I think few people would argue with the notion that interactive media has become pervasive. In our postmodern world, the colonization of our everyday lives by technology is a feature that can’t be ignored. When we shop, when we eat, even when we try to escape technology with a trip to the woods, it is ever present. How do we make sense of all the media? And more importantly, how have interactive media reshaped our lives, from cognition to culture?
Being the semi-closeted Structuralist that I am, one way to make sense of it all is to think in terms of binary structures and Semiotic systems of meaning. Semiotic interpretation involves exposing the culturally arbitrary nature of this binary opposition and describing the deeper consequences of this structure throughout a culture. Binary structures compartmentalize ideas, events, actions, etc. into two contrary conceptual categories that also entail or presuppose each other. Now that I’ve obfuscated the point, it means simply this: using a binary structure allows you to easily categorize elements in behavior and meaning, defining media elements into things people can use when developing a business strategy. Is it the only way, or even the best way to structure interpretation? Probably not. But it is one tool that helps convey structure to an extremely complex system.
Structuralism is not concerned with the content of a text or system; rather, it analyzes and explores the structures underlying the text or system, which make the content possible. One of the leading principles of Structuralism is that the form defines the content (“form is content”). That is, that the underlying structure of a text or system, which presents and organizes the content, determines the nature of that content as well as its message or communicated information. Thus Structuralism analyzes how meaning is possible and how it is transmitted – regardless of the actual meaning.
Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems of signification. A Structuralist approach may study activities as diverse as food-preparation and serving- rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by which meaning is produced and reproduced within the culture
So what does it have to do with interactive media? In the everyday use of languages and signs, we combine a range of kinds of physical media in communicating and making meaning. The radio, movies, web content, digital multimedia, etc.
The various modalities, the means of conveying meaning, often overlap and pass on or interpret meaning from other concurrent media in our culture. And rather than having a limited number of sources speaking at once and through time, we have a rapid set of conversations taking place in a constantly mutable state. We can talk about a TV show with a friend on the phone, watch multiple online news sources that interpret an event through various political lenses, watch a movie mass media genre like a thriller that requires knowledge of the codes for this genre (even as we skip through parts of it), instant message and read over multimedia Web pages all at the same time. As we do it, we filter out banner ads, unwanted email and commercials. We are constantly sending, receiving, and making meaning in various kinds of media, often conveying and interpreting meaning from one medium to another.
So what? Here’s what. This practice points to the existence of our larger contemporary and inherited semiotic system, or what some have termed a semiosphere, the whole universe of available and possible meanings in a cultural system. In other words, we want to silo elements of a system of media and meaning into neat sections, as if they aren’t being recreated and interpreted by the people who use them on a minute-by-minute basis. We no longer own the media we push to the world in hopes that people will by our products and services. We are part of the greater shared dialog. Understanding the structural elements and symbol systems that define our world thus becomes more than luxury or academic pursuit. It becomes everything.