression, and the signified thing within particular settings. Understanding these relationships is key for comprehending how living minds easily branch across the ‘meaning making’ expanse when interacting with one another using arbitrary signs, and ‘pidgins’, along with other auxiliary languages, and there are many excellent studies which probe this intelligibility expanse between mark-making practices, and the cognitive assimilation of these concepts. However, as mentioned above, for a number of reasons these mental constructs often do not readily translate to signified meaning outside of their resident cultural or historic settings, let alone mediate these referents across spatiotemporal distances as dissevered, noetic fragments in silent artefacts of our material culture. It is relatively uncontentious to state that some mark-making practices from past civilisations, even those we share a close kinship with, will always remain opaque to us as we cannot ascertain how these societies chose to interlink their cultural signs to aspects of their living world (let alone whether we even share commonalities with what is being signified). Parietal artwork and artefacts containing fragments of abstract representational practices are good examples of this inescapable loss, along with ancient language branches that long ago fell from our species’ language tree.
WAYS OF 'THINGING'
As summarised above, we generally think by socially constructing mental signs to stand-in for signified referents, and cultivating surrogate mark-making practices according to perceptual preferences. These aspects may be loosely considered our ‘ways of seeing’ and ‘ways of thinking’. However, these internalised sign-relations are varyingly externalised as intelligible gestures through associations of prosthetic memory aids in an immense variety of material domains, mostly for archival, votive and ceremonial services (among other cultural applications). But does material externalisation – or our ‘ways of making’ – merely play a passive role in this mediation of expression? Today, debates over the varying influences, impacts and cognitive features of material practices vigorously continue, with recent practical and theoretical work centralising around exploring the territories of enactive, situated, distributed, extended, and embodied cognition. Thinking with and through matter usage, or cross-
modal ‘thinging’ (defined as the kind of thinking we do primarily within and through material things), in fact plays a pivotal role in mediating these semiotic relationships between brains, but it also supports, informs, shapes, restricts and arguably complements these practices through how we interface with matter to store graphemic and aesthetic systems as gestures of ‘distributed cognition.’
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall once acutely remarked that ‘[r]epresentation is a very different notion from that of reflection. It implies the active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping; not merely the transmitting of an already existing meaning but the more active labor of making things mean’. In Hall's context, and to integrate the above perspectives on crafting and distributing a ‘meaning between minds’, an abstract representation using signs in material culture deposits may be crudely understood as a link in a much larger chain. It consists of an individual’s deliberate ‘re-presentations’ (externalised gestures of internal thoughts using sign systems, intended for peer review in shared social settings), of a mental representation (articulations according to the creator’s prescribed worldviews and comprehensions of phenomenology), of the creator’s representation (their sensorimotor experiences and percepts of specific ecologies), with feedback occurring in each representational phase throughout the process. Further orders of re-presenting are introduced to these ‘mindscapes’ when creating a priori artefacts to export our lineage of traditions, histories, nomenclature categories, and substrates of mental-material relationships onto distant others we assume share in, or are familiar with, our cultural value codes and conventions of sign expression. These assumptions are where communication or ‘commensurability’ problems can occur.
This is a coarse oversimplification for only some of the varyingly disputed theoretical problems underpinning ‘making things mean’ in living cultural and social settings through elaboration from an essential arbitrary material sign by pre-inducted interpreters. However, even briefly discussing the literature behind some of these selective domains in modular paragraphs broadly illustrates some disciplinary tendencies to misrepresent our mental capabilities for deducing a meaning (for displaced referents) from isolated symbolic artefacts as a linear ‘encoding-storage-reception-retrieval’ scheme. These interpretations of our mind also impose unhelpful antinomies such as Cartesian divides between internal cognition and externalised material expressions, as per the allegorical software and hardware dualism found in our computational theories of mind. Furthermore, it also privileges the location of ‘intelligence’ to the innards of the brain, as opposed to the wider coalescences of living, externalised mental-material-action practices in techno-environmental settings as part of a situated cognition, while rendering imperceptible some crucial insights underscoring our analyses of mnemonic relics, and the ascribed flexibility of our material signs to convey our intended meaning.
MEANING BEYOND THE HUMAN MIND?
It is within this context of understanding ‘meaning across modern minds’ that we may locate some of the principle challenges associated with conveying a signified meaning across expanses of spacetime to unknown recipients that we may not even recognise as ‘human’ — not through direct exchanges between minds, but rather via our surrogate material culture such as inscribed media endowed in representational artefacts that likely possess no interpretive clues in the ‘medium’ for interpreting the intended ‘message’. So, what historical precedents have already been established in addressing these complexities while unpacking some of the semiotics baggage involved within fabricating isolated material devices, intended to function or ‘communicate’ beyond the sender's position in space time?
