Keynote Speakers – Kay O’Halloran

Kay O’Halloran is Chair Professor and Head of the Department of Communication and Media, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom

Matter and Meaning in the Digital Age


We inhabit two worlds – the world of matter and the world meaning (Halliday, 2005).  I investigate these two worlds and the physical, biological, social and semiotic systems which connect them, using concepts from social semiotic theory (Halliday, 1978; van Leeuwen, 2005).  In the first instance, humans receive information about the physical world through senses (for example, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell).  However, sensory input from the environment is perceived and conditioned by social factors and influences, which include the context, culture, beliefs and values, and life experiences. These social systems are enacted, maintained, and changed through semiotic systems, conceived as systems of meaning.  Following Halliday (2005), semiotic systems constitute a new order of complexity, because they involve physical systems (the material sign itself), biological systems (humans), social systems (society and culture) and meaning itself.  In this talk, I discuss this last dimension; the world of meaning and its significance, with a focus on the digital age. I discuss how semiotic resources structure thought and reality and examine the changes which have taken place in the semiotic landscape through digital technology (O’Halloran, 2014). In doing so, I conceptualise the digital age as a one-way mirror and discuss the implications for the future.


  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. (2005). On Matter and Meaning: The Two Realms of Human Experience. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 1(1), 59-82.
  • O’Halloran, K. L. (2014). Historical Changes in the Semiotic Landscape: From Calculation to Computation. In C. Jewitt (Ed.), Handbook of Multimodal Analysis (2nd ed., pp. 123-138). London: Routledge.
  • van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge.

Organized by

Share on Social Media

Subscribe to updates

    Scroll to Top