What a Context Is: Information Flow Theory

I’ve been busy lately, and let this discussion lapse for a bit. Let’s see if I can kickstart it again.

Sometimes, information flows from the physical world to a person who observes and interprets his perceptions to create and recognize new knowledge. Sometimes, someone creates a message in a physical medium and “sends” it into the world hoping that there will be another person who not only can sense it, but can recognize it as a message and can receive the information layered on top of the physical perception. The first is an example of simple observation and perception, the second is an example of communication within a context. While both rely on the perception of physical reality by the observer, they are fundamentally, though subtlety, different.

I have been reading a book on the mathematical theory underlying the “flow” of “information” in the real world, and while I don’t yet really understand the theory, there are some points the book is failing to make about context which I think are important.

Barwise, Jon and Seligman, Jerry, Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Not that the book was intended to cover the concept of context, per se, being an attempt to lay out a mathematical/logical framework for describing the flow of information across, through and between physical systems. It does have an extensive section on “local logics” which when I understand it better may help me describe my own ideas about context in a formal manner.

What struck me, and forms the origin point of today’s discussion on contexts, is the example the authors use to introduce and illustrate the technical discussion. And as you will see, it is not just the example given, but variations of it that I will use to elucidate better what a context is and is not. To get to the meat of my thinking, here is their example, as written on pages 4-5.

Judith, a keen but inexperienced mountaineer, embarked on an ascent of Mt. Ateb. She took with her a compass, a flashlight, a topographic map, and a bar of Lindt bittersweet chocolate. The map was made ten years previously, but she judged that the mountain would not have changed too much. Reaching the peak shortly after 2 P. M. she paused to eat two squares of chocolate and reflect on the majesty of her surroundings.

At 2:10 P. M. she set about the descent. Encouraged by the ease of the day’s climb, she decided to take a different route down. It was clearly indicated on the map and clearly marked on the upper slopes, but as she descended the helpful little piles of stones left by previous hikers petered out. Before long she found herself struggling to make sense of compass bearings taken from ambiguously positioned rocky outcrops and the haphazard tree line below. By 4 P. M. Judith was hopelessly lost.

Scrambling down a scree slope, motivated only by the thought that down was a better bet than up, the loose stones betrayed her, and she tumbled a hundred feet before breaking her fall against a hardy uplands thorn. Clinging to the bush and wincing atthe pain in her left leg, she took stock. It would soon be dark. Above her lay the treacherous scree, below her were perils as yet unknown. She ate the rest of the chocolate.

Suddenly, she remembered the flashlight. It was still working. She began to flash out into the twilight. By a miracle, her signal was seen by another day hiker, who was already near the foot of the mountain. Miranda quickly recognized the dots and dashes of the SOS and hurried on to her car where she phoned Mountain Rescue. Only twenty minutes later the searchlight from a helicopter scanned the precipitous east face of Mt. Ateb, illuminating the frightened Judith, still clinging to the thorn bush but now waving joyously at the aircraft.

Was Judith Lucky That Miranda Knew Morse Code?

In a word, yes. In so many ways:

  • like the fact that Miranda was near the bottom of the mountain,
  • that she had a clear view of the side of the mountain where Judith lay,
  • that she had a cell phone at the car,
  • and most importantly, Judith was indeed lucky that Miranda knew the Morse code for “SOS”.

In fact, it was also lucky that Judith herself knew the code. So in the story as given, since Judith knew the code to use when she found herself in trouble, she used her light as the syntactic medium in which she encoded a message of her need for help. The fact that Morse code is a globally standard coding scheme simply meant that both Judith and Miranda both shared a common context without ever having met. The fact of their shared knowledge of the code provided the context by which Judith was able to get her message to Miranda.

What if Miranda Didn’t Know Morse Code

Things could have been much worse for Judith if either of them had no knowledge of the code, or if neither of them did. In addition, it was lucky that Miranda was somehow aware (or realized as she was watching) that a flashing light could be used to signify such a code, and that she then obviously deduced from the repeated pattern that someone was sending a message.

