Dirk Siefkes – Communication “big” and “small”

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

Communication “big” and “small”
Signs in the city and in small environments

Dirk Siefkes (Technical University of Berlin, Germany) [BIO]

Email: siefkes@cs.tu-berlin.de

 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication



I contrast signs in the city with signs in “small systems”. The kaleidoscopic diversity in the city fascinates us and promises a rich life, but does not provide the support and comfort of those daily groups of work or leisure whose “small” communication rests on a joint basis. To understand the relation between the two I alter Peirce’s definition of signs by locating the interpretant in the small system instead of in the single user. Then we see better how to integrate small and big communication without losing the advantages of either. Working on the integration we may become true citizens.


Communicating the big or the small way

Human communities are established – so says the word – through communication, i.e. through signs. Language, gestures, posture as well as architecture, art, technology, even nature, everything may serve to tell us: you belong here; or: you don’t. In this way this defines a community. Cities are a special form of community, thus requiring special forms of communication, of signs. Public transportation, telephone, heavy traffic guided by rules and lights, strict administration by writing (laws, requests etc.), indirect democracy (voting) are used in cities and other big conglomerates to help people connect, to make them behave in certain uniform ways, to support or hinder communication. In this way they create a place to live in, whether we accept them or struggle against them or try to better them. Thus they make us feel at home or a stranger, they communicate something about the city.

These particular forms of connection and thus of signs are unnecessary, if not harmful, in smaller communities, but often forced upon them by our “thinking big”. Our culture is directed towards the individual, thus ruled by the desire for power and profit, both of which we like to enlarge as much as possible. Therefore small enterprises are swallowed by big corporations; communities grow and/or are joined into cities, provinces, states, the world ultimately. It is these bigger units which require non-individu­al connections, non-personal communication in particular.

But, as a matter of fact, we communicate quite differently in the small informal groups of which we are members: family, friends, colleagues, clubs. This is, however, not just a question of size; in a big city life might be easier and richer than in a stalled partnership. I define (Sie82, 92) a system (a group of people together with the relations between them and to the surroundings) to be small if it is neither overloaded (“too big”) nor underweight (“too small”) in any of its bearings: means and rules (outer world, material support), values and will (inner world, emotional support), concepts and language (in between, mental support).

Thus, in the above example the stalled partnership is “big”, not “small”, since what is missing in love and understanding (emotional and mental support) has to be outweighed by money and/or strict conduct. The big city on the other hand can never be “small”, because by sheer size it cannot function through personal connections, but needs heavy material support like administration and public transportation. These can be used, however, to help or hinder the free development of “small” subsystems, thus to foster or discourage “smallness”. A crowd of people hypnotized by a speaker or singer or panicked by an event and thereby turned into a mass is “big” in an even stronger sense, eliminating and indeed endangering any tendencies towards smallness. Even a village rarely will be “small”, as a narrow worldview and a monotonous lifestyle may hinder the development of small systems within the community. A single person finally can be a small system, a lone person cannot.

In my usage “big” and “small” are not opposites, they are not good and bad. Neither is “small” the golden mean between “too big” and “too small”. Rather, in a small system we move freely in every respect between these extremes, promoting togetherness without hindering diversity. Humans develop in the intricate interplay between small and big systems (see Sie04ff, also Ern09, Ran09). Big systems change through changes in its small subsystems, and conversely influence the small ones in their development.

“Smallness” is – I think – what the architect Christopher Alexander (Ale77, 79) calls “the quality without a name”. From him I learned about patterns (see below), but continued to call lively (or good) patterns “small” although the word invites misunderstandings. His patterns are prototypes of buildings or towns that take into account the needs of the inhabitants, and enhance their lives. The growing debate on “commons” aims at a similar concept. A common is a system bound together by the care for a joint property, like a village meadow or “our community” or an area of knowledge and abilities (see e.g. Hel09, HHB09, Ost09, Pot10; also Boo07). Thus commons come small or big (numerically), and it is debated how far greater size can be outweighed by administration. Electronic communities are special in that respect because by their restricted form and focus of communication it is easier, both to foster small communication (like in the “free software movement”) or to hinder it (like in the “communities” of the IT-industry, where human relations are trivialized to their electronic substitutes).

