Digital Signification: A Ridiculously Complex Multi-Ordered System of Signs

How did we go from sticks-n-clay to chisel-n-stone to pencil-n-paper to ones-n-zeros? Before I get to that question, I hope that you noticed the breakdown in my parallel structure. Instrument-n-medium. But not the fourth element of my list. Should the instrument have read “binary code,” and the medium “magnetic surface”? That doesn’t work either. For lots of reasons. To get at them, I want to briefly disintegrate some aspects of digital reading and writing (this following model is a mess. i would love any ideas on clarifying this prose/model).

A magnetic surface (tape, disc, flash memory etc.) is definitely the medium that receives the “inscription,” but is entirely unlike the inscription on clay, stone, or paper. The inscription on the magnetic surface is a pattern of magnetic charges. There is no practical way for a human being to experience (much less decode) those charges or their pattern. Enter the second order system of digital signs: ones and zeros. But what are we supposed to do with a pattern of ones and zeroes? Enter the third order system of digital signs: code (or software). And software-to-screen is the fourth order system. The jump in complexity from paper-texts to screen-texts is astounding.

If you think this model of four orders from inscription to representation is complicated, consider that it’s probably more apt to add another order at the level of software (as opposed to code languages) and another at the level of graphics processing (between software and screen). Here I’ve exhausted my granular knowledge of inscription-storage-retrieval-processing-display. A more precise understanding of this process is likely to yield an even more complex system of sign systems. And, I hate to do this, but this model only moves in one direction from the storage medium: reading. A more complete model would have to include systems of inscription—from input device (mouse, keyboard, stylus) to storage medium and screen.

So many nested sign systems. Boring? Paralyzingly overwhelming? Nope. This complexity is both a barrier to access AND the source of a digital text’s power.

In another post, I’ll be taking a similar tack towards strategies of textual reproduction. And at the heart of that slow march toward digital reproduction? A progressively powerful ability to break an image into parts. To capture those parts. And reproduce them. But this notion begins with destruction. The complexity of any destruction strategy is inversely defined by the simplicity of that strategy’s component parts. What component parts can be more simple than 1/0?

(photograph: “Construction signs” by jphlipg. creative commons license: attribution 2.0 generic)

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