Imagine what might have happened if Miranda had seen the flashing light, but didn’t recognize it as a code, and therefore didn’t try to translate what she was seeing. Instead of reacting by calling for help, she might have thought to herself “Oh look, there’s a light up on the mountain. I wonder what that is?” but then gone on about her business.

In other words, Miranda could have observed her environment and perceived the flashing light but concluded that it was simply a physical phenomenon of no particular import. She may have perceived the signal but failed to recognize it as a message. In which case, this would show that Judith and Miranda had failed to establish a context for the communication.

What if Judith didn’t know Morse Code?

If Judith didn’t know Morse Code, perhaps she would still have started waving her flashlight around. Miranda having seen the light would have no reason to recognize a code.

Would this mean Judith would be out of luck? Not necessarily, if Miranda was also an experienced hiker. Miranda being in the context of hiking, it might occur to her that there shouldn’t be a light on that part of the mountain at that moment in time. She might think to herself that the random way the light was moving, plus its position on the mountain compared with where the safe trails were, added up to someone in distress.

In this case, a message has still been sent from Judith to Miranda, with the same result. The context that Miranda was thinking in plus her perception and prior knowledge of the mountain trails, allowed her to reach a conclusion that there was someone on the mountain in trouble. But it is important to note that Judith was not in the same context as Miranda.

In fact, if Miranda was a ranger, she may have been trained to look for and recognize the behavior of people in distress. In this example, we must conclude that Judith was not actually participating in the context with Miranda. It was Miranda’s knowledge of and mindset regarding her perceptions of the dangerous mountain environment which led her to deduce the existence of a person in trouble, not the fact of Judith’s trying to send a message.

Yes, this Judith tried to send a message, but she couldn’t have known that her random wavings would be recognized in anyway. Whereas the Judith who used Morse code actually knew of a context and encoded a very specific message using that context, with the expectation and hope that someone else might also understand it.

The difference in the two versions of the story is subtle. In both cases a message was sent, and in both a message was received and an action was taken. But in the first story, a bridging context in the form of Morse Code was called upon to carry a very specific message, while in the second story there was no bridging context. In the second story, it was entirely the perceptiveness and deductive power of Miranda’s “hiking Mt. Ateb context” which allowed her to create for herself new information: namely that “someone out there is in trouble”.

Once More, What If Judith Wasn’t In Trouble?

Let’s take one more variation of the story to enforce this last point. Let’s say that everything happened as described, except that instead of falling down the scree, Judith purposefully rappelled down the side of the mountain. And furthermore, that instead of clinging desperately to a thorn bush, that she had actually managed to establish a bivuoac in that peculiar outpost. In this version of the story, perhaps Judith is waving her flashlight around as in our second story, only this time merely to light her little campground while fixing herself dinner.

Now imagine ranger Miranda, trained as before and with a knowledge of the trails, but without prior knowledge of anyone camping where Judith found her perch. Using her same described skills of perception and deduction, Miranda may still come to the conclusion that there was someone on the side of the mountain in trouble, and would take the aforementioned steps to effect a rescue. Only she would find that Judith was not in need of help, and is now put out by the disturbance of her relaxation by the whirring chopper blades.

In this version of the story, Miranda is still in the same context as before, and uses her perceptions and the rules of that context to reach her conclusion. The fact is, and this second version of the story should make it clear, that while information did flow from Judith to Miranda just as before, we cannot call this information a “message” carried on a medium and in a context shared by Judith and Miranda. In other words, it was not a purposeful communication across a bridging context.

No, quite simply, in both of these latter examples, Miranda’s context guided her to her perception and the creation of the knowledge that Judith was on the mountain and in trouble (even if she was mistaken on this last point in the final story).


The fact that a person who presses a flashlight button does or does not intend to send a message – to communicate through that act -defines whether we classify the information flow as being a symbollic act or not. Perhaps the person does not realize or care whether there is another person watching for a flashlight in the dark. The factthat someone sees the light and acts in response does not mean that communication has occurred. Just because information has flowed does not mean that symbols have flowed.
This is a subtle distinction but an important one.

