Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Tim Stock

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.


New York…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

TIM STOCK

My childhood was a study of contrasts. I went to the same Jesuit grammar school that Alfred Hitchcock attended as a boy, known for a ritualized form of corporal punishment known as ferula. It was a quick study into the signifiers of fear.

My escape from that was music and I was quite obsessed with recording sounds and editing them together, designing layers of sound using reel-to-reel recorders, and doing rough copies of what I saw from John Cage’s prepared piano experiments. That obsession evolved into an addiction to synthesizers and samplers later on when I returned to Detroit and collaborated with some of the early contributors to what would become Detroit Techno.

Watching how the music scene evolved in Detroit was my best education in how subcultures inform cultural meaning. The evolution of the hardcore punk scene at The Freezer Theater in the Cass Corridor interwoven with the politics of the decline of the auto industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed how cultural expression is our most powerful tool to see how we change and adapt as humans. Subcultures are the engines of intelligence, and the language they produce can provide us with new templates for a better world. We just need to unpack their codes.

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

TIM STOCK

My first introduction to semiotics came from studying as a graduate student with Annette Michelson, the co-founder of the journal October, in the Cinema Studies program at NYU. Classes would combine Chris Marker with Buster Keaton and deep discussions on politics, culture, and meaning. I became aware of the creative process and analysis in a much deeper way through those classes. Semiotics was at the core of all the reading — it was informing this field of study of understanding media as an expressive and evolving extension of society. The program taught us to be surgeons of cultural meaning.

However, some Ph.D. students teaching classes would sometimes use semiotics as a weapon for protecting their place in the pecking order within the university. It appeared to me in those cases more like a suit of clothes than an extension of their own bodies. But the artists we studied did not struggle the same way. I focused on them. I still see some of that insecurity in applied semiotics. It is unfortunate and keeps semiotics from being used more. Semiotics requires rigor and discretion — but not at the cost of understanding. Championing grammarians over poets loses the potential that semiotics provides us to know more about the world.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

TIM STOCK

My work with music had me accidentally absorb a lot of what were the early programming languages for the early internet. I went from designing prototypes for the use of Apple Newton in museums and retail to advising clients on how these technologies might change the way you need to act and behave as a brand. Along the way, I built my own tools and methods to help that process of inquiry.

Most notably a method called Culture Mapping I developed with Marie Lena Tupot allowed us to analyze small and large amounts of linguistic data to understand the patterns of meaning. We were able to convince some forward-thinking clients to take us on in the early days as we worked towards developing a utility patent. Some academics picked up on our work and included it in some textbooks on consumer behavior for this nascent area of study.

Some of that very early work I can still proudly reference today. For example, understanding the value of how graffiti bombers were co-opting the use of online tools like Evite to coordinate their work in the early 2000s, or being able to identify a taxonomy of dissent to the rise in social media in 2006 that would be a predictor of the importance of privacy as central to all technology UX.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

TIM STOCK

Pattern recognition. It is what separates us from machines. You can’t learn it in a logical way. It must be learned in an emotional way. It is like the brilliant quote from Miles Davis — “it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” Semiotics understands zero, it understands non-action, it understands chaos. It can see the breath in between words and understand what is changing in how those words will land and impact. The skill of the semiotician is to have those muscles for pattern recognition more developed.

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

TIM STOCK

  • Roland Barthes’ Mythologies — for helping us see the mechanics of meaning in everyday life.
  • Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media — for helping us see how technology impacts meaning and changes our expressions as social creatures.
  • Julia Kristeva’s The Language of Desire — for helping us understand the importance of intertextuality and the foundations of rigorous discourse analysis between a broader range of cultural source material to understand the codes of culture.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

TIM STOCK

I am claustrophobic. I avoid elevator pitches — but if forced I would say that I help a company understand how they function in the context of society, and how to improve that in every aspect of their strategy. When big external events occur like a recession or the pandemic, clients tend to wake up to thinking outside of their category more. Applied semiotics can be an excellent tool to help redirect and rewire the line of sight a company has. Giving a company a new source of language and actions that allows it to participate, position, and embed itself in new ways in culture and society.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

TIM STOCK

All great work happens when there is shared trust between everyone. When a company opens you up to all aspects of its business great things can happen. From talking with people in R&D to those working on communications and promotions. I have had some great experiences with a large food and beverage company in Latin America that was expanding globally and transforming itself from a legacy supplier to a culturally relevant and responsible B Corp innovator. That was a wonderful journey from cross-discipline training sessions to advising on how trends could shape new portfolio decisions. I love work that crosses regional boundaries and internal divisions. All of those problems can be served by a better understanding of language and culture.

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

TIM STOCK

Semiotics got pigeonholed into the procurement process of companies in such a way that makes it hard to see how expansive the use of semiotics can be. Its legacy of use tends to keep it boxed into the very top-surface exercise of packaging or communication. Large FMCGs are often still box-checking for things like semantic analysis without really understanding what that really is and how much more expansive you could be in using these methods in combination with other methods to address evolving challenges.

Semiotics is about the hidden, but I see a lot of use for pretty obvious stuff. If research and insight procurement is run as a legacy menu rather than an evolving intelligence lab we are just treading water. The answers you need are not on the menu — they are in a combination of methods you have not thought of yet.

New prompt AI tools create a new focus on how dumb or smart we can be. Prompt AI is a language-based model. If you want to use these tools effectively, start investing in better language models and being more discerning about the data that is being used to pump out answers. The real challenge in new tools like ChatGPT is waking up human intelligence in the process to ask better questions and attend to the mechanics of the answers it is producing.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

TIM STOCK

Peirce for sure. Language as a living system has great relevance to the work we do. I am also fascinated by Peirce’s relationship with Jung — another key influence in our work of measuring archetypal patterns of meaning. The purpose of semiotics is to reveal these hidden stories interwoven in the ongoing expressions of culture. The interrelationship of Peirce and Jung is foundational to understanding the more ambiguous and chaotic world we are living in.

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

TIM STOCK

  • Be curious.
  • Don’t listen to any one person.
  • Connect disciplines and interests.
  • Find opportunities to put new ideas into practice and context.
  • Don’t be afraid to get it wrong — just know what you missed and improve your approach and keep going.

MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (China) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | RAHUL MURDESHWAAR (India) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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