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 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

 

Different Contexts Use Different Signs

The following is an excerpt from one of my permanent pages.

Photo of an Actual Stop Sign In Its Normal Context

Photo of an Actual Stop Sign In Its Normal Context

In the Context defined for “driving a car in the United States,” a particularly shaped, painted metal plate attached to a wooden post which has been planted in the ground at the intersection of two roads and facing toward oncoming vehicles represents the concept of a command to the oncoming motorist to “stop” their vehicle when they reach the intersection.

However, a similarly colored and shaped object, say a computer bitmap of a drawing of a “stop sign”, not only is represented by a different Syntactic Medium, it exists in an entirely different context (perhaps one that is not obviously recognized by the casual observer).

 

Cartoon Drawing of a Stop Sign
Cartoon Drawing of a Stop Sign

If this computer bitmap “stop sign” were to be displayed on a large computer monitor, and this computer monitor was used to replace the wood and metal Stop Sign, even if placed in the same position and orientation as the more typical structure, it is not certain that every driver would recognize the validity of the new Syntactic Medium, which could lead to accidents! This example should give the reader a clear understanding of how a Context constrains and defines the physical structures that are permitted to represent the concepts it contains.

Software Applications As Perception

“The agent has a scheme of individuation whereby it carves the world up into manageable pieces.”                    K. Devlin, “Situation Theory and Situation Semantics”, whitepaper, 2004, Stanford University.

A software application creates and stores repeated examples of symbols defined within the context of a particular human endeavor, representing a perceived conceptual reality, and encoded into signs using electro-magnetic syntactic media. While the software may be linked through automated sensors to an external environment, it is dependent on human perception and translation to capture and create these symbols. Business applications are almost entirely dependent on human perception to recognize events and observations. That said, while the original “perceptions” are made by human agents, the software, by virtue of the automation of the capture of these perceptions, can be said to “perceive” such events (although this should be considered a metaphor).

Application design is in large part the crystallization of a particular set of perceptions of the world for purposes of providing a regular, repeatable mechanism to record a set of like events and occurrences (data). In essence, the things important to be perceived (concepts) either for their regularity or their utility by some human endeavor (context) will determine the data structures (signs) that will be established, and therefore the data (symbols) that can be recorded by the software system.

The aspects important to the recognition and/or use of these repeated events (e.g., the inferences and conclusions to be derived from their occurence) determines the features or qualities and relationships that the application will record.

Good application design anticipates the questions that might be usefully asked about a situation, but it also limits the information to be collected to certain essentials. This is done purposefully because of the fundamental requirement that the attributes collected must be perceived and then encoded into the symbology within the limited power of automated perceptual systems (relative to human perceptual channels).

In other words, because a human is often the PERCEIVER for an application, the application is dependent on the mental and physical activity of the person to capture (encode) the events. In this role, while the human may perceive a wealth of information, the limits of practicality imposed by the human-computer interface (HCI) guarantees that the application will record only a tiny subset of the possible information.

This does not pose any particular problem, per se (except in creating a brittleness in the software in the face of future contextual change), but just illustrates further how the context of the application is more significantly constrained than either the perceived reality or even the boundaries formed from the limits of human discourse of the event. This inequality can be represented by this naive formulation:

Μ(Ac) << Μ(Hc)

The meaning contained in the Application A defined by the context c is much less than the meaning (information) contained in the Human H perception of the context.

It is important also to note that:

Μ(Ac) is a subset of Μ(Hc)

The meaning contained in the Application A is a subset of the meaning contained in the Human H.

No aspect of the application will contain more information than what the human can perceive. This is not to imply that the humans will necessarily be consciously aware of the information within the application. There are whole classes of applications which are intended to collect information otherwise imperceptible to the human directly. In this manner, applications may act as augmentations of human perceptual abilities. But these applications do not of themselves create new conceptions of reality posteriori to their development, but rather are designed explicitly to search for and recognize (perceive) specific events beyond the perception of natural human senses. Even in these situations, the software can only recognize and record symbols representing the subset of possible measurements/features that their human designers have defined for them.

Hence, while software applications may be said to perceive the world, they are limited to the perceptions chosen a priori by their human designers.

Good Summary on How Engineers Define Symbols

An interesting summary of how software engineers are constrained to develop data structures based on their locality is presented in a comment by “katelinkins” at this blog discussing a book about how “information is used“. I think, however, it ends on a note that suggests a bit of wishful thinking, in suggesting that engineers don’t really

…KNOW and UNDERSTAND the code…

and implying that additional effort  by them will permit

validating the representations upfront to aid in development of common taxonomy and shared context

I wasn’t sure whether the comment was suggesting that only software engineers “continually fall short” in this effort, or if she was suggesting a greater human failing.

While software developers can be an arrogant lot (I saw a description of “information arrogance” earlier in this discussion stream, and we can definitely fall into those traps, as anyone else can too), it is not always arrogance that causes our designs not to fit exactly everyone’s expectations.