Functions On Symbols

Data integration is a complex problem with many facets. From a semiotic point of view, quite a lot of human cognitive and communicative processing capabilities is involved in the resolution. This post is entering the discussion at a point where a number of necessary terms and concepts have not yet been described on this site. Stay tuned, as I will begin to flesh out these related ideas.

You may also find one of my permanent pages on functions to be helpful.

A Symbol Is Constructed

Recall that we are building tautologies showing equivalence of symbols. Recall that symbols are made up of both signs and concepts.

If we consider a symbol as an OBJECT, we can diagram it using a Unified Modeling Language (UML) notation. Here is a UML Class diagram of the “Symbol” class.

UML Diagram of the "Symbol" Object

UML Diagram of the "Symbol" Object

The figure above depicts how a symbol is constructed from both a set of “signs” and a set of “concepts“. The sign is the arrangement of physical properties and/or objects following an “encoding paradigm” defined by the members of a context. The “concept” is really the meaning which that same set of people (context) has projected onto the symbol. When meaning is projected onto a physical sign, then a symbol is constructed.

Functions Impact Both Structure and Meaning

Symbols within running software are constructed from physical arrangements of electronic components and the electrical and magnetic (and optical) properties of physical matter at various locations (this will be explained in more depth later). The particular arrangement and convention of construction of the sign portion of the symbol defines the syntactic media of the symbol.

Within a context, especially within the software used by that context, the same concept may be projected onto many different symbols of different physical media. To understand what happens, let’s follow an example. Let’s begin with a computer user who wants to create a symbol within a particular piece of software.

Using a mechanical device, the human user selects a button representing the desired symbol and presses it. This event is recognized by the device which generates the new instance of the symbol using its own syntactic medium, which is the pulse of current on a closed electrical circuit on a particular wire. When the symbol is placed in long term storage, it may appear as a particular arrangement of microscopic magnetic fields of various polarities in a particular location on a semi-metalic substrate. When the symbol is in the computer’s memory, it may appear as a set of voltages on various microscopic wires. Finally, when the symbol is projected onto the computer monitor for human presentation, it forms a pattern of phosphoresence against a contrasting background allowing the user to perceive it visually.

Note through all of the last paragraph, I did not mention anything about what the symbol means! The question arises, in this sequence of events, how does the meaning of the symbol get carried from the human, through all of the various physical representations within the computer, and then back out to the human again?

First of all, let’s be clear, that at any particular moment, the symbol that the human user wanted to create through his actions actually becomes several symbols – one symbol for each different syntactic representation (syntactic media) required for it to exist in each of the environments described. Some of these symbols have very short lives, while others have longer lives.

So the meaning projected onto the computer’s keyboard by the human:

  • becomes a symbol in the keyboard,
  • is then transformed into a different symbol in the running hardware and operating system,
  • is transformed into a symbol for storage on the computer’s hard drive, and
  • is also transformed into an image which the human perceives as the shape of the symbol he selected on the keyboard.

But the symbol is not actually “transforming” in the computer, at least in the conventional notion of a thing changing morphology. Instead, the primary operation of the computer is to create a series of new symbols in each of the required syntactic media described, and to discard each of the old symbols in turn.

It does this trick by applying various “functions” to the symbols. These functions may affect both the structure (syntactic media) of the symbol, but possibly also the meaning itself. Most of the time, as the symbol is copied and transferred from one form to another, the meaning does not change. Most of the functions built into the hardware making up the “human-computer interface” (HCI) are “identity” functions, transferring the originally projected concept from one syntactic media form to another. If this were not so, if the symbol printed on the key I press is not the symbol I see on the screen after the computer has “transformed” it from keyboard to wire to hard drive to wire to monitor screen, then I would expect that the computer was broken or faulty, and I would cease to use it.

