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semiotic

Between Plato and Hot Dogs

Research shows that complexity of hypermedia generates a new kind of reader, with distinct abilities, both as interpreter of the written word and as receiver of urban signs

Anyone who has always felt intimidated in front of a computer became even more scared when this magic box transformed itself into the gate of access to the virtual world. If it was already difficult for some people to deal with PCs when they were no more than improved typewriters and calculating machines, the advent of the friendly interface of the Internet in 1990 – the marvelous world of the World Wide Web, or simply WWW, with its invisible and apparently endless webs that can lead to everything (or to nothing) – has aggravated the uneasiness.

Why is it that so many people, above all the elderly and the less educated, feel lost in the tangle of electronic pages, sounds, texts, images, links, and icons of the digital universe? In short, why is it that communication in cyberspace is a challenge, sometimes almost insurmountable, for the neo-browsers? Semiologist Maria Lucia Santaella Braga, a director of the Center for Investigation into Digital Media of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Cimid/PUC-SP), financed by FAPESP, has concluded a practical and theoretical study of the users of the hypermedia.

For her, the figure of the Internet surfer has originated a new kind of reader, of whom are demanded totally different abilities from those called for of the receivers of the printed word or of the moving image of the cinema or television. “It is a revolutionary new reader”, says the researcher. Browsing is a more complex activity than reading a book or watching a TV program. “The web surfer is in a permanent state of perceptive readiness, and his mental activity must be in perfect tuning with his motive and cognitive parts.

The language of the digital world only exists when the user acts on and interferes with the message”, she explains. It should not be a surprise, then, that the uninitiated in the meanders of the web should lose themselves in its labyrinth of options, all a few clicks away, and get tired quickly of wandering in the virtual medium. Paraphrasing the Italian semiologist and writer Umberto Eco, the internaut can go from Plato to hot dogs “in just five steps”.

Lucia classifies the Internet user as an immersive reader, a being plunged into the liquid architectures of cyberspace, where all the forms of signs (sound, image and text) are to be found side by side, digitalized and interlinked by data networks, without apparent beginning and end. It is the user who establishes the order for this fragmented information available in the virtual universe. Even though he often has to pass through points that are pre-established by the authors of the electronic pages – the links, the shortcuts that link the countless fragments that float through the net -, each internaut weaves his own private net of connections, in a non-sequential and multilinear manner, at times with a logic that is peculiar to him and to nobody else.

“At the end of each page, you have to chose where to go on to”, says Lucia. “It is the user who decides what information should be seen, for how much time, and in what order.” This peculiarity, according to the semiologist, makes the Internet the only medium that is entirely for dialog and interaction. In books, newspapers and radios and TVs, communication has only one direction – from the transmitter to the receiver. Telephones and faxes are interactive, but they only connect a limited number of persons and they are monosemiotic, – the first only transmits sound, and the second, texts (and images) on paper.

Books and the city
The attitude of the web surfer is different from the behavior displayed by the two kinds of reader that came before him: the contemplative reader of books, who arose in the Middle Ages (15th century), to become hegemonic until the middle of the 19th century, and the reader from the industrial society, on the move and in a hurry, an inhabitant of the big cities that gets about in the midst of a myriad of urban signs, a consumer of newspapers, a listener to the radio and, later, to the TV.

The first is a being without haste, who comes across objects and signs that are durable, palpable and immobile: paintings, engravings, maps, and musical scores, as well as books. His relationship with these perennial signs almost always obeys a clear sequence, and the sense of sight is the one most called on, at the service of his imagination. The second is a citizen of a more revved up world, where at every moment he bumps into the most varied kinds of mobile signs that populate the metropolises: sounds and noises of urban life, the written word in giant size on posters and outdoor displays, back-lit screens, restive, with moving images, as if they were big television sets. In these surroundings, almost all is fleeting, for quick and immediate consumption, like the newspaper, the first great rival of the book, which, in 24 hours, goes from novelty to bygone.

Lucia points out that, after the industrial revolution, these two kinds of reader came to coexist in society. The new communication technologies and the growing urbanization of the world population have gradually increased the weight of the reader on the move, of the man who is literally walking between the signs. They have not, however, done away with the world of the things that are fixed and perennial, with the book lovers. At this beginning of the 21st century, a similar process is going on. The web surfer is gaining space amongst the readers of books and the interpreters of urban signs.

But his arrival is not seen as an indication of the extinction of his predecessors. The three kinds of readers are going to live side by side, sometimes materializing in the same person at different moments. “Books are not going to disappear”, says the researcher from PUC. For her, people who valued books very much and are not very familiar with the urban universe of the signs in motion have more difficulty to become an immersive digital reader.

At the first moment, it may seem unprecedented for a specialist in semiotics to take an interest in the Internet, a subject that is usually seen and analyzed from the point of view of the exact sciences. But, to the extent that this discipline stands for the study of signs (objects, shapes or phenomena that stand for something different from themselves), an analysis of the web by this kind of researcher is nowadays more than natural. After all, in the whole history of humanity, the Internet is the first means of communication that has managed to gather together all kinds of signs – text, sound and image, the verbal, the auditory and the visual, – in the same form of language, the digital language of bits and bytes, where the information, in whatever form, can be coded and decoded.

Suddenly, everything that used to be real and palpable came to have a virtual version, just a few clicks of the mouse away: the daily paper, the weekend magazine, images from television, the sound of radio, the full text of an old book. Even that outdoor display that we used to see on the street has been transported to the computer screen. “Cyberspace is the sign of signs”, says Lucia.

