September 03, 2003

The future ain't, part last

The final installment of dusty prose from 1994. "Abstractly, we might think of context as a vast hyperspace of information, present at our sensory periphery and changing in response to the focus of our attention." Cool! ...but still far out of reach, sigh.

Connecting with People
gb 10/24/94

What is the architecture of social structures -- of families and communities, corporations and nations? Arguably, it lies in the human capacity and propensity for communication among individuals and among groups large and small. We are social creatures; driven to express and comprehend, we create languages to speak and write with, we take up pen or brush or musical instrument, we build vast interconnected networks to carry our ideas to others. Facilitated by the symbolism of spoken and written words, we create abstract structures -- organizations of people -- through which we build artifacts and systems beyond human scale. Through these organizations of interacting individuals, we become acquainted with the meson and the moon. But communication is hard, and despite our remarkable facilities of speech and abstract thought, despite millions of miles of fiber optic cable and billions of bits per second, despite our best intentions, we often fail to understand, and we fail to be understood.

A great deal of energy is being spent in laboratories and garages around the world, trying to recreate the experience of physical presence over electronic networks. This extension of the reach of communications will soon yield reasonable renditions of our faces and voices at a distance; eventually we will simulate and recreate the local environment, so that non-verbal cues such as body language, surroundings and background activity become part of the interaction mix. These will be remarkable achievements, but by themselves they will only scratch the surface of possibility for interpersonal connection.

Information theory is an objective science. Human communication of information is by contrast deeply subjective. When we speak we leave much unsaid; when we write there is meaning between the lines, and our meaning is tightly bound to our unvoiced assumptions about the world, the context of our communication. Context is the environment of the thought, encompassing place, time, goals, experience, culture, values, identity and more. Because context is rarely explicit, we often find a crevasse between our intent in communicating, and the meaning perceived by those we are trying to reach. Finding a shared context helps to close the gap. The shared context among individuals becomes the basis for real communication between them, such that cosmologists with years of immersion in their field may communicate regarding the origins of our universe, while complete strangers tend to talk about the weather. To ignore the importance of context is to risk the breakdown of communication, and the loss of understanding.

In an age of ubiquitous communication networks, we may imagine a more explicit linkage of context and content in people’s lives. Abstractly, we might think of context as a vast hyperspace of information, present at our sensory periphery and changing in response to the focus of our attention. In interactions with other people, some aspects of context become mutually available, perhaps in a very subtle manner or perhaps quite directly. With contextual augmentation, hidden phenomena may become clearer: The social interactions of power and influence in an organization. The ebb and flow of people in cities, their backgrounds and cultures and beliefs. The interests of others around us and the chances to make connections that aren’t obvious. The relationships among contexts which underlie the relationships among people.

In the arts, we speak of a talented and communicative practitioner as a virtuoso. The virtuous performer combines technical mastery of her medium with a great depth of human expressiveness, communicating with her audience at symbolic, intuitive and emotional levels. Can we imagine a similar kind of virtuosity of communication, applied to domains that are not traditionally considered art? Can we further make this possibility accessible to more people, allowing a richer level of discourse in the walks of everyday life? What would constitute such virtuosity -- A large vocabulary? Mastery of foreign tongues and written languages? Rich use of metaphor and allegory? Perhaps command of the subtlety and nuance of body language and vocal intonation? Other non-verbal or non-language cues which do not exist today? An artist must practice her craft and receive feedback to improve; so too must a talented communicator.

When groups of musicians play together, they establish communication channels among themselves through the give and take of listening and leading. Great ensemble players know how to establish a state of flow, a groove, where the music takes on a vitality and life of its own, greater than the sum of the individual rhythms, pitches and timbres. What are the conditions that make such a group ‘chemistry’ possible? Could we capture that essence and apply it to the work of organizations, the building of communities, the life of families?

What are the artifacts that support the individual virtuosity and the group chemistry of communication, and the augmentation with context? Today we have books and letters on paper, telephones and TV and radio and yes, computers, displays, scanners and printers. These media and devices serve as the mediators of our communication with others. These will all evolve and coexist with new communication artifacts and media. What will a language translator look like? How might shared context be experienced? What channels will people use to provide the immediacy and intimacy of personal contact at a distance?

(Yes, that's the rather abrupt end. Guess the art of a clean concluding paragraph eluded me in those days ;-P

Posted by Gene at September 3, 2003 09:07 PM | TrackBack

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