Sometimes, it is necessary/desirable that the computer apply a function (or a set of functions called a “derivation“) which actually alters the meaning of one symbol (concept), creating a new symbol with a different meaning (and possibly a different structure, too).

Bridge Contexts: Meaning in the Edgeless Boundary

Previously, I’ve written about the idea of the “edgeless boundary” between semiospheres for someone with knowledge of more than one context. This boundary is “edgeless” because to the person perceiving it, there is little or no obvious boundary.

In software systems, especially in situations where different software applications are in use, the boundary between them, by contrast, can be quite stark and apparent. I’ll describe the reasons for this in other postings at a later time. The nutshell explanation is that each software system must be constrained to a well-defined subset of concepts in order to operate consistently. The subset of reality about which a particular application system can capture data (symbols) is limited by design to those regularly observable conditions and events that are of importance to the performance of some business function.

Often (in an ideal scenario), an organization will select only one application to support one set of business functions at a time. A portfolio of applications will thus be constructed through the acquisition/development of different applications for different sets of business functions. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, sometimes an organization will have acquired more than one application of a particular type (see ERP page). 

In any case, information contained in one application oftentimes needs to be replicated into another application within the organization.  When this happens, regardless of the method by which the information is moved from one application to another, a special kind of context must be created/defined in order for the information to flow. This context is called a “bridging context” or simply a “bridge context”.

As described previously, an application system represents a mechanized perception of reality. If we anthropomorphize the application, briefly, we might say that the application forms a semiosphere consisting of the meaning projected onto its syntactic media by the human developers and its current user community, forming symbols (data) which carry the specifically intended meaning of the context.

Two applications, therefore, would present two different semiospheres. The communication of information from one semiosphere to the other occurs when the symbols of one application are deconstructed and transformed into the symbols of the other application, with or without commensurate changes in meaning. This transformation may be effected by human intervention (as through, for example, the interpretation of outputs from one system and the re-coding/data entry into the other), or by automated transformation processes of any type (i.e., other software).

“Meaning” in a Bridging Context

Bridging Contexts have unique features among the genus of contexts overall. They exist primarily to facilitate the movement of information from one context to another. The meaning contained within any Bridging Context is limited to that of the information passing across the bridge. Some of the concepts and facts of the original contexts will be interpretable (and hence will have meaning) within the bridging context only if they are used or transformed during this flow.  Additional information may exist within the bridge context, but will generally be limited to information required to perform or manage the process of transformation.

Hence, I would consider that the knowledge held or communicated by an individual (or system) operating within a bridging context which is otherwise unrelated to either of the original contexts, or of the process of transference, would existing outside of the bridging context, possibly in a third context. As described previously, the individual may or may not perceive the separation of knowledge in this manner.

Special symbols called “travellers” may flow through untouched by transformation and unrecognized within the bridging context. These symbols represent information important in the origin context which may be returned unmodified to the origin context by additional processes. During the course of their trip across the bridging context(s) and through the target contexttravellers typically will have no interpretation, and will simply be passed along in an unmodified syntactic form until returned to their origin, where they can then be interpreted again. By this definition, a traveller is a symbol that flows across a bridge context but which only has meaning in the originating context.

Given a path P from context A to context B, the subset of concepts of A that are required to fulfill the information flow over path P are meaningful within the bridging context surrounding P. Likewise, the subset of concepts of B which are evoked or generated by the information flowing through path P, is also part of the content of the bridge context.  Finally, the path P may generate or use information in the course of events which are neither part of context A nor B. This information is also contained within the bridge context.

Bridge contexts may contain more than one path, and paths may transfer meaning in any direction between the bridged contexts. For that matter, it is possible that any particular bridging context may connect more than two other contexts (for example, when an automated system called an “Operational Data Store” is constructed, or a messaging interface such as those underlying Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) components are built).

