How Community Changes The Artist’s Conception

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

  • The Artist creates her artwork, with a particular symbolic meaning in mind.
  • The Art Dealer/Gallery Owner tries to explain what the artist had in mind.
  • The Art Critic sees something somewhat different by projecting his own notions on the work.
  • The Art Historian synthesizes what she’s heard, and unwittingly, and unbenownst guesses some of the original intent.
  • Ultimate truth is the one written by History, so over time, this final interpretation becomes the accepted meaning.


Example Interaction Between Parent and Child Context

In a previous post, I described in general some of the relationships that could exist between and across a large organization’s sub-contexts. What follows is a short description of some actual observations of how the need for regional autonomy in the examination and collection of taxes affected the use of software data structures at the IRS.

Effect of Context on Systems and Integration Projects

July 15, 2005

Contexts lay claim to individual elements of a syntactic medium. A data structure (syntactic medium) used in more than one context by definition must contain meaningful symbols for each context. Some substructures of the data structure may be purposefully “reserved” for local definition by child contexts. In the larger, shared context, these data structures may have no meaning (see the idea of “traveller” symbols). When used by a child context, the meaning may be idiosyncratic and opaque to the broader context.

One way this might occur is through the agreement across different organizational groups that a certain structure be set aside for such uses. Two examples would include the automated systems at the IRS used respectively for tax examinations and tax collections.

Within the broad context defined by the practitioners of “Tax Examination” which the examination application supports, several child contexts have been purposefully developed corresponding to “regions” of the country. Similar organizational structure have also been defined for “Tax Collection” which the collection application supports. In both systems, portions of the syntactic media have been set aside with the express purpose of allowing the regional contexts to project additional, local meaning into the systems.

While all regions are contained in the larger “Examination” or “Collection” contexts, it was recognized that the sheer size of the respective activities was too great for the IRS central offices to be able to control and react to events on the ground in sufficient time. Hence, recognizing that the smaller regional authorities were in better position to diagnose and adjust their practices, the central authorities each ceded some control. What this allowed was that the regional centers could define customized codes to help them track these local issues, and that each application system would capture and store these local codes without disrupting the overall corporate effort.

Relying on the context defined and controlled by the central authorities would not be practical, and could even stifle innovation in the field. This led directly to the evolution of regional contexts. 

Even though each region shares the same application, and that 80 to 90% – even 95% – of the time, uses it in the same way, each region was permitted to set some of its own business rules. In support of these regional differences in practice, portions of the syntactic medium presented by each of the applications were defined as reserved for use by each region. Often this type of approach would be limited to classification elements or other informational symbols, as opposed to functional markers that would effect the operation of the application.

This strategy permits the activities across the regions to be rolled up into the larger context nearly seamlessly. If each region had been permitted to modify the functionality of the system, the ability to integrate would be quickly eroded, causing the regions to diverge and the regional contexts to share less and less with time. Eventually, such divergence could lead to the need for new bridging contexts, or in the worst case into the collapse of the unified activity of the broader context.

By permitting some regional variation in the meaning and usage of portions of the application systems, the IRS actually strengthened the overall viability of these applications, and mitigated the risk of cultural (and application system) divergence.

Overlapping Context and Fuzzy Edges

Parent-Child Context Relationships: Intersection/Union


The following figures depict some notional ideas for how to graphically describe some of the interesting relationships among contexts as they occur in a large, formal organization. The idea occurred to me that there must be some way of describing the similarities and differences in the concepts and discourse of the various subgroups of an organization (any organization). In the diagram, each oval represents a defined organizational group established by the business to allocate and accomplish all of the work necessary for the business to function. Each oval within another oval represents a specific group of individuals working in that business, until we reach the largest oval representing all employees in all groups. Even this largest oval exists in a larger context, that of the culture at large.

The discussion which follows touches on some incomplete ideas about how the concepts, signs and symbols within a given context relate to those of both smaller child and larger parent contexts.

