Thursday, 11 May 2017

SEMIOTICS: A Web of Icons, Indexes and Symbols

It is therefore not surprising that when computers came to the realm of images, a new dimension was added to Cyberspace (literally indeed, from 1D to 2D) and then the term ‘’Virtual Reality’’ started to be more than a daydream. We cannot investigate here the arguably profound impact of computers on image creation through computer graphics and virtual images. Rather, we will limit our study to the integration of pictures in electronic communication. Electronic mail, i.e. alphanumeric person-to-person communication on the internet and ‘’newsgroups’’, i.e. electronic dazibaos organized by fields of interest, are rather old stories and would never have started the current media trend for the internet and the cyber-everything by themselves only. The World Wide Web did so a couple of years ago, triggering some unconscious appeal for an electronic global world of pictures and images. Web pages are attractive and full of meaningful information - or so they seem. Surfing on the Web is worth the hours spent waiting in front of the computer while data is transmitted from the other side of the planet, or spent wandering through useless information on uninteresting subjects. Our purpose here will only be to use semiotics to analyse the Web as a communication tool and determine what classical concepts are rectified in it.

Let us go back to Pierce’s classical classification of signs as Icons, Indexes and Symbols, which is very useful in understanding the different ways in which signs operate and semiosis is performed. Let us take Arthur Burk’s presentation of this trichotomy :

" We can best do this in term of the following examples : (1) the word ‘red’, as used in the English sentence, ‘the book is red’ ; (2) an act of pointing, used to call attention to some particular object, e.g. a tree ; (3) a scale drawing, used to communicate to a machinist the structure of a piece of machinery . All these are signs in the general sense in which the term is used by Pierce : each satisfies his definition of a sign as something which represents or signifies an object to some interpretant. (...) A sign represents its object to its interpretant symbolically, indexically, or iconically according to whether it does so (1) by being associated with its object by a conventional rule used by the interpretant (as in the case of ‘red’) ; (2) by being in existential relation with its object (as in the case of the act of pointing) ; or (3) by exhibiting its object (as in the case of the diagram). "

Let us now try to use those notions for analysing the main features of Web pages. Web pages are so-called hypertexts, that is, texts with some of their components (words or sentences), possibly linked to other (hyper)texts, and so on and so forth. The reader can navigate through the whole text in a non-linear manner, by activating so-called hot links or anchor points that are linking some piece of text to some other.

These links are an obvious example of indexes, with a word pointing to (refering to) its definition or to some related piece of information. The WWW merely extends the basic notions of hypertext by making it possible for one index to refer to some physically-distant location on a remote computer somewhere else on the Internet, together, of course, with the ability to link to and therefore communicate images and sound. However in order to act as an index, a sign has to be recognized as such, i.e. the index has to exhibit itself as a reference. This is done in hypertext by marking the hot links in blue ink, in order to make the reader aware that he can jump to another piece of hypertext or image, therefore using a conventional symbol in order to ‘’show’’ the index as such.

Web pages are usually full of small images that act as user-friendly and aesthetically appealing ways of navigating through the network. These are symbolic signs, in the sense that their object must be conventionally established in order to help the reader to orient himself in a homogeneous and unlimited cyberspace. In general, all pages at one Web site (physical/logical place hosted by some institution) are homogenized in order to use the same symbols to designate basic moves in the hypertext documentation (usually at the top or bottom of the pages), in such a way that the reader can quickly learn their conventional meaning. This can be seen in the example of the Sony Virtual Society home page. In this example images act as tautologies and duplicate the textual links below, which actually give their meaning to the pictures.

Another example (again from Sony) will show us that such symbols for hypertext links tend to become icons, as if it was their only means to get rid of the textual tautology. Another example of iconic signs currently used on the Web is given by the Sony’s ‘Cyberpassage’ software, which makes it possible for several users to wander in a common ‘virtual social space’ represented in real-time 3D. Users can communicate in this virtual world by two means : either written language in a small window shared by the people meeting virtually, or by using predefined expressions that can decorate their so-called ‘avatars’. As can be seen from the picture above, and from the previous 'smiley' example, the range of feelings that could be expressed is rather limited and this points out in a rather crude manner the poverty and standardization of the virtual communication towards which we are concretely going.