An application system itself can represent a special case of a bridging context. An application system marries the context defined by the data modeller to the context defined by the user interface designer. This is almost a trivial distinction, as the two are generally so closely linked that their divergence should not be considered a sign of separate contexts. In this usage, an application user interface can be thought of as existing in the end user’s context, and the application itself acts to bridge that end user context to the context defining the database.

The Nature and Experience of Semiosphere Boundaries

I have been having an interesting discussion with Sentence First blogger Stan Carey regarding semiosphere boundaries, and I posted the following comment on his site. I thought I’d repeat it here then elaborate on it.

I’m no expert on Lotman (author of many semiotics papers and coiner of the term “semiosphere”), having only begun to read his work, and I also recognize and agree that there is no such thing as a fixed and easily recognized boundary between semiospheres. Your comment about the boundary really being some sort of  “permeable membrane” is one I agree with. I don’t think from what I have read that Lotman would disagree with you on that point, as he describes the boundary in the following way:

Insofar as the space of the semiosphere has an abstract character, its boundary cannot be visualized by means of concrete imagination. Just as in mathematics the border represents a multiplicity of points, belonging simultaneously to both the internal and external space, the semiotic border is represented by the sum of bilingual translatable “filters”, passing through which the text is translated into another language … situated outside the given semiosphere. (“On the Semiosphere”, Juri Lotman)

I do like his biosphere analogy, and it brings to mind another possible analogy that might be useful, namely that of an “ecosystem”. I’ll be looking into that soon. My notion (and as always it is a laypersons notion) is that the problem of description of a particular ecosystem presents the same puzzle as the identification and description of a semiosphere.

What’s in the ecosystem and what’s outside of it? If we’re talking about a salt marsh ecosystem, for example, where does the geographic border lie? Which creatures are part of the system and which ones are strangers to it (just travelling through)?

If a predator in the woods abutting the salt marsh happens to occasionally eat a creature from the salt marsh when they stray too far from home, does that make the predator part of the salt marsh ecosystem or not? What if they primarily eat forest critters? What if they primarily eat salt marsh critters? What if they eat equal amounts of forest and salt marsh critters?

What we see in this example is that the predator is an edge creature relative to the defined forest and salt marsh ecosystems. When we make this story about a particular individual creature, then whether the predator is in one or another ecosystem is dependent on how that ecosystem has been defined generally.

To the creature, the distinction is meaningless. It lives in both places, walks ground that is sometimes wooded and solid and sometimes muddy and loose. It eats what it can catch from either place. From the predator’s individual point of view, the world consists of bits of both ecosystems. In fact, from their point of view they probably would not recognize that they lived on the margins of two very different environments.

Now add to this the two individual prespectives of a salt marsh prey creature and a forest prey creature. Their typical experience, understanding and adaptation is of the more frequently encountered predators in their milieu. In fact they may have evolved special protections or strategies for foiling these common dangers.

If our predator is mostly a forest feeder, then the forest prey may be well adapted to avoid it, while the salt marsh prey may not. The salt marsh prey in this case may not understand or recognize the danger at all. Or else, if the individual salt marsh creature had spent some time with his pals at the edge of the forest, he may ultimately recognize the predator, although it might take a few moments to react.

Look, an individual creature does not typically experience a disjointed reality. The transition from forest to salt marsh is gradual (but recognizable). Our predator may have a worldview that includes elements of both the forest and the salt marsh. By virtue of this combined perception, the predator may experience what would be considered neither salt marsh nor forest, but the combination and unification of this edge reality.

To turn this back into a discussion of semantics, then…

If we equate our edge creature to a person with knowledge of two different domains (yourself, for example), then we get the same questions: which domain is that person a member of? If he primarily communicates in American vernacular but occasionaly uses Irish idioms, is he more American? If the reverse is true, perhaps he is more Irish?

In my mind the distinction is not so important to the individual, but is certainly more important to the people who share more of the “core” and less of the “periphery” (as Lotman described it) of various spheres. But these distinctions are relative, and what is “core” to one person would be “periphery” to another.