The collections of research pertaining to space messages and other interstellar transmission projects serves as an influential keystone for some strategies which intend to ‘step out of our brains’. Many of these messaging projects have been extensively researched and analysed as part of our ‘A Profile of Humanity’ work over the past decade. However, these studies have raised some curious questions in regards to how decisions made in one project can directly influence successor messaging initiatives – demonstrating an unfortunate tendency for designers to simply adopt signs as a historical convention for ensuring comprehension, without critically assessing whether we believe these signs may still reflect the signified property of reality they are designed to represent. Despite this, there have been several initiatives developed by aspects of the METI community to inspire meaningful engagement in pioneering new strategies for communication with intelligences that naturally evolved under the light of different Suns. For instance, several workshops on message design have
generated novel theories and unique concepts at the intersection of artistic and mathematical fields, alongside fostering practical outreach initiatives like the New Arecibo Message, the recent A Sign in Space project, and also the prominent competition Breakthrough Message. In addition to these METI-focused endeavours, much ink has already been spilled designing signs, symbols, and representational insignia [or isolating barriers] to responsibly mitigate future human intrusions within transuranic waste depositories. However, the creation of suitable 'primers' and tailored libraries that may be commensurable to the spectrum of unknowable, distant recipients is still largely underexplored, and necessitates intensive cooperation across disciplines that may otherwise seem unconnected.
COMMUNICATION: WORKING THROUGH THE DISSONANCE
In respect to unidirectional communique for posterity, future human societies could run the gamut of Palaeolithic Age to Space Age, or to prospective Silicon Age cultures, and therefore remain unpredictable for even our widest forecasts of posterity, their capabilities, worldviews, and the commonalities we might actually share. Given these relative unknowns for the developmental history of human posterity, and the nature of the ‘After the Horizon’ contents, we advocate for the adoption of a precautionary approach for ensuring our ‘essential’ archive of ‘do not go, and need to know’ will hopefully remain legible should posterity need to access this information. As such, the ‘Meaning Beyond the Modern Mind’ working group intends to explore primer strategies and other semiotics materials which treat our future posterity as ‘aliens’; that is, distinctive intelligences, living in their world with differing life experiences, whom we may still need to forge a common interpretive bridge with from the foundations up. Within this approach, our initial focus is centred on cultivating lessons built upon practical deductions that may be made in tandem with the observable properties of our ‘Companion Guide to Earth’ device as a common reference object (simply having an object of common interest possesses a distinctive advantage over METI’s task of figuring out appropriate strategies for punctuating photon streams). Thereafter, we intend to leverage these pragmatic principles to aid in introducing our conventions for building displays of information, while generating other auxiliary pidgins to support an interpretation of properties useful for the defined scope of stewardship contents. While we intend to take exhaustive steps in ‘making these silent signs mean’, this introductory guide intends to allow posterity to simply skip steps should strategies be redundant for any interpretive leaps we believe are warranted for a wider range of distant audiences to access.
Initially, it is intended that this inductive, cognitive tool will specifically focus upon correlating mutual epistemological properties using both the Companion Guide ‘Earth-capsule’ shell and experiences from its found geosynchronous orbit. For instance, these commonalities may be gleaned by simply comparing the archives outer shell and nearby continental surface, before these lessons are expanded upon in the semiotics contents contained across the series of micro-etched discs (which will still require some deductive leaps to be undertaken by posterity). Once some measurable corpus of referents based upon common ‘life-world’ experiences have hopefully been established, this introductory 'Rosetta Stone' and assortment of ideographic icons, will begin the arduous task of then branching into the other properties of the various legacies detailed in the ‘After the Horizon’ cache, in addition to probing other intuitive cues, exo-semiotic primers (such as revised elements of the auxiliary language 'Lincos'), alongside corroborating redundancy information, and strategic 'activity' testing phases, in an attempt to mitigate other types of partiality likely embedded in our deep time and interstellar communicative activities. Adopting multiple access strategies is simply good practice.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE LIMITATIONS
Will these objectives in archival development achieve these goals? There will always be uncertainty. It is imperative to state that these contents and the ‘Companion Guide to Earth’ are developed predominantly as a multidisciplinary platform for practically probing the 'incommensurability issue' faced when signifying meaning, using material signs, to hypothesised entities that may not share our epistemological foundations, social or cultural inclinations, cognition, morphology, sense modalities or other properties of convergent evolution. Concurrently, any successful re-interpretation of ‘meaning’ is always a collaborative activity between the signifier (us), our signs for contents we intend to signify, and the interpreter who will never approach such a challenge as a neutral observer; thus, ensuring that grasping meaning will forever remain outside of our direct control. We shouldn’t assert that posterity will be easily able to re-access and definitively re-interpret information or cultural media without an evidentiary basis for such imaginative speculations – committing such abrupt assumptions simply clouds proper investigations into the limits of our communication capabilities, in the interest of generating sensationalist media coverage. Therefore, the crucial value of this project is to serve as a practical experimental ground for advancing research and disciplinary literature into debates governing long-term communication strategies, while inspiring engagement with identifying the longer-term legacies that will far outlast the generations which cultivate them. It is also intended that this work will inspire semiotic studies into alternative primer strategies, rather than solely relying upon recycling past semiotic research as a matter of historical convention. This would be a welcome outcome which will hopefully aid in the progress of future time capsule and public archival strategies, not to mention providing new lines of inquiry for communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence should the need arise in a formal ‘first contact’ scenario, or as sanctioned acts of METI.
Page last updated: 13 Jul 2023