Thursday, July 30, 2009

A view of human communication

Through time, humans have developed a good variety of ways with which to communicate. A common thought I hear expressed is that the development of the Gutenberg movable type printing press was the innovation that gave rise to the explosion of intelligence leading to the industrial revolution and so on. While this position is dubious, what cannot be denied is that communication is critical to any functioning society - it would be very difficult to convince ones contemporaries of the viability of a shared work system were one unable to do more than point and grunt. What we can see from this is that within every system of communication there are a number of channels on which we express; were the grunts all too similar and hands dexterous only to the extent that would allow semi-random pointing, there's little hope of meaningful communication. Just the same, were a creature fully capable to communicate yet separated in all manners from any kin, no communication could take place.

Not too long ago the idea of being thousands of miles away from another person yet able to communicate across that distance was inconceivable; clearly even the loudest shout wouldn't come close. Perhaps it was and remains from lingering awe that we have failed to recognize the layers involved in communication. In this modern age, we have the following commonly used means of communication:

SMS text messaging
voip videophone
printed language (books, periodicals, etc.)

The one of particular interest is SMS messaging, the text messages received on cell phones. SMS is interesting because it has so few channels of communication that the resulting communication can only be described as clumsy. What characterizes SMS? SMS consists of very short strings of letters that rarely even qualify as sentences. Words are shortened, abbreviated, and generally butchered as a result of the inefficiency of input. Continuing, SMS lacks any characteristic lettering, that is, every letter is the same no matter who it comes from. Though we might be able to tell an individual by syntactical arrangement and the like, we are otherwise robbed of a significant contributing channel of communication. SMS is essentially so barren that anything as complex as emotion most often fails to be communicated accurately, with a sad and frustrating result of being all too occasionally completely misinterpreted. This is an important thing to note! The simple misinterpretation of an otherwise well-intentioned message can really ruin ones night, if not more. From this we can see that twitter too must be awful, even worse than SMS, simply because there is a limit imposed on the length of any attempt at communication (where with SMS any person with the constitution can write messages of unlimited length). This is a good reason not to use twitter to try to convey complicated information.

Moving on, we can jump right to handwritten messages. As eluded to, handwritten messages contain more information from the start with the characteristics of individualized writing, which may also change over time and mood. With these messages there is a new and interesting condition which is of questionable impact, that is the time in which you must wait to send and receive correspondance. It is logical that the content of a message will change if one knows any correspondance will take months to be received and responded to, as opposed to minutes.

With telephone conversations we have the benefit of a flood of information: pitch, emphasis, rate, external sounds, and so forth. Yet the telephone can be viewed as a special degenerate case of the communication afforded by voip, itself degenerate from face to face real and direct contact. In person you get whole body movement, perfect resolution (eyesight dependent of course), scent, and other sensational (that is, of the senses) experience otherwise currently impossible via digital transmission.

Can communication go beyond face to face?

What an intriguing question, I'm happy to say yes! And with some confidence to boot. Headed to market right now is a device called the epoc, from a company called Emotive. The epoc is a consumer electroencephalograph (more commonly referred to as EEG, but would you believe me if I said I spelled it right the first time?) with a computer interface. Given the high number of electrodes on the device, it is capable of doing a number of astounding things, including gauging a person's general emotional state as interpreted by discrete recognizable brain waves associated with mood, as has been explored and established over the decades since EEG measurement was first discovered. Don't get distracted yet, the important point is this: two people wearing epocs and engaged in conversation will have the ability to watch the general emotional impact of their words on the other person in real time. Imagine being able to ascertain that what you are saying is upsetting your partner (despite them verbally assuring the opposite, as does happen). With this device the degree of easily understandable communication extends beyond that which would be the capability of normal people in face to face contact. This is not to say of course that there are some number of people who are simply adept at reading emotions from body language, but I hardly think that this could be any recognizably large minority of people.

What I like to imagine is a program that allows a person to control the number and level of communication channels, because as it is we are forced to use the channels as they are given to us on a per program/call/meeting basis. I imagine too that there are some combinations of communicative channels that extend themselves to particular degrees of communication - for instance semi-anonymous Internet messaging has the peculiar affect of diminishing social inhibitions. Some other combination may make everything said get interpreted as very kind, wise, or otherwise acceptable, which would be a fantastic installation for every political organization known. Of course the choice is critical, it doesn't seem ideal to have maximal communication, at least on a personal privacy level: indeed, the majority of people would rather not communicate their nude image to whichever stranger encountered throughout the day, thus the silly garments (and deodorant, makeup, etc.) we use to close channels of communication (but probably also to hide our shame of being animals). Just the same, it would be rather unpleasing and unaligned with our social conventions were any person able to know the full content of any other mind with abandon. The thought, however, of a world without secrets is a fascinating one.

Anyway, there you have it. Consider carefully the medium of communication you choose for any important information transmission (in other words, stop text messaging, it's most likely doing more harm than good).

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