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Semiotic Interpretation of the Traffic Light System

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Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Its origins lie in the academic study of how signs and symbols (visual and linguistic) create meaning. It is a way of seeing the world, and of understanding how the landscape and culture in which we live has a massive impact on all of us unconsciously.

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The complexity and flexibility of tagmemic theory, as a semiotic theory developed by Kenneth L. Pike, can be better understood by examining how it applies to a simple semiotic system like traffic lights. We can then compare the result with how it functions in analyzing a piece of natural language. Tagmemic theory introduces three observer viewpoints – the particle view, the wave view, and the field view. Each view generates a suite of questions to answer. Any one of the views results in a “complete” description of traffic lights, from which the information about the other views can be inferred. And yet each view is distinct in texture from the others, and the existence of such multiple views – each with a claim to emic integrity and each serving as a perspective on the whole – has to be accounted for in a robust semiotic approach. The same phenomena occur when we apply the three views to the analysis of meaning in natural language. The chief illustration is to analyze the meaning of the word dog in multiple ways. The multi-dimensional potential for semiotic analysis highlights the limitations of Aristotelian logic and symbolic logic, both of which simplify for the sake of rigor.

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Traffic signals have only one paradigm, composed of only three signs. They function with a syntagm that necessarily has three temporal and three spatial positions. At each position in time, only one sign is actualized. At each position in space (left, middle and right, if horizontal) only one sign, and always the same sign, is actualized. Undoubtedly for reasons of safety and cost, the option of using one bulb that changes colour is not encouraged (although there are pedestrian signals in which the signs "walk" and "don't walk" are located in exactly the same place). Out of all the possible combinations, only one is permitted: "green light" → "yellow light" → "red light" →, and so on. The signs are not equal in duration: The yellow light does not usually last as long as the other two, and the relative duration of the red and green lights is regulated according to the amount of traffic on each road involved. And here we enter into the wonders and the horrors of programming traffic signals, both individually and sequentially (synchronizing them). Semiotics can lead us with no warning into some distressingly mundane realms (Eco, U., 1988).

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Ordinarily, a semiotic analysis considering only light without architecture is short-sighted as well. However, the critique does not question the use of semiotics for architecture and light in general but focuses on structural details. Addressing the meaning of light could also benefit the debate about human-centric lighting and its search to include the usefulness of lighting. With this methodological potential, semiotics deserves a larger recognition not only within the lighting research community but also for practitioners, educators, and critics.

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Eco, U., Le Signe, Brussels: Labor, 1988.

Everaert-Desmedt, N., Le Processus Interprétatif: Introduction à La Sémiotique DE Ch. S. Peirce, Brussels: Pierre Mardaga Publishing, 1990.

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