Computational Semiotics

What is computational semiotics?

Computational semiotics is a way of thinking about computers, about what we (and others) make with them, and about how we use them. As its name suggests, it takes the theories of structuralism and semiotics as its starting point, though neither structuralism nor semiotics are entirely coherent, monolithic, unified theories. As a result, we acknowledge that there is a great deal of latitude about what computational semiotics is and how it can be applied.

There are, of course, already theories that allow us to look at various aspects of computing individually (and many of these will naturally already draw upon structuralism and semiotics). HCI, for example, already has theories that allow us to look at the interface and how the user interprets it. Those working in Al will likewise have their theories, as will art critics who write about digital art or sociologists who study the use of computers.

The strength of computational semiotics is that it is a versatile theory and you can look at all of these issues - and more - using a common theoretical framework and a common terminology. This has two advantages. First of all, by providing a common language and a versatile yet consistent set of theories, it allows us to more easily to look at an application or an issue from a variety of perspectives. This leads to a more rounded - and more self-reflexive - examination of the issues involved as you can shift easily from discussing one aspect or level of the work to another.

The second advantage that computational semiotics has is that by providing a common language, it can lead to a greater degree of communication between disciplines which have traditionally been regarded as separate.

Are you happy with the term computational semiotics?

Yes and no. Computational semiotics is a good "rallying call" term because people are already using the theories of semiotics to guide their research or their artistic practice - people can look at this term and instantly recognise that it is something that might be of use to them.

It's good that the term shows to people that there is already a body of work on semiotics out there, and although these books don't deal directly with computers (with rare exceptions), they are relevant. Computational semiotics is something new, but we don't have to "reinvent the wheel" (while pretending that we aren't).

The slight problem with the term computational semiotics is that it makes some people think that there is a parallel or equivalence with computational linguistics (which there isn't). Although semiotics and linguistics have been closely related, particularly in the early stage of their development, they are very separate disciplines now. Semiotics is more fluid than linguistics, and you won't find the certainty that you get in (computational) linguistics - and its theories - in (computational) semiotics. Just because you can use the theories of linguistics to program a system that can understand sentences doesn't mean that you can use the theories of semiotics in the same way to create a system that understands meaning.

What is the future of computational semiotics?

I think that computational semiotics is a starting point towards a discipline in its own right. It isn't going to replace the theories of HCI or AI, for example, but rather become a "meta-theory" with which one can both perform the role of these specialised theories and comment on them.

As a result, I think that it would be a shame if computational semiotics was taken over exclusively by one area of computing or the social sciences - I see it as something far more versatile (and far too important) for this to happen. It's a new way of thinking about computers, what we produce with them and how we produce it - it's not just a fashionable new name for something that already exists.

What do you want this conference to achieve?

There are a couple of things. As we said before, by providing a common language, computational semiotics can lead to a greater degree of communication between disciplines which have traditionally been regarded as separate. One of the aims of this conference is to provide a forum for this communication to occur. This isn't to say that this crossover didn't exist before or wasn't possible - merely that computational semiotics makes it easier.

I think that the crossover between digital art and "serious computing" is a really interesting one to explore, and this is why we have made no distinction between papers presented by artists and those presented by researchers.


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