The Governance of Meaning

On the Governance of our Meanings

0.0 MARY: We live in a world of pervasively digital production and distribution of meaning. The video you are watching now has been created and delivered to your device though a process of transposition of meaning involving a function we have called quantity. Meanings of various kinds are turned into quality so you and I can participate in them.

There, on the left side of your screen, are some words I have typed. Here on the right is a two-dimensional moving image of me. You can hear me speak. You can see my body, including my gesticulations. You and I are participants in multimodal meaning. But all these meanings are reduced to base two for the purposes of counting and calculation, then represented to you in this particular combination of otherwise grammatically quite different forms of meaning.

1.07 MARY: Here is a screenshot of a web-delivered business television. The practical, existential consequence of this convergence of digital meaning into a single underlying technology is the overlay of voice, image, embodied presence, text, and diagram to a degree that that was not possible in analogue media. There are also new kinds of relationship to me, as participant. A web TV channel like this gets to know about me by the patterns of my interaction with it, in order to target more effectively with advertising and to customize my news feed.

1.49 MARY: The zeros and ones that perform these multimodal transpositions are impressive in the number and speed of their megapixels and the megabytes of their sound samples. The text behind me has been generated in a word processing program. Typed text transposes into the numbers you see here, then is transposed back to text again when file is called up for reading.

However, more remarkable than these kinds of calculations, is the fact that that we have come to agree about their meanings. The devices for the manufacture and distribute meaning talk to each other, and because they can talk to each other, we do too. This happens by the use of ontologies in the technical sense. Here are some examples.

2.42 MARY: Unicode is the universal scripting system of the digital world. There can be however many fonts or kinds of visual representation of text, but to travel from device to device and from one point of creation to another of rendering, the characters of text pass though this shared ontology of character encoding.

There are now over 130,000 characters in Unicode, from every human language, present and past. This search through Unicode for a letter of the alphabet mostly brought up phonemes, representations of the sound of speech, though of course the numbers and some of the symbols in that came up in this search are ideographs, standing for ideas.

3.32 MARY: This search was for “face” mostly brought up emojis, though it is interesting to see that this includes a Chinese character as well. Unicode today is mostly ideographs or idea units, and in the digital era we’re increasingly using ideographs – take the navigational icons on digital devices, for instance. Our friend and colleague, anthropologist Jack Goody, used to say that we’re all turning Chinese, and in this respect, he is right.

4.02 MARY: Here are dentistry symbols in Unicode, so dentists can share the meaning of your teeth.

4.08 MARY: If Unicode captures every textual option available for digital meaning, every communicable ideograph, whether phonemic or ideographic, then who governs our meanings? The Unicode consortium is a not-for profit funded by its members, and the members who foot the biggest parts of the bill get voting rights. Adobe, Apple, Facebook and Huawei are fierce rivals, but they need to be able to share text.

There is a point where capitalism needs co-operation, so companies create for themselves this low-profile, behind-the-scenes, not-for-profit system for the governance of our meanings, a strange kind of international socialism if you like.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-25.

4.58 MARY: The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, manages web standards, the most important of which is HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, as well other powerful and widely used variants if its underlying principles, including XML or Extensible Markup Language.

5.24 MARY: In the terms we have been developing in this grammar, HTML and XML separate function from form. What we call the function of meaning HTML and XML call “structure and semantics.” Our concept “form,” HTML and XML call “presentation.” Text is marked up for its functions in HTML and XML, then rendered differently on different devices according to the stylesheets each uses for presentation. In other words, our form/function distinction is an integral aspect of the world of digital meaning.

This is one of the practical reasons we have framed our grammar in this way, as a way to make sense of meaning in the digital era. If Unicode is the universal character set, HTML is the universal grammar of text.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 169-72.

6.20 MARY: So, who governs these meanings? The answer when I looked it up just now is 428 members, a handful of non-profits and universities, including the University of Illinois, but mostly companies. In the old days when democracies supposed themselves liberal, elected governments regulated media.

6.46 BILL: And some more examples, just to illustrate our point. These are the companies that contribute to the International Color Consortium, the definitive scheme for identifying colors and aligning these with the color matching systems that web designers, interior designers, printers, and brand managers use.

7.03 BILL: Here is the Moving Pictures Expert Group, another not-for-profit regulating the standards applying to the interchange of sound and moving image.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp.152-53.

7.12 BILL: Ethnologue is an ontology of every living language.

7.15 BILL: GeoNames is the definitive list of the 25 million namable places in the world, sorted by over six hundred kinds of place. Among its sponsors are and

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, p. 310.

7.28 BILL: Our bodies and their ailments are comprehensively described in Extensible Markup Language the International Classification of Diseases. Here are some bodily afflictions and the codes whereby doctor can communicate with doctor in a relatively unambiguous medical record about “acquired absence of teeth,” and by adding up the dollar value they attach to certain treatments, the insurance company can assess how much the doctor will be paid. In this case, the standard is maintained by the World Health Organization, but this slide is from a company which aligns medical descriptions by doctors with the standard.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 303-07

8.07 BILL: Then there is the systematic and unambiguous naming of every saleable product. The number that goes with this product is called an International Article Identifier. Nail polish remover and assault rifles have different product numbers, and with them that classification schemes that categorize products by their different kinds.

This is not be confused by person databases which unambiguously disambiguate you by your email address, phone number, or facial recognition identification, then triangulate these identifiers across contexts. Compared to these ontologies, speech is hopelessly old fashioned and anachronistic for its vagueness.

How has this come to be? we want to ask. Who is in control of these non-negotiable ontologies of ordinary life? And what are their interests?

8.56 BILL: So, a myriad of ontologies describe the ordinary material things of life. In most domains, these have shaken down to just one or two ontologies. They also operate above the level of the various natural languages in the world. Often, they have been translated by humans at their source. Other times they can be translated on-the-fly with machine translation.

Here is yet another place where language is becoming an unhelpful category, because this happens purely in text. Quite unlike text in this respect, speech is irretrievably tethered to natural language. We’re also moving into a world where, by these kinds of transposition into text, differences in spoken languages are becoming less and less a barrier to participation in meaning.

9.41 BILL: Don’t worry, I know you won’t be able to read this text in the video - we have it on our website at

What we have here is a listing of just some of the ontologies in the digital world, mapped to our transpositional grammar. It is only the roughest of rough maps, indicative of a general idea and a future project rather than being in any precise sense accurate, let alone definitive.

But our general point is this: for the digital world, we want to argue these ontologies are profound, not the algorithms. The algorithms just count things. Ontologies answer the question, what things?

10.19 BILL: We have just been talking about ontologies in the technical sense where, in the digital word, our meanings have been mechanized. But in this grammar, we are just as interested in ontologies in the philosophical sense, to offer an account of the patterns of meaning in the world.

Here is a marvelous image by Salvador Dali. It is a picture of one of our favorite people in the really imagined world, Alice, and her shadow as well. Alice becomes a participant in a world of crazy queens and capricious cards. With Alice, we revel in exploring the senses of the world, appalled at times by its senselessness, and hoping that, by its parsing, we can help change its human, sensuous experience – and for the better.

One such change would be to create a world where everyone is freely governed by themselves without destructive effects of unbalanced conflicts of interest, where they are free participants in self-governing communities of meaning.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 322-28.