Thursday, September 02, 2004


After considering various types of artefacts and tools, we come to the thing that really concerns us. Documents contain two very different elements: a matrix of materials that becomes the artifact and the markings upon the material that magically turns it into a document. The psychologist William Ittelson (1996) has provided some valuable guidance on the nature of markings:

“They are characterized by two properties: 1) markings appear on a suface, but they do not refer to the surface—their informational content is ‘decoupled’ form its real-world source—and 2) markings to not occur ‘naturally’—they are intentional, expressive, and communicative human artefacts.” (171)

Ittelson discusses the importance of markings for human perceptions. As objects that aren’t natural and that have developed along within human abilities, the affordances of markings have particular relevance for humans. He states that “markings differ from real-world visual stimuli in their status as part of the world, in what they provide information about, and in how they are processed psychologically.” (173) Ittelson then develops a taxonomy of the various types of markings that exist among human artefacts:

· “Designs are intended primarily to be decorative; their role is first and foremost affective and aesthetic.” (173)
· “Writings are inteded to stand for particular cognitive meanings by virtue of formally agreed on or conventionally accepted usage. Letters, words, syllables, ideographs, sighs, and symbols have meanings by virtue of an arbitrary social consensus.” (174)
· “Diagrams are inteded to provide information visually that is available elsewhere in nonvisual form. They include charts, graphs of mathematical functions for of data, maps, plans, engineering drawings, block diagrams, and so on. Like wrtings, diagrams depend on socially agreed upon intentions, usage, and conventions. Unlike writings, diagrams present their information by the use of relatively nonarbitrary visual forms. The information to be communicated largely proscribes the form, and the form in turn carries the information.” (174)
· “Depictions are intended to evoke identifiable, real or imaginary, past, present, or future, possible or impossible, objects, environments, events, or experiences. Depictions include, but are not limited to, ‘fine art.’ Repreentational pictures are a subset of the more general category of depictions.” (174)

Of key importance in Ittelson’s work in the recognition that observing markings involves a completely different mental process from perceiving the real world. Markings, therefore, are far more than just incomplete analogs of the physical world and convey information in a different manner than the real world. According to Ittelson’s argument, the markings are far removed from the mere materiality of artefacts.

Inherent in the interpretation of markings is an analysis of how markings are created. While Ittelson doesn’t provide a rigorous analysis of how are why people create markings, he is able to identify that:

“At least three levels of intent underlie the creation of any marking: the immediate content, the medium used to express that content, and the general principle intended to be conveyed.” (184)

In Ittelson’s discussion we see an emerging gulf between material, artefact, and markings. We also perhaps see a means of incorporating ideas about the differences between the recording of ideas and the creation of physical artefacts such as Popper’s World 3. Perhaps I’ll write some more a bit later.

Regardless, Ittelson indicates the clear distinction between material and marking from a cognitive perspective. One shortcoming of his treatment, however, is the apparent universality of material. He fails to distinguish various types of materials (or genres) nor does he reflect upon the social structure surrounding various media or materials. An impressionist painting hanging on the wall of a salon in nineteenth century Paris is very different from a similar looking painting hanging on the wall of a tourist shop in the Athens neighbourhood of Monistiraki!


Ittelson, W. H. (1996). Visual perception of markings. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3(2), 171-187.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home