The challenge of understanding how the human being reasons and interacts with the Internet is so great and new that Lucia decided, for the first time in her career, to do some fieldwork. “I had always been theoretical and had no experience in practical research”, she recognizes. For her study, she counted on the collaboration of three students of scientific initiation with a grant from the CNPq. “To start with, nothing that I thought of turned out right.” Lucia’s original idea was to interview and observe 30 persons using the Internet, 15 who were used to accessing the web and 15 who were not familiar with the virtual world.

Very systematic, the approach of simply splitting individuals into the initiated and the not initiated in the virtual world, did not work out. The replies were laconic, and hardly anything significant was revealed through observation. “This stage served to point out that the path was another one”, stated the researcher, with humility and good humor.

Novices, layman, and experts
As soon as she realized the limitations of her method, Lucia made some corrections to the route. She increased the number of people being studied to 45, and classified them in three groups of 15 individuals, creating an intermediate category between the two extremes. The first category comprised individuals without any prior knowledge of the web, who were called novices. At the next level, those with a little knowledge of the Internet were grouped, and they were labeled as laymen. On the third stratum, there were the experienced internauts, who had mastered the meanders of the virtual world, and were given the name of experts.

To explore the whole range of reasoning of these three groups of users, the semiologist also altered the form of extracting information from those taking part in the study. Instead of putting them questions about the browsing process, she turned to setting them tasks, whose degree of complexity varied according to the group to which the person belonged. Tasks like finding information on the São Paulo football championship, or going into a chat site. To get even more detailed impressions on the novice users and the experts, videotape recordings were also made of some users.

The analysis of the fieldwork made it clear that the form in which each group reasoned in cyberspace is oriented by different mechanisms of inference and by distinct ways of reaching conclusions, which bestows particular characteristics on each category of internaut. With the novice users, the conclusions are basically the fruit of a form of thinking called abduction, much used by people faced with things or individuals about which they have little or no knowledge. What is abduction? It is a mental process in which the understanding of a sign is approached with the aid of a code that is familiar to the interpreter.

For example, somebody who has never surfed in cyberspace opens a multimedia CD-ROM according to the instructions that are given on how to operate it. On going into the program, he comes across a three-dimensional environment, and no longer knows what to do. Moving the mouse, he walks the cursor over the screen and notices that at one point it lights up. The user presumes, then, that he should click the mouse at this point. Right: he has just carried out an abductive inference. For browsing in the majority of cases anchored to this kind of reasoning, the novice is defined by Lucia as an “errant internaut, he who practices the art of divination”.

The lay users, in a process of growing familiarization with the Internet, move about virtual space in a different manner. Their predominant process of inference is induction: from a specific case, they reach general conclusions. Lucia calls them internaut detectives, who learn from experience”. One example of inductive reasoning. In a search program, the user keys in the subject he wants to search for, but gets a very large number of replies of links to sites which may contain the desired information. He then crosses more information, refines his search, and gets a more specific reply, close to what he was looking for. From this way of refining his searches in this program, the Sherlock Holmes of the cybernetic world concludes that he ought to proceed like that in all the search sites.

Then there is the logic of inference of the expert users, based fundamentally on deductive processes, a manner of thinking in which, starting off with one or more premisses taken to be true, a third proposition is demonstrated, a direct consequence of its predecessors. He is “the provident internaut, who foresees the consequences” of his acts. In the course of browsing, almost all the right clicks of the mouse are examples of deduction. This is a expedient that makes it possible to carry out a number of functions (download, forward, back, etc.), for anyone who knows beforehand the rules how virtual space works.

In her study, the researcher from PUC also noticed that internauts with a certain profile find it easier to move around cyberspace. This is the case of people, usually youngsters, who have spent a lot of time playing videogames. “This left me flabbergasted”, says Lucia. The electronic games call for a perfect marriage between mental cognition and the motor area, stimulating a process of perceptive readiness that will be very useful in cyberspace. The current form of a pastime, criticized by some educators, is an avant-première of play for these future internauts.

An admirable new world, full of sound and fury

Music and sound bring out the full potential of the web surfer’s immersion in the virtual world. People spend more time in the enjoyment of a multimedia version of a written script than to the original text, taken from a book. These assertions come from German semiologist Karin Wenz, of the University of Kassel, who is studying the differences in perception brought about by the written word and cybertext. In one of her studies, Karin compared and analyzed the behavior of a group of pupils faced by the poem The Angel of History, of the American writer Carolyn Forché.

The students were exposed to a digital version of the poet’s verses, with links, music, sounds and images, and to the original text. All the pupils, without exception, preferred the cybertext to the printed poem. In some cases, the time devoted to the digital verses was as much as four times more than for the poem on paper. In the experiment, regardless of the number of words shown on the screen, the surfer would always keep the cybertext window open while the music was playing.

The results of Karin’s studies, albeit preliminary, are different from the conclusions of some previous works, which compared the degree of immersion of readers when faced by simple hypertexts (just with links, but without the resources of sound and video) and printed texts. In these studies, the result was the opposite of the one reached by Karin: people spent more time reading the printed text. “The fact that the students devoted more time to a hypertext with multimedia resources is not necessarily a sign of attentive reading, but rather contemplative observation”, she ponders.

Karin also noticed that the act of reading on the Internet was influenced by the experience of the pupils with other means of communication and their degree of intimacy with hypertexts. Readers who described themselves as televiewers who like to change channels all the time adopt a similar posture with the computer: they would go zapping on the Internet, passing over many pages, as if in search of something. Whereas people who had no experience at all of the virtual world would avail themselves of the same techniques used in the reading of a printed text: they would try to read all the words that appeared on the site, and, as a consequence, would spend more time in front of a hypertext.

The project
Digital Revolution and New Forms of Scientific Production and Dissemination (nº 98/09243-1); Modality Multiuser equipment; Coordinator Maria Lucia Santaella Braga – PUC/SP; Investment R$ 107,861.92 and US$ 10,835.54

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