Semiosis exists when one thing represents or signifies another thing. Ultimately it refers to a physical process -- the unique physical process by which meaningful information is exchanged and translated in the living world. This includes the translation of the information found in DNA.
The physical conditions required to translate an informational medium into physical effects are coherently understood. Because these unique conditions can be found in any instance of translated information, any example of translated information could be used as a demonstration. But if the goal is to demonstrate them at their most self-evident level, that goal can be accomplished by using a simple music box as a model. The benefit of using such a device is that a music box is openly and easily discernible to anyone, and although we wind it up to give it energy, we needn't do anything more to observe its operation.
The mechanism inside a music box is a simple device using recorded information to produce the playing of a particular song. It consists of two critical parts. The first is a rotating cylinder which has short pins protruding from it. These pins are arranged to represent each of the individual musical notes played at different times during the melody. The second critical part is a comb-like piece of metal where each tooth of the comb (called a tine) is a different length, and each length is individually tuned to the different notes on a music scale. When the music box operates, the pins on the rotating cylinder pluck the different tines on the comb, causing them to vibrate (like plucking the strings on a guitar). The resulting effect is the playing of a song. The individual sounds that make up the melody are a direct result of the vibrating tines creating soundwaves in the air surrounding the music box. The melody that is played depends upon the arrangement of pins on the cylinder. The pins evoke (prompt, order) specific sounds to be played at specific times during the melody, but they neither create those sounds nor do they physically determine what those sounds will be. Instead, the sounds are determined solely by the length and arrangement of the vibrating tines. In short, the pins are an arrangement of matter that can evoke sounds to be played in the form of the melody, but cannot create the sounds themselves, while the tines are an arrangement of matter that are physically capable of creating the sounds, but cannot organize them into the form of a song. The translation of recorded information in the music box is divided into these two fundamental roles; the input of form and the production of an effect.
This irreducible two-part architecture is a physical necessity because the playing of a song (like any other translated effect) is not derivable from the physical properties of the medium being translated. It is only through the organization of the system that the effect is brought into being.
From this brief description of the system we can identify the four conditions that are fundamental to translation:
The first of these four material conditions is the most obvious; it is the requirement of a physical medium to serve as a means to input form into the system. In the music box, this role is obviously accomplished by the cylinder with its special arrangement of pins. The arrangement of the pins is easily identifiable as the representation within the system, and it clearly demonstrates the first material condition of translation: an arrangement of matter to evoke an effect within a system, where the arrangement of the medium and the effect it evokes are physicochemically arbitrary.
We also recognize there is no physical law establishing the relationship between the pins on the cylinder and the notes in the melody. As a matter of direct observation, that relationship is established locally within the organization of the system itself. In other words, without the organization of some material object within the system, there would be no systematic relationship between the pins on the cylinder and the notes being played by the system. What we term this object is less important than the role it plays in the organization, but it could be very reasonably characterized as a protocol; it is a systematic rule (a contingent regularity) existing in the organization of the system. In the music box, this protocol specifies that "this particular tine" is tuned to "this particular musical note", thereby making it possible to coordinate the arrangement of pins to the notes of the song. Without that rule in place, the function of the system would not be possible. Therefore, the second material condition in our model of translation can be referred to as a protocol, and it can be defined in material terms as an arrangement of matter to establish the otherwise non-existent systematic relationship between a representation and its effect.
The third material condition in our model of translation is less obvious than the first two, but it is particularly critical to the organization of the system. This third material condition is the preservation of the natural discontinuity that exists between the arrangement of a representation and its translated effect. Representations and their effects are physicochemically discontinuous; meaning that the effects of translation are not determined by the dynamic (physical) properties of the representation being translated. This is to say, the representation evokes the effect to happen, but does not determine what the effect will be. Using our music box as an example; it is not possible to derive the playing of a melody from metal pins on a rotating cylinder, and at no time during translation does it become possible. Instead, the effects of translation are only derivable from the contingent organization of the system itself – that is, from the input of form (by means of representation) coordinated to the establishment of effects (specified by the arrangement of a protocol). This architecture results in a material system capable of prescriptive and temporal control over effects which would otherwise not occur. The organization of the system is a "boundary condition harnessing the laws of nature" to achieve a functional end (Polanyi, 1968). Not only do we observe this natural discontinuity in all translation systems, but we also understand why it exists. It is a necessity dictated by physical law.
The last of these four conditions is the unique observable signature of translated information itself; that is, the production of the unambiguous function that pervades the living kingdom. When we find phenomena in the natural world, such as ants attacking in unison, or salmon returning to give birth in the waters of their birthplace, or bats honing in on their prey in the darkness, we don't look to mere chemistry in order to explain these phenomena. We look for complete systems actually capable of providing an explanation. And we naturally look to the presence of information. We ask the questions of how the ants coordinate their attack, and how the salmon find their way back to their birthplace. These phenomena, and untold millions of others, are the very examples of the unambiguous function that divide the living kingdom from the inanimate world. And in stark contrast to that inanimate world, these are the very things that make the existence of information (and information systems) observable to us in the first place. As a consequence of this, the presence of unambiguous function plays a necessary confirmational role in the model of translation. The only caveat to this role is one which is already well-understood. Because the effects of information are derived from local organization (as opposed to inexorable law) they are subject to error, change, and noise. In other words, among all information systems, things break, they fail, and often include non-functional "noise" in their operation. We as human investigators have rightfully tended to make a distinction between the functional and non-functional output of semiotic systems. We describe those functional products as being the result of information, and the non-functional products as being the result of error and noise. It is a useful and appropriate distinction, and without it, we would eviscerate the word “information” of all its meaning, and would immediately need a new word for those contingent arrangements of matter that actually produce unambiguous function when translated. Therefore the fourth material condition in our model is the unique identifying product of translated information; the production of function in the living kingdom.
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These four material conditions - taken as an interdependent whole - are the necessary material conditions of an entirely unique physical phenomenon; the transfer of form through a material medium.
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