Danish semiotician Peter Bøgh Andersen, author of A theory of computer semiotics. Semiotic approaches to construction and assessment of computer system (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 Postgiro (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 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.