Communication

"LO" and behold a new age is born.

Working late into the night on the 29th October 1969, a small team of academics were about to make history. Having recently developed very small computers whose sole task was the switching of packets on a digital network, they had been deployed to different sites and connected by digital modems working on analogue phone lines. History records that at 10:30pm the first two letters of the word "LOGIN" were transmitted from the University of California, LA to the Stanford Research Institute. Speaking on a phone line at the same time, the conversation ensues:

"did you see the L ?"
"yes, we see the L"

after which an "O" was typed.

"did you see the O?"
"Yes, we see the O."

...at which point the system crashed.

An hour later, after a bit of tweaking, the first login succeeded. Several months of work had gone into connecting the University of California, LA, the Stanford Research Institute, the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Utah, and by the 5 December 1969, ARPANET was created and a new age had been ushered in.

We take it all for granted now, however imagine if you were transported back in time to the early 1900's, and it was your task to explain to people then what the internet is. Could you do it? Going back further in time to the invention of the printing press, would you be able to describe to Guttenberg, what a smart phone is. To borrow an often reused phrase, we only live in an age of technology today because each generation before us has stood on the shoulders of the giants. Taking it all for granted seems like a crime, a dishonouring of those brilliant minds that dragged us out of pre-history several millennia ago.

The exchange between members of the ARPANET team has a counterpoint in the phone conversation that occurred at the same time. The conversation is a reflection of the packet transfer they were trying to achieve through this very small network across distance. "Did you see the 'L'", "Yes, we see the 'L'". This challenge and response process happens billions of times a second on a modern digital network. It's called synchronous communication, and when you speak with a friend, you are engaged in a form of packet delivery, followed by the confirmation of packet delivery. Even something as mundane as talking with someone is just a form of information exchange where we take turns talking and listening. In a face to face conversation, any response is only going to be within the context of the conversation. The simple phrase "Oooh I know..." actually carries a lot of weight because it tells the person we are talking to that we have heard them and we understand them. It's not something we tend to think about much, but this interchange of information is a very fundamental form of communication.

However, not all forms of communication are synchronous, some go in one direction only, broadcast out from a single point and through a medium that has no immediate relative feedback. A book is something that goes in one direction, as is a newspaper, radio or television program. The author of the material is not going to get an immediate feedback about the material they are publishing, and for this reason a broadcast form of communication will usually involve a process of refinement or editing in order to get the message right. Over time some feedback does happen, critiques and ratings, reviews and sales figures, however this feedback is not a single point of data, but rather it is a measure of the population, an average and variance that describes a group of people. The feedback in a broadcast medium does not have the rich detail that comes with a face to face conversation.

This section examines the history of communication and the technological advances that have occurred throughout history. The recording of history itself is one of the benefits of communication. It gives access to a larger world view, across time, so that we can learn and understand. When did it start? How did we emerge from pre-history into recorded history? One theory at least suggests that consciousness and communication developed alongside each other {Chomsky??}, giving rise to civilisation more broadly, and civilisation only really got going when humans started to understand death. But beyond the archaeological evidence around burial processes, this theory instead looks at the existential crisis that comes with recognising and understanding our own mortality. In this way, the beginning of consciousness starts because of the end of life.

Language and Expression - Network

Communication and consciousness seem to be interwoven concepts. Early humans developed the capacity for language, due to a gradual physiological change in the epiglottis, the tongue, the acuity of the ear to understand speech, along with neurological changes in the brain {}. Over a long period of time, humans worked out spoken languages based on the cues provided by gesture. Crucial to this early stage of communication was the advanced degree to which facial expressions were used to facilitate this communication {}(Cozolino, 2006).

A recent television show, "Lie To Me" describes an organisation working alongside law enforcement authorities, helping to solve crime with their particular set of skills that is the observation of facial expression and mannerisms. What you may not know is that this work is based on the actual work of Eckman (2003) who laid out a framework for understanding the biological, culturally independent ability in humans to interpret facial expressions. Humans regardless of culture, will know anger, disgust, joy, surprise, sadness and fear when they see it in another person.

