The Bridge
(Text exerpt)
"I’d like to show you our latest model," the Salesrep offered a place atop the glass cases for the youth to set his boombox down. After the young customer signaled attention, the Salesrep launched into his pitch. "It was just recently released. And it’s got everything. And I mean everything. There’s not a message you can think of that the Model 2048 can’t handle. And this system not only communicates, mediates and constructs, it deconstructs, too. You could really wow your friends with this one." He paused for a second, checked that the young man was listening. Didn’t look like it. "Comes with a guarantee of complete cultural competency, too. Nice, huh? And just look at those plug-in features."
The young person wasn’t sure what the Salesrep was trying to sell him. "What is it?" he asked.
The Salesrep thought the young person might be putting him on. "You want to communicate, right? That’s obvious, or you wouldn’t be here. And you probably want the latest state of the art sign system to do it, right?"
"Sign system?"
The Salesrep looked perplexed. "You know, sign system, sign system," he said, as if repeating the words would somehow awaken the listener’s mind to their meaning.
But the young man only scrunched his eyes.
"Hey," the Salesrep smiled, "who, besides a one year old, are you going to see going around making ga-ga goo-goo sounds expecting people are going to understand?"
"Right. But what’s a sign system?" The young person moved closer to the display case, eyed his boombox.
"Hmmm," the Salesrep raised his eyebrows. "Good thing you asked. Yes. Well, uh… maybe we’d better start with a simpler model. Let’s walk over here," he beckoned.
The young man slid the boombox off the counter, hoisted it unto his shoulder and side by side, they proceeded farther down the main aisle.
"You know, if something means something to you," the Salesrep was animating his speech with gestures, "you’re going to have words for it, right?"
"Uhhh. I guess so."
"No, no," the Salesrep stopped in mid-step and looked the young person squarely in the eyes, "it can’t be, ‘you guess so.’ Just imagine something you don’t have a name for." After several moments of silence, "you can’t," the Salesrep declared. "Because you make sense of your experiences with words, and you tell others about your experiences with words." As he began walking again, he flipped both palms up in a gesture of, ‘There you have it.’
The young person scrambled to catch up. "What about what I don’t have words for?"
"And what exactly would that be?"
He could think of no immediate answer. They continued in silence.
"See? If you can register it at all, you’ve got words for it.".
They soon arrived at the intended showcase, where a simple black and white sign stated, A System to Meet Your Everyday Needs.
"Now this is a Starter Kit." The Salesrep helped him set the boombox down. "Probably a lot like the one you’ve been using. Works automatically in the background. And once you’ve got it in place, you never have to… uhhh, worry about it again." His last words sounding somewhat ambivalent.
The customer looked pointedly underwhelmed.
"Now, wait," the Salesrep picked up the cue. "Just because it’s for beginners, doesn’t mean it’s an inferior product. You can make total sense of your world with this one, just like you do with the big ones. Know what I mean?"
"Not exactly." The young customer shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Well, think of it like this," the Salesrep cupped his hands as if holding something. "After you load this model into your neuro-network," he now focused intensely on the young person’s eyes, "you don’t find yourself sorting through the whole stream of awarenesses coming in through all five perceptual channels, anymore. Nope, you’re all through with that kind of thing. No more feeling swamped by too many impressions pouring in at once. No more not knowing who you are, when or where. No more getting entranced by faces in the wallpaper and animals in the clouds and stuff like that." With a tilt of his head, he queried the young customer.
So far, it looked as if he followed.
"A reliable sign system — like this one — is going to filter out those kinds of things for you. It’ll give you basic object-recognition, too. Fork. Spoon. Knife. Nose." He pointed to his own. "Get it?"
The young man’s face said that he both understood and didn’t understand.
"This one comes with built-in priorities," the Salesrep stepped behind the display case, slid open a glass door, took out one of the cartons and set it on the counter next to the boombox. "Food. Danger. Good. Bad. That kind of thing." He made eye contact. "And it’ll take you well past, ‘Me want,’ and behavior adjusted simply to avoid punishment." He slipped on his glasses, tilted the box and squinted at the label. "This system’s got an operative vocabulary of… I think… ahhh… Let’s see. Well over… two thousand words, I believe…" He looked at the customer. "How many words are you presently using?"
