CHWP A.3 Winder, "Reading the text's mind"

4. Reading the text's mind

Lusignan traces computer criticism's failure to a crucial distinction between information and meaning: the telephone book is fat with information, but has little meaning. On the other hand, specifically human productions, such as the "lettre d'amour criblée de fautes d'orthographe" that Breton speaks of in Nadja, can have little or no information and yet still be laden with meaning. For Lusignan,

In the context of interpretation, the computer would appear to be a machine that uses the electronic text to produce information. The computer never attains the level of meaning. (Lusignan 1985: 210)

Since Shannon and Weaver (Shannon & Weaver 1964), we understand information in terms of a quantifiable set of possible choices. There is no correlative information-theoretic definition of meaning, but in the Peircean perspective it is clear that meaning is a biased tendency in the change of information. In other words, meaning is the direction that is taken by information in its transmission and growth:

...the meaning of a word really lies in the way in which it might, in a proper position in a proposition believed, tend to mould the conduct of a person into conformity to that to which it is itself moulded. Not only will meaning always, more or less, in the long run, mould reactions to itself, but it is only in doing so that its own being consists. (Peirce 1931-1958: 1.343)

Computers and electronic text participate in this structuring of our behaviour since they are signs and, like any sign, they serve as templates for our practices. In sharing information with signs we share our very essence:

Again, consciousness is sometimes used to signify the I think, or unity in thought; but the unity is nothing but consistency, or the recognition of it. Consistency belongs to every sign, so far as it is a sign; and therefore every sign, since it signifies primarily that it is a sign, signifies its own consistency. The man-sign acquires information, and comes to mean more than he did before. But so do words. Does not electricity mean more now than it did in the days of Franklin? Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn round and say: "You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought." In fact, therefore, men and words reciprocally educate each other; each increase of a man's information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word's information. (Peirce 1931-1958: 5.313, quoted in Crombie 1989)

The electronic medium is a system of signs that we use to "accumulate, order and store information". In the world of computer applications, expert systems are perhaps the most developed and elegant example of this constant dialogue with signs. The attestations of an expert system are direct responses to questions the user puts to the system. We find the meaning of the system's underlying electronic text in the regularity of its responses, regularity which reflects the original regularity of the expert's discursive behaviour. When we are informed by the expert system, our behaviour is then molded by the original behaviour of the expert.

To know what a word means is to know in what direction it will influence attestation generation; whether they have their source in computers or people, attestations are the concrete reflection of interpretative habits, habits that are by nature shared by the sign and the human interpreter, since they ultimately concern sign use. We inscribe in the computer software our own habits of interpretation; but when the computer responds in a regular fashion, it develops habits in us. Computers, like all signs, are repositories for our habits; and our habits are repositories for those of our semiotic systems.

If there is anything silent about this dialogue between signs and humankind that Lusignan and Peirce both rightly emphasise, it is only to be found in the inexhaustible effects of meaning, which by its very nature grows endlessly into the future. As Eliot suggests, there will always be meaning beyond our present language, whatever critical tools we bring to bear:

Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
     ("Choruses from 'the Rock'")

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