Humans have a remarkable ability when it comes to facial recognition (Cozolino, 2006), and it seems the face itself is part of a feedback mechanism which tells us how another human is feeling. Blushing for instance is a form of truth telling because you can't lie about shame. When someone blushes we know they are "telling" the truth in this expression because it cannot be faked. In the context of what has been said, a blush lets us know that what has been said, or what has transpired is true.

Humans also have significantly more white sclera in their eyes, relative to the dark iris. This is even true when compared to other primates. This ratio of white to dark areas assists others in understanding the direction of gaze in a person. The sclera in humans speaks to a long process of evolution that is connected to communication, watching where people look gives the observer significantly more information about the person being observed.

Even olfaction plays a part in communication. Attraction is based to a large extent on pheromone release {}. The immune system has a chemical signature based on a person's genetic makeup, and this signature is expressed through pheromones. In finding a partner, a person will be looking for another individual with different genetic makeup, because this will create offspring with a wider immune response, something called heterogeneity. But beyond the issues of reproductive health, olfaction can have an immediate communication role when it comes to arousal, anxiety and fear. High states of affective arousal like fear will influence the cortical-adrenal response, which is then expressed through perspiration. These worn old phrases like "chemical attraction" and "smelling fear" seem to have a very real physiological basis.

The physiology of communication between two people still involves sending something out (expression / words) and watching for the response (observation / listening). And even though we don't really think about it, in engineering terms this is a feedback mechanism, where the input at one point of the interaction is dependent on the output from the previous point. Each point of time in the interaction will necessarily affect the next point in the transaction. Hundreds of such input / response / output / response interactions occur throughout the day, and yet we think nothing of it. It's only when you try to get a computer to do this sort of task that you realise just how complex it can be.

Humans have become adept at both expression and the observation of expression. The question as to which came first is something that can only be theorised. Was it the visually dominated world of somatic expression of the aurally dominated world of language? Most likely, they co-developed over a very long period of time. But however they evolved, these mechanisms of communication are essentially part of a one-to-one system. Many individuals having multiple interactions through rudimentary communication and later speech, all of this could be understood as a networked structure of communication. If this were represented in a diagram, each individual would be a point connected to other individuals by lines, forming a large lattice work of interconnected points.

This simple communication medium gets even more interesting as larger groups of people are involved. With a two people there is only one line, with A connected to B. With three people there are three lines (A-B, A-C and B-C). But as the number of people increases the number of lines increases exponentially. Four people will see six possible one-on-one interactions, and when the group has 12 members there are 66 possible combinations of one-to-one interaction. Tribal size may have been limited by this increasing possibility of one-to-one combinations, and if a group were to exceed 100 people there would be over 5000 interactions possible. Of course not all of these interactions can be expressed, and so instead the groups works out ways to condense and summarise information to that which is most important. And so we pay attention to information that is interesting, and where this interest has evolved such that it's concerned with relationship, social exchange and hierarchical standing. So when you think about it, one of the first communication technologies to develop is gossip?

Early communication in humans was a big and very risky play for nature. It required a larger brain which meant a higher calorific intake. Would the advantages of communication be offset by the increase in food required. The gamble paid off however, and humans developed a capacity for both individual planning as well as group cohesion. Where once the world was something unpredictable, it eventually became one of patterns recurring, and events that could be predicted.

On the down side however, with an understanding of the future came an understanding of death. Living in the world was countered by an existential crisis around our inevitable demise. The awareness of death had set in motion the growth in consciousness itself, out of which technological advance would make more profound this realisation that we all die. Throughout history this march of technology is nowhere more profound that when it comes to how we communicate with one another. As McLuhan suggests {}, what began as a network of one-to-one interactions based on language would transform as new communication technologies adjusted the very fabric of society, allowing for the construction of larger and larger groups.

Each breakthrough in communication technology builds on the one that precedes it. The more advanced medium does not completely replace the former. Instead the later seems to augments and build on the former. For instance, after one-to-one communication, there developed a technological advance that helped encode information that was important for survival. This encoding mechanism simply helped people to remember in a way that the information could be transferred across distance and down through time. The next major advance in communication technology was storytelling.

