LCA: Getting started with tools, signs and activity

From: Kevin Rocap (
Date: Wed Jun 15 2005 - 12:26:55 PDT

Sent this earlier today, but realized it went only to Mike, so re-sending...

-----Original Message-----
Dear friends,

Following up on Mike's and Ana's point a couple quick and very preliminary reflections:

First, without nearly Mike's basis for thinking it, I too immediately jumped to questions about translation issues and how it may be necessary to tread lightly with regard to trying to tie down concepts such as "artificial" (though a later linking of artifacts and artificial devices perhaps helps clarify this a little) or even "stimuli-devices" or "autostimulation" or, as Mike mentions, "conditioned stimulus". I find I have to skate a little among these terms in developing provisional meanings for myself.

Let me toss out the notion that my own personal prejudice is that "sign" may be a more complex concept than "tool". I can't help thinking of Saussure's and then of Pierce's view of "signs" as minimally embracing signifier, signified and meaning, if not further embracing interlocutors and relationships of I-Thou-It. So, for me, "sign" seems to carry within it a stronger sense of relations and interactions than I think of as residing in the notion of "tool" by itself. Certainly a "tool" or "tools" are implicated in mediated activity and therefore in sets of relations, actions and operations (if I haven't used these terms to breezily). Yet, though, I can see "tools" as implicated within mediated activities I don't think of the term itself as embracing those relations and actions in the same way that, for me, "sign" does.

But, following Mike's caveat, neither would I want to set up a strict dichotomy between the two (especially in an age where we talk about software "tools" and where traditional behavioral notions of "work" might need some rehoning,no?). In some ways sign and tool would seem to me to exist in some potentially dialectical relationship, or, perhaps more accurately, specific types of "tools" might be involved in the more embracive notion of "sign", no? For instance, would one think of the "signifier" as a "tool" within the overall relationships/interactions implied by "sign"?

Yet, bringing myself back to the article, the way "sign" is discussed almost seems to make the term more tool-like to me. For instance, the parallel diagram of "use of tools" and "use of signs" emphasizes a kind of parallel utility that biases the notion, tipping the balance toward "tool", no? I think, rather, that I may tend to think of "using" a "tool" but of "experiencing" a "sign" (but this is a nascent thought and I can't take it too far right now). Although it is true in everyday speech I think we tend to talk about "signs" in a reified way which is more use-oriented. We say that something is a "sign" of something else, for instance, when, in linguistics the sign would, again, be embracive of the signifier and the signified, connoting a relation from which meanings and significance emerge, no? In some ways, for me, "sign" aspires to being closer conceptually to the notion of "activity" itself, in my mind, than does "tool" (but I'm only just now thinking this as I write and so this is another little fish of an idea, to use Virginia Woolfe's metaphor - one that can go quickly into hiding on the basis of one skeptical, sideways glance ;-)). Although I should say that I realize that that in Peirce's triangular relation the term "sign" is not used so all-inclusively, rather the relationship is among Interpretant-----sign/representation----Object/Referent. So, that may be closer to the sense in which "sign" is being used in this article. But I might still argue for something closer to Saussure's view of "sign" being more embracive (at least of the representation----referent relationship).

There also does seem to be a slight tendency in the article to nearly want to set up some Levi-Straussian dichotomies of internal/external, sign/tool, communication/work (?), etc., no? Dichotomies that may be partially reconciled or synthesized from a technologists perspective, according to the article, in the subsumption of tools and signs into "artifacts or artificial devices"

In any case I concur with a key point in the article: that there is likely some instructive value in considering the similarities/analogies/contiguities, divergences and potential "real psychological connections" between the two concepts. Though I'm less clear on what a "real psychological connection" might be. The article makes the point, with regard to the diagram used as well, that the diagram seeks to show "logical" rather than "real" relationships. Given my prejudice about "signs" versus "tools" I'm not sure I find the parallelism implied by the diagram as accurate either logically or in any "real" sense. I would still contend that "tool" may need to be seen as both an element of a "sign" and of an "activity". So someone please set me straight (if I'm totally off the wall on this)! ;-)

Finally, I can't help relating this readng to another book I'm currently reading "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee. Hawkins is the inventor of the Palm Pilot and someone who didn't get into MIT, in part, by his report, because he did not share the faith in Artificial Intelligence that was at its height when he made application. A key point for Hawkins is that AI trotted down the wrong path in trying to equate intelligence with "behaviors", in the Turing test approach to "demonstrating intelligence" by fooling human beings into believing a machine had intelligence (drawing on Searle's "Chinese Room" response to AI that caused quite a furor). He argues for a greater understanding of how the brain works and of what it means to "understand" something, which, he feels has more to do with memory and the myriad associations from past experience that a brain is able to make in reacting to and predicting the future. He emphasizes the fact that an intelligent human is often "exhibiting" intelligence merely by laying on his/her back and staring up at the sky, while lost in thought. So he wants to explore, I guess, the implications of "non-behavioral" aspects of intelligence. This point percolated up for me in the articles suggestions about "signs" being perhaps more internal than "tools". That's all. I'll leave that for now, to percolate with others (if it seems relevant).

Looking forward to the continued dialogue.

In Peace,

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