Hot Signs

By Paul Bouissac

There is no free ride for semiosis. Signs have a cost and a carbon footprint. Sign processes, in any form we can observe them, consume energy and produce heat. Expectedly, too much heat causes communication crashes and semiotic meltdowns. Hence, the presence of cooling devices which were selected by evolution in organisms and the construction of artificial coolers which were designed by engineers as essential components of semiotic machines such as cell phones, computers, and servers.

Sign processing also takes space. The richer the semiosis affordance of an organism, the more storage, wiring and connecting is required. Aplysia and squids can get by with a relatively small number of interconnected neurons which are large enough to have allowed human curiosity to peak inside them and observe their intricate structure and chemical environment like Eric Kandel has elegantly shown in his book In Search of Memory. But evolution has selected various miniaturizing and packaging solutions. Folding, entangling, interfacing can do the job but not without problems among which the heat issue is prominent as the developers of nanotechnology and quantum computing know too well. The control of heat is the major challenge for engineers as it is for evolution. To start with, irrigating fluids must not reach the boiling point nor can connecting devices melt and fuse.

Energetic and caloric constraints are generally overlooked in semiotic theorizing which is long on hot air and short on metrics. To the extent that we operate within the range of the social network to which our biosemiotic hardware is adapted, we are not aware of these bio-economic conditions and the thresholds they imply. It is enough to take a break after a tiring conversation or to rest after a lecture for our system to cool down. But when we move from face-to-face interaction to global face-book networking or from horse driven postal messaging to texting and cloud writing, the consumption of energy and the heat generated by semiosis increase exponentially and become not only an economic but also an ecological problem.

All major servers keeps encountering the heat issue as they develop their capacity to the point that some are now established on the ocean as a way of dissipating heat faster and more economically. This is of course a short-term solution as it necessarily contributes to the warming up of the water. There is no escape from the heat of signs.

It is interesting to note that the same physical constraints – including the necessity of dissipating heat – which have determined the range of morphological variations in organisms also apply to semiotic technologies at both the nano and the giga scales, and everything in between.

The semiotic understanding of life and society must factor this bio-economic metrics if it is to escape the frivolous discourse of the philosophy of signs.