Storytelling - Broadcast

"Once upon a time..." or so the story starts. A narrative device that simply means a story is about to be told. What follows then is a rich encoding of information that helps people to survive. Typically interlaced with morals or even just information on how individuals and groups can be safer and more productive. The story helps bind the group together through the promotion of pro-social behaviours and beliefs {}.

As a society, we seem to spend a great deal of effort looking at the lives of famous people, particularly movie stars. Gossip around the water cooler, late night variety shows and a gazillion dollar magazine industry feeding all of this. A lot of people put a lot of time into discussing celebrities. On the other hand, in stark contradiction to all this effort talking about famous people, it also often happens that in casual conversation people will start talking about movies, and then completely fail to recall an actors name... "You know that guy with the other guy and they drive off in an old police car to help the nuns save the orphanage.. .what his name, the short fat one. It's just on the tip of the tongue... no lost it. Damn."

What is fascinating is that we forget the names, but have no problem at all in remembering the key elements of the story. In essence, this is the technological advance of storytelling.

With storytelling, the information being passed on is encoded as a narrative so that it is easier to remember. A story also helps encode the information so that it is more resistant to change. It's a simple enough concept to grasp, but it's implications are profound. An older generation could pass on their wisdom to a younger generation in order to help that generation survive. Sure the stories could adapt to a changing world, but they were relatively less malleable than the simple passing on of information about the world. Stories are more resistant to change.

The story attempts to capture experience, and one of it's most basic forms is the experience of an individual who goes out into the world, faces adversity, and where they are either defeated by it, or where they overcome it and return home. Either way there are important lessons to learn, dangers to be avoided, and elements of morality to be adopted, all because it will help the listener to survive.

Joseph Campbell (1949) {}{The Hero with a Thousand Faces} uses the term "monomyth" to describe this consistently recurring theme of the "hero's journey" in stories throughout time and across cultures. A notion that was born from Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious:

"... there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals."
{C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996) p. 43}

Now I am not really an advocate of the collective unconscious, even though a lot of this work may be misinterpreted as such, but what if these observations, from both Campbell and Jung were simply picking up on patterns that occur in how groups form. Through the telling of stories we were able to vastly increase our capacity to understand and cope with a dangerous, seemingly random and unpredictable world out there.

The more meaningful the story, the larger the advantage it conferred, then the higher it's chance of being propagated. Dawkins (1976) {The Selfish Gene} defined abstract elements of cultural information as "memes", which like the word "genes" were argued to be subject to replication, mutation and selection over time. Memes are elements of culture that would evolve over time. Stories can be seen to act as carriers for these memes, in which they would be subject to the shaping effects of evolution over time. The story, as an entity in it's own right, would act as medium of communication which traverses time and distance, forming a part of the aural/oral tradition {} (Marshall McLuhan).

The Epic of Gilgamesh (2,000 BCE - 1,000 BCE) is often cited as one of the earliest of stories to be recorded in ancient Mesopotamia, and it began a long tradition in the war genre. Also in this vein are the Illiad (Homer) (850 BCE) and the Ramayana (Hindu Epic) (800 BCE). They lasted through time because of the technologial changes that came with writing things down.

But perhaps the most obvious example of early story telling comes from the religious texts, the obvious fore runner being the composition of the Jewish holy book or Torah (1312 BCE - 400 BCE). In essence the Torah is a collection of religious stories and it has gone through two major revisions and additions in the Bible and the Koran. But we could also cite works like the Tao Te Ching (Laozi) (650 BCE) or the Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhist Oral Tradition) (400 BCE) as texts that are in essence a collection of religious stories. These text even cite the very mechanism that is used to impart collective wisdom, when the teachers and prophets within use the parable to explain how we should be in the world.

The story has a resilience to change, but with this comes a corresponding loss of feedback. The story becomes less malleable in the immediate sense, and is no longer a genuine one-to-one method of communication. Stories are a different form of communication. They are no longer a pure network system made up of many one-to-one exchanges. As an entity in it's own right, the story is a process of broadcasting information. Sure there is still the moulding effect of time itself as it evolves, but the story with it's reduced feedback can be seen as a one-to-many broadcast form of communication technology.

