Reinterpreting data as signal

Viktor Zaunders
11 min readFeb 14, 2019
A signalling molecule called Dopamine (image source)

This piece of writing is in response to the article called The interpersonal data at the heart of all human digital systems, including markets by Philip Sheldrake. That piece and other recent conversations in my work around distributed “data” are what evoked this output. Why I point this out will become apparent as you read further..

The article I linked to above goes into the complexity and hazardous nature of concepts like “private data”, “data as property” and “data as labour”. I would like to help further these explorations by using a complementary framing. Instead of focusing on these elements as data, I would like us to talk more about signals.

For me the word data easily lends itself to thinking about stand alone entities of information, something out there. The definition of interrelated data that is considered in Philips article is very useful as it really mirrors the view of data as signal.

I write this to explore if it could be easier to navigate the future of information storing, rights of humans and many other dimensions of how we handle information in new societal structures if we speak of signals, as compared to if we speak of data.

Because at least when I speak of data, it is so easy to get stuck in stasis. With signal there is naturally a flow, it is going somewhere and it comes from somewhere, and that might be a very useful frame to keep in mind.

So what are signals?

Just one kind of signal (image source)

To talk about signals I’ve borrowed some of the ideas around grammatic capacities from the Metacurrency project.

A signal has some elements to it. It is often produced as response to some trigger, it has an actor that produces the signal, a medium through which the signal is transported and a corresponding receptive capacity for the signal in some other actor.

Some examples of signal:

Hormones — produced by organ, in response to trigger (pheromone, seeing danger, etc.), molecular carrier, received by other organ to trigger behaviour

Twitter-post — produced by human, in response to experience, carried by digital infrastructure, recieved by other human

Heart-rate — produced by heart, in response to organism activty (rest or running), carried as blood pressure & electromagnetic fluctuation, recieved by other organs/cells and instruments such as ECG electrodes.

Bank-transfer — produced by human though banking service, in response to interaction with system/person (trade, gift, etc.), transfer of digital “Claim on Goods and Services”, received by recipients banking service.

Perhaps all data can be interpreted as signal? Think for instance about something that can easily be thought of as static data. The wikipedia page of onion (why onion? Because I like onions).

All contributions to this page would have originated as a perception of lack of description in the collective space (trigger) by a person (actor), spoken in the form of an HTTP-request — a sequence of binary digits (medium), to a webserver (receptive entity). This signal may then trigger another person to respond to some perceived falsehood or further perceived lack of information and another signal is produced.

Further insights on Margulis, Laloux and Bateson

In the article triggering this piece of writing, Philip referenced the works of biologist Lynn Margulis, the cultural explorer Frederic Laloux and “kind of a systems thinker” Nora Bateson, all of which have been major recent inspirations in my life.

For me their insights all really help us think about signals, to me perhaps more even then when I think about data.

Cellular pattern of life

Margulis pushed the idea that nucleated cells are co-operating bacteria (image source)

Lynn Margulis really championed the view of all organisms on earth that come after bacteria as basically bacteria co-operating in larger structures (the film Symbiotic Earth is a great primer for this understanding).

If we follow that pattern of any living entity, coming into being as cooperation of sub-entities, then we can explore a metaphor of groups and organisations as multi-cellular creatures. These “organisations as organisms” made up of humans as the “individual cells”, are also then as we dive many layers down, basically bacteria co-operating.

With this view present we can then return to thinking about data as signal.

In our human bodies we can zoom in and out to different levels of whole entities.

We have the level of the cell, which has its signals coming in through receptors, resulting in some internal activity and output of other signals. Think of a neuron that fires as neurotransmitters like endorphin or dopamine trigger receptor sites.

Cells of different kinds band together to create organs which for instance make use of the signalling system of hormones described above.

Something to note here is that we can readily detect electromagnetic signals from organs like the heart and the brain with instruments outside the body so the possibility of our organs communicating directly with the organs of other humans that are in our vicinity should also be kept in mind when we consider things like group dynamics and face-to-face communication.

Organs in turn co-operate to give rise to complex animals like us human beings and as humans we use a very wide range of signalling systems to relate to other humans. These systems include gesturing (like the hug and the finger), pheromones, voice, drawings and written language.

Looking at these systems as producing signal (including us humans tapping away at our computers) as opposed to producing data, could help us create better organisational scaffolding for our cooperation as multi-human organisms.

Which brings us to..

Organisations as organisms

A murmuration is a form of collective coordination, individuals moving as larger organism (image source)

Another reference from the article that I would like to weave in here is the work of Frederic Laloux in exploring the emerging phenomenon of organisations that are embracing the view of themselves as organism in place of the traditional view of organisation as machine.

In his work he describes three pillars that are common to the organisations that he explores. These are Wholeness, Purpose and Self-Management.

From my perspective these three pillars are very useful frames to look through when considering data as signals and how to work with improving signalling.

Wholeness

Wholeness, as described in Lalouxs work, has very much to do with not wearing a professional mask. These masks of professionalism and distance impede many of the emotional signals of a human being from emerging.

When we are not able to signal processes like pain, hurt, joy, distress and fear that are coming through oneself into the groups we are parts of, then we basically create blockages that then ripple out through the layers of wholes ( → organs → humans → (multi-human) organisation → societies → ) as inconsistencies and dissonance.

When we are able to be fully present as human beings with all of our signalling capacities open from the cellular level on up, we are much better at achieving coherence and health on all those levels.

When we mask ourselves and others with professionalism, some very important signals are often lost (image source)

What is required for us to be able to actually come into a group as whole humans and through that helping to create holistic organisations seem to be trust.