Software developers do define symbols based on their regional context. But it gets even more constrained than that, because they must define the “symbology” based on what they know at a particular point in time and from a very small circle of sources, even if the software is intended for broad usage.

The fundamental problem is that there is ALWAYS another point of view. The thing that I find endlessly fascinating, actually, is that even though a piece of software was written for one particular business context (no matter how broad or constrained that is), someday, somewhere, a different group of users will figure out how to use the system in an entirely different context.

So, for example, the software application written for the US market that gets sold overseas and is used productively anyway, if not completely or in the same fashion, is a tremendous success, in my mind. This is how such applications as SAP (the product of German software development) has had such great success (if not such great love) worldwide!

I don’t believe there is such thing as a “universal ontology” for any subject matter. In this I think I’m in agreement with some of the other posts on this discussion thread, since the same problem arises in organizing library indexes for various types of the “information seeker” in any search. While having different sets of symbols and conceptions  among a diverse set of communicating humans can muddy the  space of our discourse, we at least have a capacity to compartmentalize these divergent views and switch between them at will. We can even become expert at switching contexts and mediating between people from different contexts.

One of the big problems with software is that it has to take what can be a set of fuzzy ideas, formalize them into a cohesive pattern of structure and logic that satisfies a certain level of rigor, and then “fix in cement” these ideas in the form of bug-free code. The end result is software that had to choose between variations and nuance which the original conceptions may not have ever tried to resolve. Software generally won’t work at all, at least in the most interesting parts of an ontology, if there is a divergence of conception within the body of intended users.

So in order to build anything at all, the developer is forced to close the discussion at some point and try their best to get as much right as is useful, even while they recognize there are variations left unhandled. Even in a mature system, where many of these semantic kinks have been worked out through ongoing negotiations with a particular user community, the software can never be flexible enough to accomodate all manner of semantic variation which presents itself over time without being revised or rewritten.

In the software development space, this fundamental tension between getting some part of the ontology working and getting all points of view universally right in a timely fashion has been one of the driving forces behind all sorts of paradigm shifts in best practices and architectures.  Until the computer software can have its own conversation with a human and negotiate its own design, I don’t see how this fundamental condition will change.

Looking For The Semiotic Layperson

In searching for kindred spirits out there, I found a number of individual posts which I thought I could use to elucidate some of my own opinions. The following are mini-quotes from some of the people I’ve noticed online who appear to be thinking about symbols, meaning and communication in some fashion. I know there are lots of others, these just struck me as particularly interesting.

kristof28 has the same idea that I do about how symbols work:

Semiotics deals with the production of meaning. A perfectly sensible view of meaning would say that as I am the writer of this sentence so I put the meaning into it and that you, the reader, are the receiver so you take the meaning out. Semiotics is the science of understanding how signs work and how meaning emerges from the relationship between the sender and receiver.

What I would add to their basic statement is that the meaning that the receiver takes out of the message may not be exactly the same as the meaning that the sender put in. The more closely the two communicators share a common context, the more closely aligned will be their understanding. The less sharing before the message, the more likely that the message received will be different than intended.

cjc89 focuses on semiotics as the study of a larger societal process:

it is important to keep in mind that the key to semiotics is an attempt to define how meaning is socially produced (and not individually created). In this light, it will always be subject to power relations and struggles. Furthermore, meaning is always negotiated – it is never static.

In my mind, what “society” does with a symbol is to reinforce it, repeat it, and in this way amplify it. The most commonly shared concepts packaged in the most commonly recognized symbols will tend to get the most use and hence will tend toward relatively more people receiving the same message. But “society” is really a set of individual people. So it is through the popularity among a large set of people that certain symbols and concepts hold sway. I know I’m nit-picking a little here.

iheartunswjourno seems to share a worry about the power of the media:

Choosing to suppress or engage certain arbitrary relations that exist between the signifier and the signified, effectively oppressing or supporting the political agendas of their society. It is quite a scary reality to realize that the media is subtly constructing how we perceive the world.

While I agree that the bombardment of the majority conception of meaning through mass-produced symbols can be hard to counteract, I actually hold out the hope that we as individuals do have power to create meaning, at least within a sphere of influence.

 (The “semiotic” term for this would be “semiosphere“, apparently)

I don’t believe in the existence of “meaning” living outside of the individual. I recognize the volume of symbollic detritous – the notion of our being surrounded by other people’s messages – certainly. And, yes, I recognize that the most powerful will control what is said in the most official channels, but none of us have to merely succomb and accept the message.

The notion of meaning being negotiated is spot on. That’s how it works between two people, and that’s how it works within a society. The miracle of it is that we humans are able to shift between points of view (contexts) with such ease that we don’t often notice ourselves that we have done so.  So while we might disagree with the consensus opinion of our countrymen, we are able to reach common ground with our next door neighbors.

And that’s just the thing that gets the larger process moving, talking with your neighbors and coming to agreement on some aspect of reality.

Every individual can choose to accept or reject the overwhelming flow, or to create their own discourse.  And that is part of our heritage as human beings.