The retelling process has another problem, where the story itself would take on a life of it's own. It would adapt and evolve in order to become more successfully propagated. An error in the transmission would be viewed by Dawkins, the biologist who proposed meme theory, as a 'mutation', and the more successful changes would propagate further, with less successful elements being culled off. Because the story could have some error in it's retransmission, it's accuracy in retelling was seen as serious business. This would bring about the emergence of a new professional class, with the first magicians / priests / shaman / avatars etc being the storytellers.

When the stories were recorded on a permanent medium, then they would become even more resilient to the effects of time. Mutation would still happen by way of a changing interpretation, however the most effective stories would hold a wisdom that resisted change. Cave drawings are an early form of permanent record, but eventually what followed were hieroglyphics and finally the alphabetic structures of the written word.

The reduction in feedback becomes more pronounces as the stories become more engrained, and the story itself becomes a way in which a group of people could identify with each other. Stories eventually come to define the group and help hold larger numbers together.

But the storyteller is eventually superseded by literacy. The medium changed as the very factors that contribute to the shaping of society are also altered.

Literacy and Postage (network)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"
John 1:1

I am an atheist looking at this quote from the beginning of Johns gospel. What if it was literally true ... in both meanings of the word "literally"? What if god was nothing more than the combined wisdom of a people. Forget the man-in-cloud stuff, what if the collected wisdom of a group, representing a survival advantage became mystified over time, and simultaneously made more concrete in the minds of the pious believer, and through this becoming more human-like or anthropomorphised.

It's been suggested that as a technology, storytelling has a feedback mechanism that occurs at a group level. But what if the process of feedback is also indicative of the group. What if the story develops into a sort of reflection of the group? As the story evolves, it could take on characteristics and is effectively deified such that it begins to look like a human. God then becomes an anthropomorphic outcome of the story telling medium. But when written down, now then things really start to get going.

To a culture that had never experienced the written word, it would appear as something profoundly magical. Imagine a European Explorer in the Americas. Such explorers could perform a trick on an unsuspecting primitive tribe, a piece of magic that would blow them away. One of the explorers, could write down something told to him by the tribal chief, something that only the chief knows. The chief then takes the letter across a distance to have the second explorer who can tell the chief what the information was. When talking paradigm shift, this is a great example. What went before has very little understanding of the world view that follows, but when you are in the new paradigm it all seems really obvious.

In ancient times the development of literacy began to move beyond the religious ruling class (priests, shamans etc) as more and more people adopted this new paradigm. Starting with the ruling elite and educated wealthy, but slowly propagating to more and more of the society. If nothing else, writing conferred a significant military advantage because it meant larger regions could be controlled by a central authority. It also meant that individuals could communicate over distance and have that communication reflected back to them in a personal (highly contextual) one-to-one way.

Postage became the next big technological advance in communication and it was far more 1 to 1 in nature. Around 550 BCE, Cyrus The Great, built "Chapar Khaneh" stations across the Persian Empire in order to facilitate the delivery of messages and intellegence. During the Han Dynasty (220 BCE - 206 BCE) and early postal system was developed in China, and later in Rome Augustus Caesar (62 BCE - 14 BCE) built the Cursus Publicus mail service. Frontinus (51 BCE) also records that Julius Caesar used Homing Pigeons in the conquest of Gaul (Frontinus) (51 BCE).

When humans began talking to each other, we also developed the capacity to lie. As Eckman (2003) points out, what's followed is an arm's race of lying and the detection of lying. In a way this is the progenitor of encryption, something that seems to develop within a one-to-one dominant medium. When literacy flourished in the ancient world we could even see early examples of encryption and basic cipher technology in attempts to prevent the interception of information as it travelled across distance {expand on or remove}.

Storytelling and One-to-one communication (letters) are transmitters of information across both distance and time. However they have a different nature with regard the feedback structures they use. Storytelling has it's feedback measured by a group response where the letter is a personal response. They are also different with regard to mutability, where the key components of a story are less malleable, changing only gradually over time/distance, whilst language and correspondence is a back and forth process that will rapidly change as the context changes {expand}.