The feeling of belonging together is more important in communication than its form (oral, written, electronic). “Small communication” triggers a learning process of all people involved. In this process the group changes and thereby its members, and vice versa (Sie04b). Heinrich von Kleist sees this happen when he talks to his sister (Kle1805, a wonderful paper). Only in small systems do we feel a belonging together.


Signs in big or small systems

In order to distinguish signs of the city from signs of other communities I propose to reconsider Peirce’s definition. He takes a sign as a triple of representamen (pointer), object pointed to, and interpretant (the never-ending learning process resulting from the use of the sign). The interpretant seems to be located in the person using (sending or receiving) the sign, and thereby depends heavily on the social and cultural context.

For communication in small systems I locate the interpretant instead in the group, inducing correlated though not identical processes in its members. Thus a small system constitutes (and is constituted by) the set of signs on which the members more or less agree although both (the set of signs and the system itself) are constantly changing through the group activities. The signs of bigger systems on the other hand come with many different interpretants, cooperating or contradicting, thus providing stimuli, but requiring administration, i.e. interpretation and rules of use imposed from above. They connect us to the surroundings – architecture, nature, institutions, other people, even history. Thus they make us feel to belong “here”, or not. There is, however, no joint basis of communication, because sender or receiver are single persons or anonymous, and not members of the same small system. In fact, the true signs “of the city” come from above, established and maintained by the administration and thus beyond our influence. The feeling of belonging together is simply absent. I think the same is true for even bigger units: countries, super-countries like the EU or the USA, the world understood as global community. But I do not pursue this problem here.

In semiotic terms the problem then is: How are the signs of a city related to the sets of signs of its small systems? My thesis is inspired by the commons debate: there will be not much of a relation if we do not create it ourselves. The small systems must participate in what goes on in the surrounding bigger systems (up to the city itself), without expecting them to become small. And the bigger systems, in pursuing their aims, must support the small ones in interacting, but stay out of their intern buzz. Then the two may learn to communicate and cooperate, the city may turn into and stay a community, though not a small one. Many cities in the world are known, for the better or the worse, for their special “air”. It would be worthwhile to investigate these airs, which are so different, to find out whether and how these differences depend on the relations of the city to its small subsystems, thus on the issue of communicating small or big.

To understand this better let us look closer at the interpretant, the process of using a sign. The meaning of a sign depends on the context, i.e. on the user, on the partner if there is one, on the situation, even on the history and the culture in general. Thus the meaning will vary slightly with the context, it will never be exactly the same nor too different, but similar enough to be recognized. In this sense a sign, when used by a person repeatedly, generates a pattern, a sequence of similar phenomena. In terms of developmental or cognitive psychology a sign is a “schema” generating an appropriate meaning for each context (Ste95 and Joh87 resp.; Sie04ff).

Conversely, when we encounter such a sequence long enough, we will give it a name to identify what we have learned. Thus a sign is both the generator and the prototype of a pattern. And often the three are taken as one thing: the sign. This is how I understand the trinity of Peirce: pointer, object, and interpretant – generator, prototype, pattern. And – in parallel to Ortmann’s “paradox of organisation theory” (Ort03) – I formulate a paradox of communication theory: Humans understand each other, not although, but because, they interpret differently though similarly, the signs used in communication. I think ‘similarity’ is a central concept in development, much deeper than, but not reducible to, equality and difference – concepts considered basic by many. In (Neu48) the computer pioneer John von Neumann seems to suggest that it cannot be represented on a computer (see Sie04a, 07).