I will be holding back some signals if I do not trust that those signals will be received in a way that honors them. In fact, we are very accustomed to our vulnerabilities being exploited in many parts of our society, a society which is fundamentally constructed on the premise of competition as the highest virtue. Think of bullying (dominance hierarchies), advertising and the media truism “if it bleeds it leads” as examples of this.

So for us to be able to signal fully, we must ensure that some signals (human expressions) are safely kept within our circles of trust, while at the same time working to restore trust in ever-widening circles!

The degree to which we feel confident in our safety with regards to the peers we are communicating with, is the degree to which true signalling can occur.

This has major implications to things like what services and technologies we interact with and also for creating groups and processes for organisations.

Richard Bartlett’s depiction of “a fractal view of belonging” (source)

Wholeness can enable accurate or truthful signalling.

Evolutionary Purpose

Another pillar in Lalouxs recounting of emerging organisational behaviour is the listening to what the purpose of the whole organisation is in the larger context of earth itself.

Understanding the function of around which a collection of humans are congregating in any organisation is also vital to ensuring useful signalling.

Knowing what specific part of a perceived specific system the organisation is there to engage with and transform creates clarity around what signals an organisation needs to listen to. An example that is close to my area of practice would be a food cooperative.

What is the purpose of the food cooperative? Well, internally it may function as providing good food for the constituent humans of the multi-human organisation. Additionally it can also have an external functions such as soil fertility, carbon sequestration, increased water holding capacity and species diversity of the surrounding region. In order to ensure that the evolutionary purpose of that food coop is being carried out, the organisation then knows that it needs to elicit and listen to those kind of signals in relationship to the land within which it is embedded.

Knowing evolutionary purpose can enable clarity on what signals to listen to and respond with.

Self-management

The third pillar that is also presented in Lalouxs work is self-management.

As a way too brief summary of this major area of exploration, I would say that this is: the ability for anyone within an organisation to be fully empowered as an individual actor to take any decision as long as others that are going to be affected are asked for advice. A process commonly referred to as “the advice process”.

This also relates greatly to the concept of data as signalling since what is needed for the advice process to really function are things like:

  • Knowing who to ask (from where do relevant signals originate, open mapping of other interdependent actors in the organisation)
  • What are useful mediums to facilitate signalling (work group protocols, information support systems)
  • Advice seeker fully receiving and processing signals (supported by a culture that operates on wholeness as described above where people are vulnerable enough to emit true signals and receivers are trusted to really process those signals as true signalling)

In order for self-management to work there seems to be a need to attune and structure organisational processes of signalling to the needs of the people involved

Burning man principles are a leading edge of creating self-organized events, spaces and organisations. (image source)

Humans as part of multiple, multi-organism contexts

As a final point of trying to illustrate the usefulness of looking through the lens of signal we can touch on the work of Nora Bateson and warm data.

When I am exposed to the writings and voice that come through Noras work, I am imprinted with the necessity of constantly experiencing living as something that happens in multiple contexts all at once.

Cycling through the relationship of me in all of my contexts and perspectives and my relationship to other people and their many contexts and perspectives is what enables new understanding.

Here are some of the contexts I find myself in. I am living as family in a house with partner and son. Navigating the conceptual identity of nationality and the social system of the Swedish state. Moving organic material around as gardener in my yard. Recipient and contributor of thoughts through various online collectives. I process vegetable matter and meat and deposit the resulting bacterial slurry through freshwater pipes into a rotting station. And there are countless others, possibly an infinity of them.

What can be unlocked by exploring a concept from these many different perspectives present within me and within others is learning new ways of responding.

While I do not claim to fully grok this concept of symmathesy that Nora is describing (I am eagerly waiting for an opportunity to take part of a warm data lab), I see that this attempt to continuously re-examine our understanding of the world can lead to a more life-affirming way of processing and producing signals.

If I receive a piece of information, for instance an article on the insect apocalypse, I could sit with others to examine why it hurts. Where does it hurt and how does this piece of information relate to our different contexts? Such explorations could help shed light on the systems that lead to the emergence of this tragedy.

Through this learning process I might be better able to respond to this triggering signal with a new signal that could hopefully remedy some of the brokenness of our planetary system that is so vividly expressing itself.

The presencing of our contexts together can alter what our capacity for creative output can be and therefore our effectiveness as signalling creatures in supporting the larger organisms towards health.

Questions from a focus on signals

For a while, all I was hearing was about big data. Excitement, fear, exhuberance. What about big signal? What does that invoke in you? (image source)

I’ve done this exploration to a large degree in order to clarify my own thinking, but I also hope that this can be a signal that is received by others and that it somehow transform them just a little bit.

Therefore I present a few questions to have in mind which might shed some light on why this might be a useful framing to come back to every now and then.

Here are some cases where I am replacing data with signal in some questions that we often find ourselves asking these days. To me, they become different questions:

Should I own my own signals? (Are the signals in fact just mine? What does that mean?)

What are to be considered valid signals? True signals? (Factual? Unforced? Coming from wholeness?)

Where are signals being exploited to the detriment of senders and recipients? (Access to data may sound benign, access to peoples signalling systems?)

What is big signal? (Data dumps of signals? Like a blood sample with hormone levels? What does that say about us? What doesn’t it say?)

This writing could be viewed as a piece of data that is sitting on a server that is in custody of the organisation running the Medium platform.

Or it can be viewed as a signal, triggered by this piece of writing, originating through me as author, carried as digitally represented character symbols and hopefully received by you and other people that have the interest and capacity to endure and enjoy long-winding texts like this one, with the purpose of transforming thought around signals/data.

Which view triggers more useful signals originating in you?

So this data/signal conversations is not an either or, it is more like zooming in and out. When one is in focus, the other one is blurry.

This writing ties into another piece I have written about new types of signalling systems emerging.

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Viktor Zaunders

Idea pollinator and bridge-builder with a love for networks, ecology & technology.