The Printed word (broadcast)

But paradigms change, merge and evolve. The story is written down, most notably in the first instance by the Hebrews where they made a huge effort to collect the stories and keep them safe for future generations. Because the stories were written down, they became even less mututable over time. They were indeed "writ in stone".

Harold Innis (1952) suggests that commination modalities could be understood as being bound by time or bound by space. Time bound mediums such as the written word are more durable over time, whilst space bound mediums such as the aural/oral tradition, radio and television are more ephemeral in nature. Innis connects the dominance of one form over the other and correlates this with the rise and fall of nations. The balance of these forms leads to a flourishing of the nation, and a severe imbalance to it's fall.

A decade later in 1962, McLuhan writes the The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man, and delves into the history of technological change in communications. He postulates that even though people invent a technology, the technology then supports the reinvention of the people. In engineering terms McLuhan is describing a feedback loop where the output of a system is also part of the input to that system. Two years later in Understanding Media McLuhan draws upon Gestalt theory and separates the medium (figure) from the context in which it operates (ground), McLuhan coins the phrase that "the medium is the message" and elaborates on how the communication medium itself is what shapes society, and not necessarily the content that is carried on that medium.

McLuhan is arguing that all communication technology is an extension of the set of human senses, bodies and minds. Movable type for instance, and the visual accuracy it confers, has meant a general trend towards repetition and ultimately homogeneity, and away from a diversity that dominates the aural/oral traditions. He was really viewing communication by form, either vision and hearing, and how the transition from one to the next would herald a spurt of creativity in the form that had been lacking. On the Guttenberg press, McLuhan writes:

"the world of visual perspective is one of unified and homogeneous space. Such a world is alien to the resonating diversity of spoken words. So language was the last art to accept the visual logic of Gutenberg technology, and the first to rebound in the electric age." {McLuhan 1962, p.136}

OMG. The reinvention of language with a new medium makes me LOL :)

McLuhan argued that the study of media has to be undertaken within an historical context. He points to the aural/oral technology, the printed word and the broadcast mass media as the key turning points. However this theory highlights these specific "broadcast" forms of communication, where one person speaks to many. The Guttenberg press did not mean the end of network (one-to-one) communication, it simply meant that broadcast was in ascendency. Network forms of communication were lying dormant, but they would eventually re-emerge.

Semaphore, Telegraph, Telephone (network).

The Semaphore Lines of the 18th century consisted of a network of relay towers that could signal over distance and at relatively increased speed. Napoleon used this form of communication to great military advantage when he conquered most of Europe. The Semaphore lines in turn were superseded by the telegraph and later the telephone. Whilst the later appear to be an aural/oral tradition, it also happened to occur around the invention of the Penny Black (1840), referring to the first pre-paid postage stamp in England, a form of pseudo-currency that, in it's own way, revolutionised one-to-one communication across distance.

These technological changes reflect communication that is not one-to-many, or broadcast, but rather they enhance the collaboration between individuals. Telephone, Prepaid postage, Telegraph, Semaphore are all examples of networked based one-to-one communication. In ancient times the ability to write personal correspondence was a one-to-one form of communication, as was the development of language itself. What makes network systems different to broadcast information is that the feedback is more personal. It is relatively more immediate, it is highly contextual and represents the thoughts of a single individual.

McLuhan referred to the medium by its form (visual / auditory), but the medium can also be viewed by its engineering characteristics. Storytelling and the printed word would be classified in engineering terms as methods of "asynchronous" signal exchange, where the story / book / broadcast is sent out from a single point source, and a larger number of passive receivers are at the other end to pick it up. The mode of information exchange is in one direction. Any feedback, if it exists, will be representative of the group and often expressed as a statistical measure such as an average or median.

With personal interaction, correspondence by letter, and telegraphy the information goes back and forth between (usually) two individuals and the output from one person becomes the input for another, before being sent back again. The information itself is verified and mistakes corrected through an ongoing feedback process. As with the phone call transcript at the beginning of this chapter, "Did you see the 'L'", "Yes, we see the 'L'", the response only makes sense because of what has been transmitted before it. The phone, telegraph, semaphore structures (which to some extent also include the communication drums in Africa or smoke signals in North America), all these methods of communication would be classified as "synchronous" in engineering terms. Even letter writing, which has a significant delay is often a back and forth form of correspondence where the content of one letter usually only makes sense because of the letters that have gone before it. One result of synchronous communication is that collaboration is possible. One-to-one collaboration is a process through which consensus is possible.

