"Id 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 its got everything. And I mean everything. Theres not a message you can think of that the Model 2048 cant 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. Didnt 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 wasnt 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? Thats obvious, or you wouldnt be here. And you probably want the latest state of the art sign system to do it, right?"
The Salesrep looked perplexed. "You know, sign system, sign system," he said, as if repeating the words would somehow awaken the listeners 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 whats 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 wed better start with a simpler model. Lets 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, "youre 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 cant be, you guess so. Just imagine something you dont have a name for." After several moments of silence, "you cant," 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 dont 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, youve 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 youve been using. Works automatically in the background. And once youve 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 its for beginners, doesnt mean its 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 persons eyes, "you dont find yourself sorting through the whole stream of awarenesses coming in through all five perceptual channels, anymore. Nope, youre 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. Itll give you basic object-recognition, too. Fork. Spoon. Knife. Nose." He pointed to his own. "Get it?"
The young mans face said that he both understood and didnt 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 itll 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 systems got an operative vocabulary of I think ahhh Lets see. Well over two thousand words, I believe " He looked at the customer. "How many words are you presently using?"
"Whats that got to do with it?"
"Im sorry," the Salesrep looked puzzled, "What does what have to do with it?"
"Words. Isnt 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 dont need to know "
"Dont start telling me what I dont need to know," the kid bristled. "I want to know what you mean by sign when you say sign system if Im 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 thats the problem. We usually dont "
"You cant explain it, huh? You dont really understand it yourself, do ya? Isnt that the problem?"
The Salesrep blinked several times. "No, no. Thats not the problem. Its more like your car or your TV set or your computer, you may not understand how it works, but "
"But this isnt my TV or my computer. This is something more "
"Yes, youre right there. Youre 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 thats the sign." He ended his sentence with a look and tone that suggested he hadnt really expected to put it quite so well. (Word for word from the training seminar.)
"I knew that," shrugged the kid. "You dont 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 Theyre only connected because we keep em connected." He surveyed the young persons 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 didnt 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 wouldnt," the Salesrep answered for him. "Theres 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 customers left hand. "And that," he pointed to the customers right hand. "You cant 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 kids 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 youre a little kid, you learn to point to your hand and say hand. So, a hand is a hand. Its just this, here, thing at the end of my arm. If we agree, no problem. So what if theres no necessary relationship between it and the word?"
"Hmmm. You dont 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?"