Memorial: Peter Bøgh Andersen (1945-2010)

Peter Bøgh Andersen

Danish semiotician Peter Bøgh Andersen, author of A theory of com­­puter semiotics. Semiotic approaches to construc­tion and assess­­ment of computer sy­stems (1990, Cambridge University Press, updated in 1997), passed away on January 10, 2010, at age 64. His death came much too early. Family, students, colleagues, and the scientific world lost a scholar and friend of rare qualities and great independence, clarity, and passion.

Trained as a linguist in Scandinavian languages at Aarhus University, Peter’s passion for the interplay between analytical and empirical approaches was evident from the very beginning of his career: As a young instructor, he “dragged” his students out of the university and into the world in order to study language in action at a local auto repair shop. This exotic practice showed that the language used by ordinary people in real life and work was poorly explained by formal semantics and linguistic theories (e.g., Fodor & Katz (1964) and Chomsky (1972)). He dedicated his early work to finding order in the mess of language as practiced. He made his students analyze the imperfect manifestations of communication in order that they become aware of both the importance of the empirical basis of analyses and the potential to discover structure in empirical data through analytical means.

This pragmatic slant was characteristic of Peter. He loved problems derived from the real, dirty world, and wanted to provide solutions that could make a difference.

Researching his way across domains, he found that communication analysis elicited helpful knowledge about how workers perceived the technology they operated. This knowledge, in turn, could improve the quality of worklife and reduce errors by designing technology differently. As a consequence, Peter carried out numerous communication studies of technology in use, for example at Postgirot (the Swedish postal bank), pointing out design issues and consolidating theoretical models.

This became close to a modus operandi for him: Analyse novel technological phenomena – with all their inherent formalisms – by applying and reformulating existing theories from traditional humanistic domains like linguistics, communication, literature, film, or aesthetics.

In the 1980s, he co-founded the Department of Information and Media Studies at Aarhus University. His vision for “information studies” was a hybrid of the technical and the humanistic, the formal and the informal. And again, his reason was pragmatic and rooted in a thorough empirically based analysis. This program would produce graduates needed by organizations and industries designing complex technical systems for people. Insight gained during these development processes would constitute the empirical basis for an important line of research.

In his doctoral dissertation, A theory of com­­puter semiotics. Semiotic approaches to construc­tion and assess­­ment of computer sy­stems (1990), Peter Bøgh Andersen consolidated his experience and vision. The intimate relation between computer software and semiosis had occasionally been observed by scholars in various countries. But no comprehensive treatment had been undertaken before. We may conjecture that he himself was aware of the importance of his early step: The similarity of his title and Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics (1976) was all too obvious. In his work, Andersen argued for a view of the machine as a medium instead of a simplified human. As media, computer-based systems are sign systems lending themselves to human interpretation. With this fertile combination of the formal logic of computers and human interpretation firmly situated in society, the figure of the computer as medium became central to his work from then on. In 1993, under this title, he edited a collection of essays by Scandinavian authors (jointly with Berit Holmqvist and Jens F. Jensen; published by Cambridge University Press in 1994).

Raised on Hjelmslevian structuralism, and building on the glossematics of Hjemslev, Greimas and Halliday, Peter gave semiotics the central position in his search for a theoretical foundation in the flux of technological change where there seemed to be only one fixed point: the struggle to make sense. Although he had found the European (Saussurean) dyadic signs easier to apply in practice, it was the American (Peircean) triadic sign (first introduced in this context by Nadin in 1988), which he ended up returning to again and again. The fact that the semiosis was inevitably grounded in a socio-cultural structure was simply too important to ignore in everything but the simplest cases.

He published more than 130 scholarly works on an incredibly broad spectrum of topics spawned by this now explicitly presented and argued cross- or multi-disciplinary approach to interface analysis and design. Whether it was interactive museum installations, theories of virtual space(s), understanding organizations, interactive narratives in computer games, mind-body philosophy, teaching programming to liberal arts students, simulating soccer, and more – Peter always applied his sharp analytical mind to the hard issues at hand and shared his thoughts generously. Thus, he built up a large network of collaborators and friends, coming from many countries and many fields. He was considered to follow the Scandinavian approach to software design, although he kept a certain distance from it. His skepticism and independence required this.

Especially in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), as part of computer science and informatics, he consistently contributed to driving theoretical development. A prominent example of this is his and Susanne Bødker’s paper “Complex Mediation” (2005), which connects the two important approaches of activity theory and computer semiotics in order to deliver a simple yet robust model of both physical and communicative two-way mediation. The empirical data were gathered at a waste water processing plant and a supertanker – very typical of his action research.

As a self-taught programmer, Peter loved programming. He was convinced of the necessity that students in media and information studies learn how to write programs, instead of only applying them. One of his last projects was an agent-based approach to simulation of budgeting within public institutions, aptly named “Beggars and philanthropists”. This work embodied the practical use of digital representations and models to investigate the role of simulations as part of scientific argumentation, and software engineering as part of scientific practice. He established himself as the programmer for this project.

In 1996, together with Frieder Nake and Mihai Nadin, Andersen conducted one of the prestigious Dagstuhl Seminars, a one-week meeting of international scholars at Schloss Dagstuhl (Dagstuhl Castle) in Germany. Such seminars are dedicated to free and open discourse on an urgent issue of computing at top level. This meeting focused on Informatics and Semiotics, and was the first ever to seriously break ground in this highly interdisciplinary field of cultural-technological research. Based on this endeavor, he opened a discourse and started a book project with Frieder Nake on a rigorous semiotic foundation of computing. The book must now appear posthumously.