Graphical depiction of Parent Child Contexts

Above: A Bird's Eye View of Nested Contexts; Below: Cross Section View of Nested Contexts

“Inheritance” of concept flows down from the broadest context down to the lowest context. This is not like the inheritance of properties in an object oriented paradigm, so the term may need to be changed. The idea really is that in the absence of an explicit statement of a concept in a lower level context, the members of the community may defer to the definition of that concept from one of the broader contexts that exist above them. In other words, the larger community of humans may have defined the concept and the more detailed context may neglect to reiterate the concept, preferring instead to use the larger context’s definition.

On the other hand, any concept defined in a broader context may be re-defined at a more detailed level. This may or may not be intentional, or even noticed by either members of the larger context or the more insular context. When noticed, it still doesn’t typically cause a problem in normal human discourse, as the humans are able to translate between each context, and hold in their minds each definition.

Contexts at different levels that do not share the same lineage may define a concept in different ways. If their members do not interact under normal circumstances, then there is still not a problem of communication or data integration. However, problems arise out of this layering and locality-driven conceptualization when the information must be shared, either tete-a-tete through direct interface (as happens in workflow integration problems) or through some roll-up to a common conceptual, parent context (as happens in reporting and business intelligence problems). This is the origin of the “single version of the truth” goal that many organizations now take as a given, best practice.

“Inheritance” of concepts flows down. What this means is that concepts defined in the parent’s broader context may still hold meaning in the more narrow child context. Exceptions/replacements are not limited to replacing concepts from the immediate parent, but can happen with any concept above. Each context layer, almost by definition, will define concepts that are uniquely their own, as well. This is one of the sources of intra-organization argument and confusion, as the same terms (syntactic medium) may be used to refer to two slightly (or even grossly) divergent ideas within the same corporate context.

Not every symbol will be meaningful in every child context, the process of transference of concepts can filter out concepts as well as borrow them. At each contextual layer, shared structure may be given different meanings. Lack of specificity/explicitness of definition at a layer does not imply automatic inheritance from above, as it can also reflect a vagueness of thought or lack of agreement about a fringe aspect.

The vacuum created, however, tends to favor the wholesale borrowing of the concept from the parent context.

Each context layer is complete in its own right. The sizes shown in the diagram suggest a size of content but this is just an artifact of the notation. A child context may define an infinite number of concepts over time, just as its parent context does. Theoretically, each context could be depicted or described in full without reference to the broader parent contexts.

Not every concept defined within any particular layer will wind up represented within some application software used by the humans participating in that context. However, if the humans in that context have acquired software to support their activities, the concepts within that system will naturally conform to the context, although they may force the context to be changed to reflect limitations and capabilities that the software imposes.

The reality is of course much more complicated than the diagram suggests. Since the context at each level is defined by the humans who inhabit and communicate within it, new members may introduce or adapt concepts from other contexts that are unrelated to the hierarchy of autonomy and control. Rather than attempt to trace the origin point of concepts across all contexts, it is recommended that these few concepts be considered  either of local origin, or as part of a bridging context between the context and the context of origin. This will have to be chosen only based on the value to be gained from either point of view.

Bridging contexts are new contexts established to bridge between some subset of concepts from each of two different contexts. These are established when new information communication between the two contexts is required. The bridging context can be recognized by the relative sparseness of the conceptual inventory, and by the fact that the lineage of the concepts is limited to two (or perhaps a handful at most) otherwise disjoint contexts.

Most transaction oriented interfaces, as well as any data interface between two functionally disparate systems (of any type) are defined within a bridging context limited to just the mediating symbols.

Living in My Own, Personal Semiosphere

I am sure I’m not getting this right when I read these seminal papers on the “semiosphere”, beginning with Juri Lotman’s “On The Semiosphere” (Sign Systems Studies 33.1. 2005).  I have to admit that the text has me confused a bit. On the one hand, Juri defines the semiosphere as an analog to the biosphere, a large, all pervading expanse of interconnected life on our planet. On the other hand, as he describes its features (what it is and what it is not), he describes examples of something which can be quite a bit smaller than the entirety of semantic discourse in the world. This includes the semiospheres of countries, language groups, and professional practitioners.

