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No. 2836:
Bumping into Signs

Today, signs of the times. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Lately I've been thinking about time and space. I mean, very specific times and very specific spaces. Right now if you're in your car, you're locked down for the duration of your commute. And unless you're a terrible driver, your eyes are fixed on the cars ahead of you. From this common situation emerges a new space of meaning: the bumper. Do you think the guys who first designed the bumper realized it would become a place to send messages? And yet, this is one of the most common spaces to send signals in the public sphere. The messages range from angry political statements to declarations of pride in our children or religion or team. The small dimensions of the space limit the wording in such a distinctive way that the bumper sticker has become a genre in its own right. 

bumper stickers all over car

What characterizes the spaces that interest me is that they're not originally designed for sending messages. They emerge gradually from the evolving fabric of modern life. Think of the space above the seats on a subway. When you're riding along there in the big city, you don't want to stare at the person across from you. Someone figured out the space just above that person is ideal for posting messages. In that constrained and awkward moment, you'll read anything. So there you are studying every word about diabetes or teenage pregnancy. We'll read anything posted in an elevator for the same reason; otherwise, we'll stare at the flashing floor numbers like we're waiting on a winning lottery ticket. And you gentlemen know how closely we'll peruse whatever's posted in the men's room. 

The academic field of semiotics spends a lot of time thinking about sign systems. You can read many a complex semiotic analysis of how societies shape spaces of meaning. But on average, we don't spend much time thinking about how peculiar these emergent spaces are, or how they came to be. They're simply a part of our social reality. 

Take for example, the t-shirt. This cotton garment was originally underwear — it still is, in fact. By design and definition, it is the very opposite of fancy. For centuries, people tried to send signals about their status or convictions through their clothing. But in the age of the t-shirt, we have perfected the art of shouting to the world any number of carefully crafted messages. Sometimes they're simple statements; sometimes they're ironic or hilarious. But around the world, the t-shirt has become the body's billboard. And here's the paradox: because the t-shirt is easy to mass-produce, it's become the simplest way to proclaim your individuality through distinctive or even provocative messaging.

Where is FEMA t-shirt

Now we have a new emergent space of meaning: the gas pump. Someone's figured out you have to stand there tending the hose, with nothing to look at but the rising price of gas. So now there's a digital screen, ready to show you the weather or the news — anything to keep your mind off the cost of fuel.

These spaces have become such a part of our lives that we don't think about the precise conditions that bring them into being. So I have an idea for a bumper sticker that'll express my new obsession. It'll read: What did you expect? It's only a bumper!

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)


For an introduction to semiotics, see:

Chandler, Daniel. 2002. Semiotics: The Basics. London and New York, Routledge. 

Johansen, J'rgen D. and Larsen, Svend E. 2002. Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics. London and New York, Routledge. 

On the emergence of Gas Station TV and other digital screen phenomena, see:

All images are from WIkipedia commons.