Peter Bøgh Andersen’s last years were marked by illness. He stepped down from his chair as professor in the summer of 2009 because his body no longer allowed him to carry out what he felt was his duty: to travel, to run project groups, and to be an active organizer as he had always been. In September he was hospitalized, the last three months in intensive care. However worrisome his bodily condition was, his mind still worked at full capacity, and he continued writing and editing his last book right up to the end. He had the good fortune to die peacefully with his family around him.

Peter Bøgh Andersen is no more. But his life and work stand as reminders to many to keep our minds sharp and open, and to share with the same generosity that he gave to us.

3 Comments on Memorial: Peter Bøgh Andersen (1945-2010)

  1. I am devastated by the news of Peter Bøgh Andersen’s death. This is a major tragedy for the area of Organisational Semiotics that he helped found and in which he made some of the most crucial, clearheaded, and what I am sure will be the most enduring contributions. I have some cherished memories of his support for me as a young academic. My second overseas information systems conference was ISRA90 held in Copenhagen. I had started reading semiotics and was applying it to Information Systems but my colleagues really didn’t understand it. It was so far removed from the approaches that still count as mainstream. I found myself in a café next to the lecture theatres being used at this conference. I was extremely jet lagged; I was very cold (I did not have the clothes that could keep me warm in a Danish December). I was cradling a hot cup of coffee. This guy came to my table and asked whether he could sit down, I waved my permission. He had what I thought was an unusual Danish accent- I latter found out that this flattened accent belonged to Jutland. He was polite, asked me where I was from- I said Australia. He tried to make conversation with me ‘what do you research’? I said to him ‘well I study a rather obscure area of IS… you’ll never have heard of it’ He insisted. So I gave him the 20 second introduction to Organisational Semiotics. And he asked me who I read in this area, and I rattled off some names and rounded it all off with the remark- ‘but I still can’t find more than one or two people who have done anything remotely in my application area’. He stared at me and with a perfect ‘poker face’ slowly placed his briefcase onto the table, deliberately opened it up, and carefully handed a book to me… A Theory of Computer Semiotics. You can imagine I was dumbstruck- he really did enjoy doing that to me. It was the start of a very real love of his work and the man. Peter subsequently became an examiner for my thesis. In the Australian system, we have external examiners and the judgments are made through a formal written response. Peter’s response was so generous, it was brilliant and surgical, he had the ability to be very incisive, but his response was supportive and encouraging as well. It’s the standard I try to live up to when I examine theses.

    I spent three Study Leaves at Information and Media Studies at Aarhus University. I felt so excited being there and so lucky that these amazing people were shaping what I thought was the future of IS. One of the projects he worked on was an installation in the Ribe Viking museum in Denmark. A research team at IMS had used one of the first Macintosh computers to develop a partially immersive environment to study Viking traditions, customs and living. As usual Peter had done some incredible programming to get a very interesting exhibit to work. He convinced me that you need not undertake monotonous projects to study how systems should function. This confluence of aesthetics, theatre, media production and some intensely interesting computer applications was what Peter was most interested in. During the mid 1990s I had also been visiting Prof. Ronald Stamper’s team at Twente University, The Netherlands. I made sure that Peter was included at the first Workshop on Organisational Semiotics held there in 1995. This workshop defined the Organisational Semiotics area, and Peter’s work laid down one of the major foundations of this work. Its name has changed over the years but it will soon hold its twelfth incantation this year. In 1996 Frieder Nake, Mihai Nadin, and Peter Andersen organised the Informatics and Semiotics Dagstuhl Seminar. Peter invited me because he knew I’d enjoy it! When the first special issue of a journal was dedicated to Organisational Semiotics (Australian Journal of Information Systems May 2001) Peter provided a paper and worked to ensure that the rest were of high quality.

    Peter was also instrumental in helping to develop the Action, Language, Organisations, and Information Systems (ALOIS) Conferences held under through the auspices of the VITS Group at Linköpings University, Sweden and the so-called ALOIS community. In association with Prof. Göran Goldkuhl, he co-developed the Signs Systems and Action journal (SYSIAC). The ALOIS community eventually morphed into a new community called IS Pragmatics and it is now an Association for Information Systems (AIS) Special Interest Group. The thread of Peter’s thinking has worked its way into many people and through interactions with him that thread continues into the mainstream of information systems and computing science. Peter would probably be bored by that. His mind was always moving onto the next new project, the next new idea.

    As will be repeated by everyone who knew his work- he delighted in moving semiotic and linguistic theory and methods into areas where one might think they did not belong! For those who heard him speak, he was a breath of fresh air. He used his considerable knowledge of ideas to disrupt mainstream thinking or propose an entirely new way of looking at a problem. He used to crack jokes when he presented. He used to have presentations full of pictures, full of concepts, not necessarily complete, always it seemed to invite you along to play. I remember when as young researchers, the paper that we all were most interested in hearing was the next update from Peter on what he was doing. For him collaborating with people was to be enjoyed and it is this research sensibility that most impacted me. In recent years as his health has deteriorated and his willingness to travel declined (he never was much of a traveller), we saw and heard less of him. I take great comfort knowing he died in peace with his family. I will continue to learn from his example, to draw from the lessons he taught me, and to still be shattered by this great professional and personal loss.

  2. I’ve just learned about Peter Bøgh Andersen’s death through this obituary. I’m sorry he passed away so soon and am grateful to learn that the computer semiotics book will still be published.

  3. I’m saddened to hear of Peter’s passing. I came across this page when looking for a picture to illustrate a talk I’m giving on Monday about the Semiotics of Object-Oriented programming and modeling — a theory developed strongly from Peter’s Computer Semiotics.

    I’ve long enjoyed Peter’s work, and felt privileged to meet him when he & Karin hosted my family for dinner when I was in Aarhus in 2004. Truly, it doesn’t seem that long ago, and I was hoping to be able to catch up with him again. At least I have the book to look forwards too.

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