In other words, what I would call contexts.

Taking from this the idea that a semiosphere represents the sum total aggregate of the symbollic space around this context, I had a vision of myself, walking with a sphere of communication techniques and examples (language, art, gesture, expression) floating about me. This cloud represented not just anything that I had ever said or written (or otherwise communicated) but included the entirety of what I might ever say, or be able to say.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

And then I thought of two of us coming together, each with our own spheres of semiotics, including personal and community symbols, and an ability to recognize and quickly adapt to contexts known to us. I imagine the interplay of our own personal semiospheres, one to the other, as we begin to try to communicate.

Having brought with ourselves the entirety of our communicative arsenol, we lob niceties and platitudes at each other, then observe which ones hook together in the shared semiotic space surrounding us. Not all of our personal spheres can be fit together – like oil and water, even if we give them both the name “liquid” cannot mix.

On first encounter, we may only recognize “the weather” and “the place” as subjects shared and in common. But as we meet over time, and we remember what connections we made before, we build the “bridge” of communication between us, and this bridge becomes our starting point for subsequent communication  (in other words, our context).

The Context Continuum

So my previous post about the “Origins of a Context” was grossly simplistic. That is however, a good way to get a basic idea out there. Obviously there are many complex factors and layers of influence that affect the extent and content of a context.

One way to look at context is as a continuum from the very small to the very large. This “size” measurement is a reflection of the number of people who share the context, not necessarily the size of the population of concepts and symbols within it.

As I’ve said in other places, a context is defined by its membership first, and its content second.

Hence, by my definition, the smallest context is defined by a single human being. That person would create contexts of a private nature: mementos of their life and personal mnemonics. If the person were artistic, they might create art and artifacts of personal importance. These personal symbols would remain private until the person shares them with someone else.

As soon as they have been shared, even if only with one other person, these artifacts take on additional meaning and become community symbols. Once they have been placed into a larger community, further refinement and re-enforcement of the symbol becomes a community activity. For the original “artist”, their conception can take on a life of its own, and they may lose control over it.

As more and more people become aware of a symbol, the broader the context becomes. But in addition, the symbol itself will begin to change its meaning, either becoming much more generic and broad, or tightening up to some exclusively minimized idea. As soon as this happens (and it happens almost immediately after it begins to be shared) correct interpretation of the symbol must, by definition, take into account which context’s version of the symbol is being considered. Other writers have referred to this issue as one of identifying the “situational” meaning of the symbol, while others talk about the symbol’s “frame”. In my mind these are the same thing as what I’m calling “context”.

So what does this continuum of contexts look like? I’ve drawn a first draft diagram of the smooth transition from personal symbol to the “semiosphere”. It identifies the types and relative sizes of contexts and presents some of the names of their various features. It also shows where in the continuum various types of study and research fall.

I make no claims of absolute accuracy here, and invite comments from experts in these fields (and any others who want to project onto my template).


Continuum of Context from Single Person to Semiosphere

Continuum of Context from Single Person to Semiosphere


Context Switching: Image and Identity

Prof. Lindsay Clark responded to a comment I made on her blog by describing her thoughts about the differences between self image, self identity and social identity.

If I may try to separate her concepts a little, I think that “self identity” I might define loosely as the “meaning I want to project to the world about who I am”. In other words, its the information I want to share, the things I want the world to think about me. 

I might consider that “self image” be defined as “what I think I mean to myself alone”. This being private, I would tend to keep a lot more of my interior personna to myself than I try to project. 

Leaving “social identity” to be defined as “what others think I represent or stand for (or, the meaning of me in the world)”. This would be the amalgamation of “messages received” not necessarily the messages I intended to send.

And while I think there would be strong relationships and hopefully a good bit of overlap among these three sets, they are necessarily not the same things.

The teenager example Prof. Clark chose is a good one because it shows these ideas in microcosm. She wrote:

The artifacts of this tend to be personal and may not be able to be recognized by anyone else. (e.g. a teenager who keeps the bottle cap from the soda he was drinking when he had his first kiss)….

