ENGL 306F – Semiotics
Unpolished but interesting especially for Social Technologies Construction Set Project (forthcoming)
How was Fort. St. James in central B.C. supplied with european manufactures all the way from the Atlantic? This is a semiotic study of the early Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in order to take a closer look at how firms and social technologies operate semiotically. I’m interested in the way information was organized to direct and coordinate action. The company used symbols to do this.
The questions I have are: “What symbolic systems were used by HBC?”, “How are symbols used to coordinate activities?” and “What was the processing power of HBC?” It is important to consider this with physical laws and earth’s ecology.
I’ve noticed that organizations are kind of like information processors to coordinate matter, energy and information flows in order to create order from disorder. They seem to be much like knowledge integrators of much information with many minds as the cells. Institutions absorb information from the environment, make plans, and execute them.
Institutional structure is bricolage – no single design but the combination of internal ideas and external memes of social organization. While Saturn V rockets or wagons are physical technologies, firms and hunting strategies are social technologies. That said, there is not a clear demarcation between the two. Processing is therefore idiosyncratic.
HBC seems like a prime subject because of its thorough record keeping; we can see the evolution of how things were organized. At a fur trading fort in BC this summer, I was amazed by how all that stuff was moved around from the Atlantic. I am intrigued by the informational innovation of such as double entry bookkeeping that helped organize this operation.
This essay is organized by the questions raised above and is a general mediation on the topic. The first section broadly talks about some of the coordinating processes of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the second section deals with considering these as a whole social technology, and the third raises the possibility that the “processing power” of the firm could be measured over time. The essay is a general discussion on the possibilities the questions raise.
2. What Symbolic Systems were used by HBC?
In the height of its trading days, the Hudson’s Bay Company spanned a massive geography and economic role in North America. This spatially extensive, complex exchange system ran smoothly through adjustments to customary practices and linkages to commodity, credit and information flows (Ray 54). These practices were the use of standardized weights and measures to account for goods in a systematized way. This was data-processing at an organization level, with the central control system being this informational coordination. (Beer, 16) Common and coordinated information allowed for complex operations to take place over a large areas.
Measurement and record keeping are ways to capture value and differentiate semiotic information, and lead ways to more complex ways of differentiating this information – they provide other ways of creating a sort of language. The technologies for measurement and quantification, physical and social, are the broad determinants of the precision of coordination of semiotic information. Precision is the reproducibility and consistent internal logic of a pricing system. Prices are a form of measurement that presupposes common mental paradigms of what it is to be measured. Measurement is mediated social and physical tools such as formal weights and measures, property rights, double entry bookkeeping and corporate processes.
Accounting processes were a component of what Stafford Beer would call ‘the brain of the firm’ that allowed for such coordination. Patrut Vasile has done a substantial amount of work analyzing accounting in the framework of semiotics. He says that “Accounting is an act of communication due to the very reason that it emerged out of the need to know and to manage efficiently one‘s own resources, and so to transmit something to someone.” (Vasile 1108) It allows for information about the firm to be coordinated systematically. This is in order to create a symbolic model of the operations of the firm in order to direct action most effectively. This requires a purpose by which to develop the information: “First of all any model has a target. And what is the target of the accounting communication process if not that of satisfying the informational needs of the users so that their decisions could be pertinent and realistic? How exactly is this performed? Certainly, by means of the synthesizing statements of the accounting information, chiefly named financial statements.” (Vasile 1109) Taking account of things has to ultimately have a purpose and structure, and has to have truth value to be pertinent.
In Structure, Sign and Play Derrida seeks to understand the social realities that lie within structuralism. He builds on and criticizes Levi-Strauss’s work. Everything has a structure; structure is what allows us to conceive and communicate about things. Derrida examines structures by further defining how structures have perimeters, centers, and play. (109) The perimeter of the structure is what is outside what we think. The centre is what balances binaries, but it lies outside the structure and is really a construction of the observer. Play is the flexibility of the structure. Derrida emphasizes that bricolage, the slow pounding together over time, is the source of all structures. (115) Therefore they are inherently unbalanced, non centred, and flexible towards the future. Derrida argues that in this free-play, we can examine the social realities within structures. (119) This idea of ideology is furthered by by Tony Thwaites, who states that ideology “is the way in which the roles of discourse get inhabited” – how individuals are integrated into the broader purposes of the group (160). The Hudson’s Bay Company Operations structure was a bricolage fusion of at least two main ideological groups, the European traders and the Aboriginal Groups. (Ray 55) The driving force that gave purpose for the enterprise was European demand for furs. The appropriate central structures were cobbled together in order to do this. The use of accounting processes was used to “evaluate the performance of factors and operations” (Ray 81) in order to regulate the enterprise in order to make sure it was functioning efficiently. There were various changes to the shape of the accounting structure, but interpolate variation was rare. It provided a central structural benchmark to regulate the ideological enterprise.