When we communicate, the different signs used by the people involved yield a whole stream of patterns, like in polyphonic music. When we succeed in communication this stream forms a single pattern. When we fail the stream remains a chaos of unconnected voices, we don’t understand each other. Or, when we take too much effort, when we force communication, we may strangle it, the pattern becomes rigid, the phenomena uniform; we exchange messages but we don’t learn. I call a pattern alive (Sie05ff) when it is neither chaotic (no recognizable regularities) nor rigid (predictable regularities). Then small systems are those that succeed with alive communication.


Rethink city democracy

Now we can clarify the thesis formulated above. Participation is not getting elected and going to the meetings to listen or get your ideas through. Rather, for each issue of general interest you have to get yourself a basis in the appropriate small systems at home – family, friends, neighbourhood etc. And then you have to help convert the “bigger” assemblies – from neighbourhood council to city parliament – first into assemblies of small systems and then into small systems themselves where the participants communicate about the issue, until some solution is found, or not. Conversely, support through the city government cannot consist in making great plans which then are realized (rigid) or in lettings things go (chaotic). Rather, the government should help connect the smaller subsystems so that they may communicate about common issues and try to come up with solutions. Then the structure of the city may serve not only to satisfy the daily needs of the inhabitants and/or the long-term goals of the government, but to tell everyone: “This is the place. Look at it. If you like it, you are welcome here. If you don’t, help us make it better.”

Both participation from below and support from above may come in many different ways. In the German city of Bremen, for example, the democratic councils of the city districts are augmented by nonofficial assemblies of the smaller neighbourhoods which may carry their proposals into the councils and enter the debate there (Bre10). In Berlin, my city, on the other hand one observes how through the years artisans move from one location to another – first Kreuzberg, then Prenzlauer Berg (“Prenzlberg”, as the inhabitants call it), now it seems to be Moa­bit. If more and more well-off people move into their place because it is “in” to live there, the artisans will move on. It seems that the city administration has recognized these moves and tries to respond to the message by aiming their development projects accordingly.

Message, indeed: if we are concerned about “our city”, it is not enough to work out solutions to the problems around. Whether we participate from below or support from above, we should always be aware that whatever we create or destroy will also be a sign. The result will talk to the public. A city or a part of it, (re)created by well-meaning politicians and architects as the ideal place to live in or move about, may tell the inhabitants: “You are but ants. Whatever you might come up with, we foresaw it and looked after it.” The desert-like dream cities of authoritarian governments of any colour are examples. City renovation projects like “Stuttgart 21” (see e.g. Gei10) where the administration doesn’t talk to the public are others – in our democracy. We want, no we need not only to connect ourselves to the people we live with, but as well to identify ourselves to some extent with the place where we live in, be it flat, house, neighborhood, suburb, or city.

As people are different the place needs di­versity, created with the help of its (would-be) inhabitants – how much, depends on its “size”. If it is the place of a small system its members will have to agree on the diversity. A neighborhood on the other hand (re)shaped with much devotion by the inhabitants may be the ideal place for them, but an ugly place for others. Or it may tell the people living around it: “We are better/smarter/neater than you. Stay away. You won’t fit in here.” And the special air of some cities or even bigger places (see above) has to be liked and supported by enough inhabitants. Diversity is more than multiplicity; the many voices have to join into one melody, on every level.

The worst thing to do is to give city issues into the hands of private enterprises working for profit. Whatever they do will tell the citizens: “We couldn’t satisfy your dreams, because they are too expensive. Look at our solutions, how nice they are, and so efficient.” Public services, education, culture, everything will smell and taste after money – and only be accessible to those with money. And in the end they will have to pay more.

We have to rethink our (city) democracy. Whoever sits in whatever assembly should always know: the final vote does not end the discussion. Whatever we decide upon will at the end be not just something to use, it will also be a sign talking about the city and about me. The citizens will talk back. Better talk to them now. Small communication is not easy to reach. But it works.