"What’s that got to do with it?"
"I’m sorry," the Salesrep looked puzzled, "What does what have to do with it?"
"Words. Isn’t that what you asked me?" The young person eyed the Salesrep suspiciously. "What have words got to do with it?"
"Words? What have words got to do with it?" Now the Salesrep winced with disbelief. "Words are what sign systems are all about," he said a little too loudly. "You know, signs," he said more quietly.
After a moment, "Signs?" the young person repeated. "You mean like this?" He pointed to the black and white sign advertising: A System to Meet Your Everyday Needs.
"Well… no," the Salesrep responded. "But, uhhh, listen. Most people use these systems without worrying about the details of how they work. You don’t need to know —"
"Don’t start telling me what I don’t need to know," the kid bristled. "I want to know what you mean by sign when you say sign system — if I’m gonna buy one."
The Salesrep raised then dropped his eyebrows. "Well, all right, my friend," he sighed. "Okay, so signs. Signs are no big mystery. Signs just stand for something else. Okay?"
"Okay. But how? Just what exactly do they stand for?"
"Hmmm, well that’s the problem. We usually don’t —"
"You can’t explain it, huh? You don’t really understand it yourself, do ya? Isn’t that the problem?"
The Salesrep blinked several times. "No, no. That’s not the problem. It’s more like your car or your TV set or your computer, you may not understand how it works, but —"
"But this isn’t my TV or my computer. This is something more —"
"Yes, you’re right there. You’re right," the Salesrep held both hands up, fingers spread, palms facing the kid.
"And I want to know how it works," the young man finished.
"Okay," the Salesrep surrendered, "back to signs. Well, uhhh… Take any word and the meanings of that word."
"Call the word the signifier and call the meanings the signified."
"Well, the signifier signifies the signified, and that’s the sign." He ended his sentence with a look and tone that suggested he hadn’t really expected to put it quite so well. (Word for word from the training seminar.)
"I knew that," shrugged the kid. "You don’t explain it very well, but what you mean is the sign, ‘hand,’ stands for this." He wiggled his hand. "Right?"
"Wrong," the Salesrep shook his head. "Trouble is: the connection between the signifier, h-a-n-d," he spelled it out, "and any particular hand… Well… They’re only connected because we keep ‘em connected." He surveyed the young person’s face. "This…" the Salesrep dangled his one hand with the other, "might be what the signifier hand refers to. But would the word hand have anything to do with this thing here if we didn’t agree that it did?" This time the Salesrep raised his eyebrows far into his forehead.
The young man bent his head slightly to one side, said nothing.
"No, it wouldn’t," the Salesrep answered for him. "There’s no necessary connection between the word and what it refers to."
"Wait a minute," the young person objected. "How can you say that? Why not?"
"Because of this," the Salesrep now dangled his other hand. "And that," he pointed to the customer’s left hand. "And that," he pointed to the customer’s right hand. "You can’t have a sign for every referent. You could never have that many signs. Not possible. And not workable for communication either." He paused. "You know how many hands there are out there in the world? How many trees? Or leaves on a single tree? The referent is just too… too… so big. No sign system could ever contain —"
"I get it," the kid’s face lit up.
"Good. So now you understand the basic problem. There is no necessary connection between the sign and the referent."
"How is that really a problem, though?" the young customer persisted. "From the time you’re a little kid, you learn to point to your hand and say ‘hand.’ So, a hand is a hand. It’s just this, here, thing… at the end of my arm. If we agree, no problem. So what if there’s no necessary relationship between it and the word?"
"Hmmm. You don’t see a problem." The Salesrep lowered his eyes and moved his right foot in front of his left in little half circles. Then, making eye contact again, "Say, how about we look at another system? Something a little more sophisticated?"
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