The truth value of these Theo van Leeuwen states that modality is the representation of truth, reality or fact between two or more parties. Modality is not about the truth, but how truth is conveyed to others. (van Leeuwen 67) It is a continuum rather than a dichotomy, and is truly about perception and belief. Language carries representations of truth with various degrees. These can be categorized into a low, medium and high range, for instance. Modality cuts across linguistics to visuals to auditory truths. (van Leeuwen 70) Modalities are also a kind of bricolage. Multiple forms are used together to convey a feeling of truth in the observer in a comprehensive and holistic way. The accounting information that helps to coordinate the individual members of the firm and its interactors need to believe in the legitimacy of the institution. The modality of the information is of key importance. Therefore the symbolic presentation of the stocks and flows must convey ideological authority, both so that it is taken seriously as information and so that it is taken seriously by those who enter the information. The modality in this case is a double-edged and reflexive in that the modality factor affects the future modality of the semiotic information. A breakdown in the belief in the structure would mean that the whole of the symbolic system could break down. The precision of these symbolic systems is key to the functioning of the institution.
3. How are symbols used to coordinate activities?
Symbolic systems are the core of our social technologies that allow for complex forms of human coordination. Symbolic and semiotic system allow for the coordination of activities across time and space because they form social technologies with symbolic information as the nervous system of firms (Beer 14). Humans use signals for our socio-economic systems. We might think of votes in a democracy as a signal or prices in a market economy. These are institutional communication systems. Economics has seen prices as information about the balance of supply and demand. Jane Jacobs summarizes this in her book the Nature of Economies.
“Adam Smith… identified prices of the goods and rates of wages as feedback information… He analyzed how prices automatically corrected maladjustments between supply and demand. It was not… by merely influencing distribution of supplies… but by actually bringing imbalances into better balance by triggering changes in production” (Jacobs 175)
The feedback information works much the same way within the firm. Standardized accounting information systems allow a for a central interface for actions to be taken. Differential informational systems are worked at to be corrected. The semiotic information created and processed in an ideological way streams paths of action.
We often restrict our conception of technology to the physical: the canoes, forts and guns of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But what enables these technologies to be made or distributed? To answer this question, we have to look at the processes of sociocultural systems. These coordinating processes are social technologies (Nelson, 1) : models that use conceptual symbolic representation to guide human action in order make change in the material world. Physical technologies or products, such as european manufactures, are are embedded in larger systems situated in the physical world. These are coordination functions of social technologies, either actively or passively enacted, that distribute these material technologies. We can think of these as semiotic symbolic systems.
Social technologies succeed at making physical change in the world through coordinating people in the symbolic realm. To create a successful social technology is to “assure the regulation of signs and the integration of the group: it is simultaneously a morality (a system of ideological values) and a system of communication, a structure of exchange.” (Baudrillard 46). This makes the action primarily communicative, an act of influence and discourse of thoughts in the conceptual realm. Symbolic systems are the ideological fuel, a representation of the world in abstraction of an organization that creates the means that propels people towards a variety of ends.
These social technologies establish paths of action. In terms of the distribution of goods, it is that “[networks of objects] constitute object paths, which establish inertial constraints on the consumer who will proceed logically from one object to the next” (Baudrillard 31) where individuals are guided by the ideology and structure of the system. It makes sense that there is a constant attempt to harmonize the logic of the systems. The growth of symbolic structures in material and socio-cultural space creates further rigidity to the larger bounds of the system or firm.
The main constraints of social technologies worth noting are the laws of physics and the bounds of the ecological system that supports other systems. Socio-cultural system and their constituent social technologies are simplified models of reality that perform specific functions. If this simple model sets itself in an inaccurate model of the system it is embedded in, it will fail. (Vasile 1110) Poor information in the operations of the HBC would result in underperformance, under or overstocked trading posts and more corrupt traders. These issues are fine as long as the conditions don’t change, but if they do it will quickly fall apart. This is the collapse of a paradigm. If the participants or organizers of the firm have an unrealistic model of the system (assumptions about supply and demand, path-dependence) they are nesting themselves in, their social technology will not survive.
While the Hudson’s Bay Company appeared to be of design, it is more representative of a bricolage. The component parts of the HBC were assembled from pre-existing semiotic resources to become it’s own functioning institution. The structure, while improvised at first, solidifies to become something that is further copied for use in other institutions (Chandler 205). Symbolic systems of social technologies coordinate the activities of firms like the Hudson’s Bay Company.
4. What was the Processing Power of the Hudson’s Bay Company?
Information is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. Signals are a form of information that carry a message. When transmitted to a receiver, signals direct material, energy and informational flows in the world. They drive the actions and beliefs of people. Signals are incredibly powerful. Signals are all around us – even in the natural world. Think of the flower’s colour as a signal to attract pollinating insects or how the crow calls to indicate predators. (Kennedy, 105) Billions of years of co-evolution have led to sophisticated types of bio-signaling. To do this, Kennedy identifies semiotic communication as something that is grounded in energy expenditure. He says that there may be “emotional energy that impels the speaker to speak… physical energy expended in the utterance… energy coded in the message… and energy experienced by the recipient in decoding the message” (Kennedy 106) that tie semiotics to a physical phenomenon. In thinking and writing, we expend energy and create informational data. We in effect process this together through our social technologies.