Citizens need not feel like sheep in their flock or like victims of a conspiration. Citizens – like artisans – can be “Freibeuter der Utopie”. A Freibeuter is a pirate working on his own account, not for his profit, be it money or glory, but for some higher power, like the crown or some “free city”. “Freibeuter der Utopie. The Art of Making the World a Better Place” is an exhibition in the Weserburg, a museum of modern art in Bremen, this spring 2011. Citizens can be free pirates of their city, working to better its “air”.


Richness and poorness of cities

Hilia Moreira (Mor98) proposes to use semiotics as kaleidoscope: every sign, she says, has many different, even contradictory, meanings which come from different “cultures”, big or small. The meaning of a sign is imposed on us through education and experience, therefore depending on where and how, why and wherefore we live. If we adhere rigidly to our meanings we live poorly, unable to see the beauty or ugliness of other cultures and to admit their right of way. If we open ourselves to other meanings our life will be richer, there will be more tolerance, less fundamentalism; the integration of cultures will be easier. We only have to turn the kaleidoscope to make life more colorful.

I like this view but I see a danger too. Meanings of signs grow with our lives, thus give us security, make us unique, let us feel at home in our culture. If we accept all the meanings we encounter as equal, we will lose our identity, we won’t have a place to stand on, we will no longer learn from others. If we don’t differentiate between our meanings and those of other cultures, if we don’t value them differently, our life will lose its value, will turn trivial.

I think it is this ambivalence which makes life in the city so fascinating for many, especially for the young. Fascination is a mixture of both excitement and fear. The varying and differing impressions which we constantly encounter in cities excite us, but they don’t give us security and thus make us afraid as well. The mixture can be different and the extremes mostly remain subconscious. But the fascination is there.

We have to do both: admit and admire other worldviews and learn from them, as well as see our own culture as unique, as indispensable for our lives. This is the idea if small systems integrated into the big systems around us: we can and should feel at home in the communities we live in; and we can and should open ourselves to the support that the big systems around us provide, by participating and thereby learning from other small systems. This can happen in both, cities and villages. In the big surroundings we will have to care more to create and maintain our small systems, in the smaller ones we will have to work harder to see and accept other cultures to avoid a closed world. Then we can use the semiotic kaleidoscope in both cities and villages, to feel at home in either or in both.

Since I am retired my wife and I live, alternating every few months, in the big city of Berlin and in a small village on La Palma, a Canary island. The changes are strenuous, but the lives are rich indeed. I thank relatives and friends from these and other locations for helpful criticism and suggestions.



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  • (Sie04b) Dirk Siefkes: “Semiosis as Evolution. Development of Mind and Culture in Computer Science”. In M. Bax et al. (eds.): Semiotic Evolution and the Dynamics of Culture. Peter Lang: Bern, 69-88.
  • (Sie05) Dirk Siefkes: Informatikmuster als Grundstock für eine Theorie der Informatik. Manuskript.
  • (Sie07) Dirk Siefkes: Theorie der Informatik zwischen den Stühlen. Gegensätze in der Informatik durchmustern und füreinander fruchtbar machen. TU Berlin, Fak. Elektrotechnik & Informatik, Bericht 07-21.
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  • (Sie08b) Dirk Siefkes: “Theorie der Informatik und Verantwortung von Informatikern. Wie sich informatische und kulturelle Entwicklung in Informatikmustern mischt”. In Hans-Jörg Kreowski (ed.): Informatik und Gesellschaft –- Verflechtungen und Perspektiven. Berlin: LIT-Verlag, 199-223.
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For further publications of mine see http://tal.cs.tu-berlin.de/siefkes (visited 30.4.11)


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Dirk Siefkes: Communication “big” and “small”. Signs in the city and in small environments –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
WWW: http://www.inst.at/trans/18Nr/II-1/siefkes18.htm

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