Remembering Peter Bøgh Andersen: Is the Computer a Semiotic Machine? A Discussion Never Finished

Mihai Nadin

We spent almost an entire day together. That is, Berit Holmqvist, Peter Bøgh Andersen, and I. It was in 1996, some months after my first meeting with Peter in Daghstuhl; and it was intended to afford a closer look into why semiotics would be of interest to people active in computer science or informatics. My argument (the computer is a semiotic machine) was not good enough—it did not have enough pragmatics attached to it.

Andersen was still reluctant to give up semiology. For him, with a very solid background in the study of language, within the Hjelmslev tradition, no alternative existed. In his boldly entitled work, A Theory of Computer Semiotics: Semiotic Approaches to Construction and Assessment of Computer Systems (Cambridge Series on Human-Computer Interaction, 1997)—actually his post-PhD dissertation(Habilitierung)—Andersen set forth an early attempt to understand computers from the vantage point of a language-based sign definition. I did not like his book (although I did recommend it to many), and we talked openly about why this was the case. But not only did we end up as friends, he also became profoundly interested in the type of semiotics I was arguing for. In a way, I was a missionary for Peircean semiotics. And almost dogmatic in my take of semiotics.

That day in November 1996, in Aarhus, gave me the chance to see how passionate he was about his work, as well as how competent. I made the point then, as I’ve made several times since, that if semiotics could contribute anything to computers, semiotic considerations would have to define the goals and methods of the operating system. It should not be that only technological considerations guide the design and implementation of operating systems, then to have interface designers define means of interaction with such systems. Berit Holmqvist saw the merit of my argument. Peter did not let me get away easily. He wanted to understand the details supporting my viewpoint. He grilled me with very many questions; and I’m not sure that, at the end of the day, before the lecture I was invited to present there in Aarhus, I did not resent the intensity of our dialog. What were we arguing about? In my view, which he eventually came to accept, computers are semiotic machines. The Ishango bone, the quipus, the abacus, are also semiotic devices, albeit much simpler than computers. What defines them as such is the fact that they are representations and embody at the same time rules for operating on such representations. They were also instantiations of possible interactions. Assuming that computers are semiotic machines, what are the consequences? For the engineers designing power supply components, or for those designing machines that are used for making chips and VLSI boards, none. But for those conceiving the machine that contains all the machines we can imagine, there are consequences expressed in the type of interactions computers make possible. This is what we were trying to understand in our heated discussion.

I am setting down these details in order to contribute to a portrait of a distinguished teacher, researcher, colleague. We last met in 2002, and I visited him in the hospital after his heart operation. In the meanwhile, he had moved from Aarhus, joined the Computer Science Department at the University of Aalborg, and settled on a semiotic perspective that, while not identical to mine, was informed by a firm understanding of the limits of a language-dominated sign theory. He acquired experience in programming and, as his contribution (“Cohesion and Coherence in Programs”) to a book about my work (cf. Mercedes Vilanova and Frederic Chorda, A Mind at Work, Synchron Publishers, 2003) convinced me, he continued the dialog begun in 1996. Unfortunately, this discussion was never finished, although our dialog on the semiotic machine continued. His own work on many interactive projects was informed by his readings, but also by the state-of-the art in technology. He challenged technology from a position of competence, and encouraged his students to do the same.

We are what we do. This applies to Peter as it applies to us all. In the end, the seeds he planted in the minds of his students and colleagues will testify to his originality. He had no illusions about being recognized or even acknowledged. As a man of integrity and as a dedicated member of academia,  he knew how to respect the people he liked, but also how to express criticism.

For many years (too many to be more precise), I have announced a book by Peter Bøgh Andersen and Frieder Nake for Digital Horizons, the series I edit at Synchron Publishers. Many potential readers, obviously interested in what Andersen and Nake have to say on the matter, have asked the publisher when the book will become available.  Now that Peter is no longer with us, I feel more strongly than ever that we owe it to him first of all, but also to students, colleagues, and the large audience who need to pay attention to semiotic considerations, to have the book revised and published as soon as possible.

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