The Medium and The Message
This is a month that for me started off in the Southern Hemisphere before I flew back into Europe where I spent time in two countries in nine days and next week I will be visiting yet a third before flying off for California. When you work like this, waking up in different timezones, countries and cultures where even the local language is not always yours, your brain looks for anchors, points of the world where it can latch onto for a sense of stability and continuity. For me, that’s provided by G+. It provides an immediate environment through which I communicate, and communication is the subject of today’s Sunday Read.
Communication Theorist Robert T. Craig, at the turn of the last century, argued in his influential Communication Theory as a Field
) that "despite the ancient roots and growing profusion of theories about communication," there is not a field of study that can be identified as 'communication theory” and he went ahead to propose that communication itself is governed by a metamodel made up of seven ‘traditions’ each with its own rich tapestry of precepts:1. Rhetorical: views communication as the practical art of discourse.2. Semiotic: views communication as the mediation by signs.3. Phenomenological: communication is the experience of dialogue with others.4. Cybernetic: communication is the flow of information.5. Socio-psychological: communication is the interaction of individuals.6. Socio-cultural: communication is the production and reproduction of the social order.7. Critical: communication is the process in which all assumptions can be challenged.
Before we get too far ahead however, it’s best to take one small leap back to 1937 where a mathematician by the name of Claude Elwood Shannon (http://goo.gl/n6g39J
), working one summer, as an intern at Bell Telephone Laboratories was to stumble across a concept that was to overtake his imagination which he would elegantly summarise in a ‘simple’ formula (and I apologise in advance for including maths on a Sunday, but it’s necessary) governing all systems involved in any form of communication: f1(t) > T > F(t) > T > R > f2(t)
To clarify this (and understand its power) consider that T=Transmitter and R= Receiver f1(t) is the message to be transmitted, F(t) is the signal and f2(t) is the message received that has to be as close as possible to the original in order for the Receiver to understand the intent of the Transmitter. The f = function and the lower case “t” stands for time, and essentially admits that the longer the length between sending and receiving something the greater are the chances that it will be misunderstood.
Shannon became the father of information theory and his basic formula governs everything including search (and semantic search in particular) and the more you look at it the more you realise that in its simplicity it introduces an interesting concept, the concept that Craig played upon and that is the one of Framework.
Namely for any kind of meaningful communication to take place and make sure that the f1(t) of Shannon’s equation can approximate the f2(t), regardless of time passed there has to be a common understanding of the semantic context of what is being transmitted. In other words: a common cultural framework as well as, perhaps, a common language.
In semantic search, Google returns results filtered through its understanding of the signals it has about us (which means we’re constantly engaged in a process that teaches the search engine who we are and what we do). That makes communication closely tied to identity and the sense of self which brings us to Marshal McLuhan (http://goo.gl/7wEUKA
) who gave us the inspired term “Global Village” amongst others. In a televised appearance in Australia (http://goo.gl/cu8tOV
) he talks about how the very awareness of a process is pattern recognition in action which then changes the process itself (a little like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics - http://goo.gl/aGXJNj
McLuhan goes on, during the show to argue how in Americal Football the players know that watching a game changes the way the game is being played because the players are aware of the audience watching and their expectations and he then stitches together transcendental meditation as an increased awareness of esoteric disciplines increases the moment we become aware of ‘process’. (Parts 2 and 3 are here: http://goo.gl/Jdzthz
and here: http://goo.gl/TgcRJ0
McLuhan’s contextualization of communication throws up two interesting facets: first, as he says, “The tendency of any medium is to attract content that is consistent with its limits.” Case in point this very post which is rich-media rich containing hyperlinks to video as well as text and which would have been impossible to do in quite this way in, let’s say, Twitter. And second the framework of common understanding through which communication occurs (the implication of Shannon’s theory).
To illustrate that consider, for instance, these Sunday Reads where I spend quite some time trying to bring together disparate points of knowledge in a unified subject of some sort. My intent is to communicate, as clearly as possible yet, filtered through the different experience of those who read them, the subject itself changes. A classic example is +Alexandra Riecke-Gonzales
' share of my ‘lite’ post of last Sunday (http://goo.gl/Vx9aly
) with an intro that sees it through her current teaching of Communication Theory. Compare that now with +John Kellden
's share of the same post (http://goo.gl/nnH894
) in his conversation lab, and more than that, look at the conversation that next takes place on each thread.
In his seminal essay The Medium is the Message
McLuhan argues that the content of any medium is, itself, another medium: http://goo.gl/OGmIgV
. (The full PDF of which can be obtained here: http://goo.gl/SHaRzH
That makes everything we do here, in this environment, a springboard of sorts. Each post is part of a sensed Quickening because it operates on two fronts: first it is empowering in the physicality of its operation: what it lets us do. And then it is empowering in the implication of its understanding: what we feel once we mentally decode the meaning of the “message” we have received.
All human communication is imperfect. Consider the implications of +todd l lebeauc
) where he uses a very public medium to talk about being alone in the expectation of starting a conversation on the merits of the post.
We have become very public in what we do. McLuhan, in the YouTube series I shared says that "Hawthorne regarded the American propensity to go outside to be alone as an undermining of democracy." Funnily enough having lived in Russia for a while I know that Communists also regarded the isolation of the individual as being subversive to the ideology of the system. The two ideas, coming from diametrically opposed camps show the same thing: systems trying to safeguard themselves from the perceived threat of the individual willing to define his own identity.
When Shannon first wrote his A Mathematical Theory of Communication
) he introduced the concept of a special entropy, since called Shannon Entropy
) where he introduces the measure of uncertain variables to work out the likelihood of a message to be understood once it’s received, or not.
Watching McLuhan’s 1970s interview on Australian TV a few things become apparent: first, during the Q & A it becomes obvious that he has no idea what programming the BBC shows. Consider that in the 1970s no one did unless you lived in Britain (McLuhan was Canadian, his talk takes place in Australia). He also says that there is no sense of private individual in “oriental man”. Overlooking for a moment any inherent bigotry that may lie in his choice of words which reflect his time, consider that it also shows a world that is precisely compartmentalized.
A world whose biggest challenge is the medium of Television and that it shows. A world that sees that medium both as a challenge and a threat. That world is so inward looking that it considers the mere introduction of television as a threat to literacy and reading much like Socrates railed against writing (http://goo.gl/6q7K7P
That world is still with us. It remains in countries and institutions. It functions every time we come up against systems organized around a function designed to preserve the status quo. In communicating as we do, however well we do it, we are forcing the creation of a new world bereft of compartmentalization. Doge memes (http://goo.gl/YJRGDD
) become a shared cultural framework that in itself elevates the medium. There is a diffusion of culture going on that is connecting humanity regardless of local context.
This is disruptive. It is allowing us to forge identities and a sense of self outside the boundaries traditionally offered by the institutions that compartmentalized us. Americans watch (and think) about the concept of civilization’s meltdown in Walking Dead
alongside Ethiopians and Turks. We are becoming, in other words, better at communicating and if we think that communication changes minds, ideas and leads to the emergence of people whose thinking is radically different, you can see how a ‘simple’ message, a meme: http://goo.gl/cRKqe4
becomes a semantically dense environment in itself, following on Craig’s seven steps that is disruptive, empowering and transformative in tiny ways. Cumulatively, they all count.
The revolution has finally happened. We just do not realize it yet.
A lot of thoughts came together, thanks to the relative isolation of international travel. This Sunday’s read might need an extra jug of coffee and at least a second box of doughnuts or a second packet of cookies.
Have a great Sunday, wherever you are. #davidamerlandsundayread #informationtheory