How to Emculturate

This post is really about the basic pre-conditions needed for two people to communicate. This is really a naive, basic description, and I know that. However, it can be a useful way to think about and discuss in lay terms the technical aspects of acts of communication.

When I think about semantics and symbology, I focus on how meaning flows from one person to another. There are several components that have to come together in order for meaning to transfer between people.

First of all, two people must share the same context, even if it is not an exact fit. Without having some commonality of experience, however tenuous, there can be no communication. Now this context may be based on shared experience (e.g., attending the same event, reading the same book) or parallel experience (e.g., becoming a parent, learning to drive a car).

With that precondition established, then the next element that must exist is that some physical mechanism (i.e., a syntactic medium) must be available that can both be manipulated and sensed by both individuals.

There would be no sense in writing on posters to communicate with a blind person across a great distance, or whispering a song to a deaf person from behind them, unless a second medium is also employed (such as having a third person read the poster aloud, or sign the song).

With a medium chosen that satisfies both conditions for both persons, then one person has to put the meaning into the medium using an established convention. In other words, the intended meaning of the message must be “encoded” onto the medium in such a way that both the sender of the message and the intended receiver of the message agree on the meaning conveyed.

These are the three minimal conditions required for communication between any two or more parties. In summary:

  1. Shared Context
  2. Physical Media that can be manipulated and sensed by both
  3. Agreed Upon Encoding

The only other elements required are that there be something to communicate and that the two individuals have the volition to try.

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).

The Real Reason Systems Fail

It seems as if every week there’s another news article bemoaning the state of data integration within some large enterprise. Mission objectives are stymied because “systems don’t talk to each other”. Intelligence failures are due to “incompatible data”. The surprise and outrage expressed would make the lay reader think that this is a recent trend, but they’d be wrong in this notion. The “Data Integration Problem” has been around since the first humans began to speak. Most practitioners and experts who work in the software version of the problem space haven’t realized this, but it’s true.

What is “data” in the modern sense? Most people think that it is “information”, the detailed “facts” of a modern culture. This colloquial understanding is a major simplification, one which is at the root of the Data Integration Problem. It is the reason why most people, even seasoned experts, are constantly surprised and frustrated when the monster appears, seemingly out of nowhere, before them.

So what is data?
Data is CODE.
Data is REPRESENTATION.
Data is SYMBOLOGY.

What this implies is that without someone who can decode it – an INTERPRETER – data is nothing. Let that sink in for a minute.

Data is nothing without INTERPRETATION.

What does this mean? Well for one thing it means that without an interpretation, there is no way to even recognize that data exists. And without an interpreter, there can be no interpretation.

So when we think about all of the data being generated and passed around in our modern world, the question arises: Who is the interpreter that gives data its meaning? Well obviously it’s us. The computer doesn’t understand the data it contains! No matter how we might try to anthropomorphize them, computers are still just as dumb as the lumps of metal, plastic and sand from which they are constructed. The systems that we humans create using these computers are just that – mechanical systems which manipulate physical media, morphing symbols from one representation to another. Everything a computer does is devoid of intrinsic meaning until some human comes along and interprets the symbols.

Imagine computer systems after apocalypse. Imagine the systems of the stock exchange, or the weather service, or any of the thousands of other automated systems that may run unattended by their now defunct human inventors. Now answer the question: without humans to interact with them, do they produce anything? Is there any content to them without, ultimately, some human being to interpret their output?

This is more than that old saw about a tree falling in the forest. Consider some famous examples of symbols that have lost their meaning:

  1. Cave paintings of Lascaux depict hunts and animals, but what did our pre-historic cousins intend when they outlined their hands on the walls?
  2. Until the Rosetta Stone was found, Egyptian hieroglyphics had lost their meaning in the world.
  3. When the Confederacy fell, Confederate currency lost its meaning and value.

The Data Integration Problem, simply stated, is caused by the fact that data is symbolic code onto which some group of humans has projected meaning. Meaning, therefore, is local to the humans doing the projection. Without the knowledge of how meaning was projected onto the symbols, the information they contain cannot be retrieved in any complete sense.

Only the people who have projected their meaning onto the symbols (or in special instances who share significant experiences of the world with those people who have) are able to interpret the data correctly. In any large, complex, enterprise, where business necessitates that small groups complete their own missions expeditiously and with vigor, who should be surprised that locally defined data doesn’t integrate well from one end of the enterprise to the other?

Really, the answer to this question should be “nobody”.

This has been true since humans (and possibly our predecessors) first started making symbols.

Charting The Semantic Stream

…what Man touches, he stains with meaning…
…it flows like water, permeating everything…

Each computer system presents a different view of the world. Like water sitting in bottles, bowls and buckets with different shapes, meaning fills every available nook and cranny. But just as there are not enough bottles to hold all of the water of the world, no system can hold all of the meaning man can project.

This site is dedicated to capturing my ideas regarding the movement of concepts through human-defined artifacts. The goal is to capture an impression of the nature and properties of meaning and symbol, and to discover and map how meaning flows – what changes and what remains constant – as it passes from one end of civilization to the other.

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