Semiotics in Big Data Time

Notwithstanding the utopians from Arisbe to Tartu, life is a semiotic war zone. Broadcasting vital biological information “to whom it may concern” or selectively targeting the recipient(s) of socially relevant messages are adaptive moves which entail liabilities in the form of potential self-exposure. Eavesdropping and cracking codes are matters of sheer survival. Species have evolved both encryption and decryption strategies. Interspecific and intraspecific spying drives the evolution of semiotic competencies and accounts for many aspects of social cognition across species leading to what has been dubbed “theory of mind”, that is to say, the capacity of guessing the intention of an organism in order to anticipate its actions and behave accordingly. This can be achieved only through construing leaked information as signs of things to come. Tactical turns and twists can be observed, which could appear at first to be counter-productive. For instance, male springboks (African antelopes) can be observed making high jumps in place when they identify hunting predators, thus making conspicuous not only their presence but also their fitness and readiness as a warning signal believed to discourage the hunters. This kind of semiotic warfare can be transposed to human affairs: displaying how much one knows about enemies’ secret communications is a plausible way to defuse aggressive plots.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

Irrespective of the moral, legal, and political implications of disclosing information meant to be secret, that is, restricted to a subset of individuals, such local events are in the logic of semiotic strategies and cause the emergence of new protective measures and encryption technologies as well as new incentives to penetrate those codes. The historical issue of privacy dissolves when disclosure tends to become universal. This was advocated by the Surrealists of the 1920s whose ideal was to live in a glass house (André Breton’s Manifesto, 1924) in their effort to generate a new humanity. Then, what everybody thought to be unique (or shameful) to their very own existence would prove instead to be universal, albeit trivial, traits of biological and social existence. Nakedness is big news unless, of course, it occurs in a nudist camp. The process of universal transparency might be bad news for the proliferation of semiotic masking devices on which politicians gorge but humans might gain a new perception of their common nature and henceforth unimpeded potentials, a realization which cannot be without consequences although we are then bound to tread uncharted territories. The advent of the Big Data Era in 21th-century societies ushers in a new cognitive dimension, a revolution which is both scientific and social. It has gained recently its cultural icons which expectedly are loathed by some, but loved by many as heroes.

Why Internet communication was taken for granted and considered until now a private privilege is puzzling in many respects. Indeed, all semiotic processes, including face-to-face communication, leak because mediation is necessarily involved and curiosity is a powerful evolutionary drive in the survival game. Traditional village and modern office gossips for instance leave no stone unturned. Privacy might be only an illusion, the result of a conspiracy of silence. All social groups ooze information which all their members compete to steal and share or store. Looking at the current state of communication technology, we should not forget which institution created the Internet and for which purpose. If one wants to know what two people say and think, the simplest method is to provide them with a communication gadget whose technological control is beyond their means. This, of course, creates a challenge and triggers innovative strategies to overcome this dependency. The semiotic war never stops and the smartest can always be outsmarted. Many have been beaten at the games they invented. Semiotic weapons are double-edged like war elephants which were as prone to crush enemies as to turn against their owners. In ancient Indian history, some battles were won without fight by those who could display the most impressive number of war elephants, a case of springbok semiotic diplomacy.

But let us look beyond local scandals and crisis, and ponder the new situation in a wider framework. While marketers and zealots distil their poisonous signs, the exponential increase of the quantity and quality of information which is now available opens up new paths to knowledge which could have been hardly imagined a few decades ago. Take inquiry into language evolution for instance. The limitations of painstakingly documenting the emergence of new words through parsing printed texts or interviewing individuals are obvious. The data collected through eavesdropping in crowded market places could cast only a faint light on live language change and use. Using Twitter as an ever expanding open database, linguists can now for the first time access languaging in the making. Research by linguists such as Jacob Eisenstein (Georgia Tech) or Noah Smith (Carnegie Mellon University) and their colleagues are making advances which are transforming our understanding of language emergence and evolution, thus opening new vistas on cultural and social semiotics (e.g., Noah Smith, Jacob Eisenstein or Mapping the geographical diffusion of new words ) . But many other domains of inquiry within the traditional purview of semiotics are undergoing similar revolutions brought about by the Big Data Era whose epistemological impact will overshadow the geopolitical storms generated by those who first spilled the beans and put the secret keepers to semiotic shame.

As the Big Data Era is dawning upon us, semioticians must develop new models, new investigative tools, new methods, new terminologies, and new theoretical horizons if they are to meet the challenges of coming to grips with this greatly expanded reality.

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