However one-to-one network forms of communication are also the place where agreement fails and arguments are created. An escalating argument is the opposite of agreement, but it is still representative of the process of one-to-one exchange where the output from one individual is the input to another, context and understanding going back and forth. Escalating arguments are a focus of the later half of this work, because they represent when other factors of the individual's self essentially get in the way of a harmonising synchronous exchange. But more on that later.

Radio, Film and Television (broadcast)

Up to this point the word "broadcast" has been used in a specific context as the one-to-many transfer of information. But it also heralds a specific technological advance at the dawn of the 20th century, a breakthrough that would once again revolutionise communication. The radio allowed for transmission of information across larger distances, and amongst many things would transform how we make decisions, leading to the modern political state we have grown up in. This broadcast dominated medium would be advanced further through film and eventually Television. {expand}

A common misconception is that a new form of communication technology will replace older forms. Newer technology doesn't always replaces the old, what's more likely is that it augments and builds upon the old. The medium of film for instance did not do away with the technological advance of storytelling, it changed it and built upon it. Just like the author after the development of the printing press, the radio producer, the film director and screen writer have become the new storytellers, even though they are still just telling stories. In a similar way, the telephone has come to replace the telegraph but it has not done away with one-to-one communication, the later technology has simply augmented it.

When viewed over the broad expanse of history, there are tell tale points which suggest a radical change was caused by changes in communication technology. McLuhan focused on the broadcast mediums with the aural/oral tradition (storytelling), the printing press and film, radio and television. However other key events have occurred which highlight a shift to network mediums, the telephone, pre-paid postage, the telegraph, literary correspondence, and spoken language itself.

But using McLuhan logic that the medium of communication tells us a lot about the history that was occurring, it seems to me that these major shifts between network and broadcast reflect radical shifts in thinking. When the telegraph was being invented in the early 1800's a huge shift was occurring in both economic and political spheres. There seems to have been a drive toward representative and parliamentary democratic structures. We get from these times words like:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
{}

A century and a half later, after the world became transformed by radio and film, we enter a new era that is a broadcast dominated medium, and instead we hear:

"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."
Hermann Goering during the Nuremberg Trials.

Yes, there is a deliberate use of the extremes here as a cheap trick to highlight the radically different worlds they represent. But that's the point, because they were very different worlds. In a one-to-one or network dominated world democracy and transparency in decision making were made centre stage, but by the time of WWII, leaders had worked out how to capitalise on the dominent medium offered by broadcast technologies, and they would use this to devesting effect. This is important because we are moving once again into a radically different media construct, one that McLuhan predicted a decade before the boys in UCLA and Stanford tried to log on.

The internet is returning the world once again to a network dominated medium of communication technology.

The highly evolved players of the previous medium, the media moguls and the politicians that evolved to capitalise on the broadcast technologies are now dinosaurs, made obsolete by bloggers, frozen out by Facebook and trumped by Twitter. Instead we have this ground swell of support for better democratic institutions; with organizations like Wikileaks demanding more transparency in decision making; and where voters simply want open and calm debate that does not descend into mindless political point scoring which is the mainstay of Goering's propaganda fuelled vision of decision making.

A truly radical shift is occurring now, as digital natives start to enter the workforce and political institutions. It is being suggested here that this new generation is actually seeing the world in a fundamentally different way. They have in essence broached into a new form of consciousness.

But nothing is ever really new, it's probably been around before. My point here is to help you transcend to a new way of seeing the world. There are patterns pointing to a much broader perspective, and stepping aside from the ego, ...being able to witness your own self, ...is my stated aim.

In the next section another author / philosopher, from a completely different discipline, is uncovered. Someone who like McLuhan also predicted the rise of a new consciousness well before the world was wired up.

NEXT - Consciousness