The individual may consciously or unconsciously try to affect that perception through symbolic artifacts. (e.g. a teenager who displays a poster of the latest hit band in his locker). These artifacts, for obvious reasons, tend to be social symbols which are recognized by all people of that social group.

Here is an annotated short story in the voice of an imagined teenager to illustrate how I have made distinctions amongst these terms. My apologies to the professor if this is not exactly what she had in mind…

I have a poster of my favorite singer because I really am a fan of music, and music is an important aspect of who I am. Having that poster reminds me of how much I like music (self image). I put the poster in my locker because I want to tell my friends a message about how much I like music, and in particular how much I like my favorite singer (self identity). But this backfired on me because my peers and cohorts think my favorite singer is (fill in the negative connotation here) “babyish” and now my classmates think I am definitely the same (social identity).

If we take the poster itself and consider it as just a, what I call, “syntactic medium” (quickly, this is something that can be used to carry a projected meaning or concept), we can see there are three different meanings depending on the point of view and situation (context).

In my private context (the dialog I have with myself) I am excited, enthused and my sense of self is re-energized when I see my poster.

In the hallway at school, my friends (cohort context) see the poster and are reminded that I really like the singer. They may not like them as much, but being my friends, they have received the message that this singer is important to me (that I enjoy them), and they may now be on the lookout for other souvenirs of that artist on my behalf.

But in the larger high school environment (community context), my poster has now caused some of the disdain my peers hold for the singer to have been transferred onto me. Oh well, at least my friends understand me…

What I like about this story is that it also illustrates how easily we humans can shift from one context to another seemlessly. In the span of three sentences, our teenager can express what that one symbol represents in three different contexts.

As a software developer, I can tell you how miraculous that talent of ours is, because software cannot do it! Software (at least as the world currently develops it) would necessarily only understand one of the three contexts.

Semantics of Architecture, Personal and Public

Poking around the blogosphere (should that be capitalized…?) this weekend, I came across Prof. Lindsay Clark’s blog describing some of her research interests in how architectural space becomes a “symbolic space”. I would love to see more details of her thinking there.

If I apply my own thought process to an architectural space, I could see several ways in which that space could be imbued with meaning. 

First of all, as an individual person living in a space, even a simple box-like room, that space will begin to acquire meaning by virtue of my living in it.

 “This corner is where I stood when I first saw the 9-11 video.”

 “I was sitting right here, just so, when I got the phone call about the birth of my nephew.”

 “The last thing she did when she left was to drop the key right there on that spot on the carpet.”

But this meaning is private, personal, and not at all obvious. Anyone else who comes into my physical abode, won’t notice these things, unless they happened to be in the room at the same time and hence remembered these events for themselves.

Second, I could embellish or alter my little space in various ways. I could paint it (with a pattern or not), add images or statuary, or architectural elements, etc. These too may or may not present themselves to a second person as terribly meaningful, unless my selection of elements includes icons or references from some community we both happen to share.

Third, I could imagine, as an architect, working very hard at embedding cultural (community) references through the use of shape and structure, materials, position and location, etc. While I would try to be clever about such symbology, I would likely also try to not be too esoteric, lest my intent be lost on the majority of visitors to the space. The best work, I would think, would appear fresh and clever, and be mostly obvious or at least easily accessed/discovered through direct experience of the space without other forms of description.

 (Nothing like ruining a good joke or a good symbol by having to explain it over and over…)

In this sense, the referents of the structure’s symbols should be recognized through the context of the surrounding environment as experienced in conjunction with or on approach to the space.  

A structure whose meaning requires explicit description (say through placards or brochures) becomes less a symbol in its own right, and more just an exhibit space. While the purpose and meaning of the Egyptian pyramids of Giza in their particulars are not obvious, their size, shape, age and location lends an obvious gravitas to them that I imagine a visitor can not help but recognize, even if they don’t read the brochure. Such a space is what I would describe as a symbolic space.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been, but would love to go someday).

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