Semiotics to Kennedy is something prior to human language, though part of it, and something we share with all of nature as “a ‘deep’ universal rhetoric” (Kennedy 109). While explicitly about rhetoric, this study is ultimately connected to semiotics and communications in general, but especially the idea of phytosemiotics. This connection of communication to the broader natural world is deeply important to semiotics as it deepens our understanding of the roots of signs and symbolic systems. It is clear that signs and symbols are rooted more deeply in nature. It seems that when we communicate we are channelling a feature inherent to all complex systems. Signalling emerges out of complexity. To go further, information is a fundamental part of the natural world – as is matter and energy. When one starts to think this way, it seems obvious that institutions or firms – another complex system- could be able to communicate in a similar way! It is a matter of the level of analysis chosen to look at the system. Proposing ways to understand semiotics as something that is fundamentally physical allows for new ways to analyze it. The thought behind symbols is electrochemical; writing and accounting are manipulations of physical space. We can start to quantitatively explore the emergence of semiotics from something purely in the evolutionary biological realm into a dynamic cultural and institutions realm. If communication through signals is an emergent phenomenon and feature of the world, then it would stand to reason that other complex systems, such as a firm, would show signalling behaviour that might be considered communication.
If this is the case, then symbols are a type of energy and could be measured as a part of language as much as a simpler sign or signifier might be measured. Kennedy suggests “rheme” as a unit (Kennedy 106). Animals use symbols to represent two different types of information, “the presence of an animal in a territory and the internal state of the animal making the sound” (Kennedy 116). From these simple foundations is a “history of diffusion of energy and growth of information communication” (Kennedy 117) that evolves into much more complex forms like human language. Kennedy suggests that there is a type of energy economics that governs the evolution of semiotic invention that allows more complex conceptual webs to emerge. He suggests that mechanisms favour the least amount of energy for the greatest amount of information (Kennedy 117). This law could govern how we understand the evolution of social technologies such as firms or organizations. This allows us to see symbolic processes occurring as an emergent feature of complex systems, plants or animals or humans of firms. We do not even need a new unit to attempt to measure it. This could be a fusion of semiotic and computational research. We could measure the amount of data enclosed in the whole of the companies records as we would a computer over time.
This offers a potential opportunity to conceive as the firm as a complex entity, where semiotic resources inputs and outputs of the Hudson’s Bay are theoretically quantifiable. If we think of such organizations as systems to achieve ends then we can use an informational approach to rhetoric as a way to understand the flow of energy or data. How much data did the Hudson’s Bay Company process over the course of its operations, and how did changes to its semiotic and social technology structure improve or hinder its information processing capabilities? By taking a semiotic approach to looking at the firm, we might be able to answer these questions.
Semiotic symbolic systems allow firms to coordinate activities over vast expanses. In this way, they can be thought of information processors. This essay explored the semiotic dimensions of the kinds of information used by a firm like the Hudson’s Bay Company, how this information is structured as a kind of social technology for organizing action, and how we might analyze and measure semiotic information at the institutional level. The firm creates a sort of ideological model that can direct the action of the individual components to operate effectively. These structures are built up through bricolage and require a reliable and consistent throughput of information. The Hudson’s Bay Company provides an excellent example for this study because of an excellent history of record keeping over a long time for a single organization. This essay integrated ideas about the semiotics of accounting, economic and social systems, and semiotics in complex systems. There is ample room for a deeper study of the topic.
Word Count: 2970
6. Works Cited
Baudrillard, Jean. “Consumer Society.” Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford University, 1988. 29–56. Print.
Beer, Stafford. The Brain of the Firm. Second. Bath, England: John Wiley & Sons, 1981. Print.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Second. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Derrida, J. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” from Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, Pp. 108-123, Longman, 1988. Print.
Jacobs, Jane. The Nature of Economies. N.p. Print.
Kennedy, George. “‘A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.’ Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries.” Allyn & Bacon, 1995. 105–121. Print.
Nelson, Richard. “Physical and Social Technologies, and Their Evolution.” June 2003: n. pag. Print.
Ray, Arthur. “Give Us Good Measure”: An Economic Analysis of Relations Between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company by 1763. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978. Print.
Thwaites, T. “Ideology.” Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach. Palgrave MacMillan, 2002. 158–175. Print.
Van Leeuwen, Theo. “Modality.” Introducing Social Semiotics. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Vasile, Patrut et al. “ACCOUNTING – A SEMIOTIC PROCESS.” Oradea, Romania: Editura Universitatii din Oradea, 2009. 1105-1112. Print.