Such an edge person can “digest” and understand many aspects of the “core” of each of the semiospheres they experience. But by virtue of their experiences at the edge between, they may not by fully aware of the all aspects of those cores. Their experience of the semiosphere (as we saw with our predator example) is also not disjointed, but forms a seamless continuum. also does not lack for complexity or meaning, even though it does not represent either core. In fact, the experience of the boundary will be exactly the same in form (but not in content) as the experience of someone else in the center of a semiosphere.

I also think that in the case of the semiosphere, as with our ecosystem example, the “boundary” or “permeable membrane” is generated only by the existence of individual creatures who bridge it and cross freely between the domains. In the case of human communication, however, I think we all are “bridging” these gaps all the time, so much so that we don’t usually experience the shift until we are reminded of them by an unfamiliar word. The mere fact of a term’s unfamiliarity proves the case of a boundary condition for the individual.

Indicators of Semiospheric Boundary

I was reading an entry at Sentence First on the surprise the author experienced when the word “razzed” was used in the body of a book on semantics, and drew a connection between the reported experience of the blog’s author upon finding the term and the notion of “semiospheres” described by Yuri Lotman.

Lotman describes the following thoughts in his paper “On the Semiosphere”, (Sign Systems Studies 33.1, 2005):

The division between the core and the periphery is a law of the internal organisation of the semiosphere. The dominant semiotic systems are located at the core.

This suggest to me that one would expect the most frequent usage of terms important to a semiosphere to occur in the dominant core.  Since a semiosphere is a continuum all the way to its edges (sharing an edge with another semiosphere), these symbols from the core should eventually and occasionally appear in the edges.

Lotman also said:

The border of semiotic space is the most important functional and structural position, giving substance to its semiotic mechanism. The border is a bilingual mechanism, translating external communications into the internal language of the semiosphere and vice versa.

When the semiosphere identifies itself with the assimilated “cultural” space, and the world which is external to itself .. then the spatial distribution of semiotic forms takes the following shape in a variety of cases: a person who, by virtue of particular talent … or type of employment … belongs to two worlds, operates as a kind of interpreter, settling in the territorial periphery …whilst the sanctuary of “culture” confines itself to the deified world situated at the centre.

The author of the post at Sentence First described himself as residing at the “elbow of Europe” and his blog has as a catch phrase “An Irishman’s blog about the Engish language. Mostly.” The book he was reading was written in the 1930’s by an American for an American lay audience, the subject being the esoteria of semiotics.

What I found ironic/interesting is how these two semiotic events (the book and the blog post) illustrate Lotman’s points so nicely.

The book on semiotics was purposefully written by one of these special people with connections to two different worlds of semiosis (one of semiotic academia, and the other of the larger American culture of his time) and is a purposeful attempt to relate the esoteric concepts of the one in the vernacular of the other. From this, to the point raised by the Sentence First author, I judge that the use of the term “razzed” to actually be a great example of the book’s attempt to reach that core audience.

The second semiotic act provides a narrative of the experience of someone sitting on the boundary between two semiospheres. While I hesitate to try to label and define this second pair of semiospheres, I think the fact that the author had to pause when he encountered the term in the context of the book shows this boundary clearly.

What I liked about the posting was that, while Lotman’s discussion is a good illustration of the semiotic landscape, and how semiotic boundaries tend to operate, Sentence First’s posting tells the story of the experience of someone actually sitting on and experiencing one of those boundaries.

Putting these two things together shows, I think, one more thing as well. As an individual person, through my life experience, I gather and collect “semiotic technique” – in other words, I learn how to communicate – in many different contexts. Being human, I tend to distill, fuse, combine, contrast, and ultimately integrate all of these semiotic capabilities into my own personal arsonal of communication. Thus armed, I am able to translate one semiotic act from one context into any of a thousand others. It is my human condition to do so.

Thus while Lotman seems to imply that a special sort of person is needed to act at the semiotic boundary, I think that it takes no special talent in particular to do so. Rather, I think it is merely dependent on having a person who is immersed in both contexts to find someone who will translate between them.

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