Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Concept of Communication

It may not seem to matter much how we each carve up our conceptual world. If you choose to apply a concept in one way and I choose to apply it in another, the potential for difficulty might seem to be of little consequence. Where, for example, is the conflict if, like the people of Lilliput, you choose to attack your conceptual boiled eggs from the narrow end and I, like the people of Blefuscu, choose to attack mine from the broad end?
If our efforts are limited to individual projects, then there is little likelihood of disagreement. We can agree to disagree. But if, on the contrary, we wish to cooperate, then the potential for confusion, loss, damage or harm can be very significant. Two examples can be used to illustrate this point.
In 1999, a $125 million NASA mission to send a probe into orbit around Mars, ditched into the Martian surface. Unbeknownst to NASA, one of the contractors had used metric units in their component instead of the imperial standard used by NASA.  
In 2003, the builders of a new bridge between Sweden and Germany discovered that the German side was more than half a metre higher than the Swedish side. The engineers were already aware that Germany and Sweden determine the height of sea level in different ways, but they had mistakenly reversed the correction, thus precisely doubling the 27cm difference rather than cancelling it out.
Problems like these are perhaps best regarded as conversion errors. The bridge engineers converted between two conceptual systems incorrectly and the rocket component engineers simply took it for granted that no conversion was necessary. When errors have glaring material consequences, it is often relatively straightforward to trace the source. But conversion errors need not be obvious and may survive over long periods due to a lack of appreciation of the significance and scope of the problem. I hope to show that we face exactly such a problem with the way that the concept of communication is understood and this has profound implications in all fields in which the concept is used.
The concept of communication can be understood in any of three incompatible ways. The first—what we might call "pervasive communication"—defines communication as the transfer of information ("differences that make a difference" as Bateson put it in 1972) between various entities. According to this view, all forms of life, and even their parts, communicate with one another. For example Baluška et al. (2009, p.123) write: “Roots are able to produce and to sense growth regulators, chemical messengers and metabolites that communicate to the whole plant the result of processing and integration of that information.” And Bais et al. (2004) claim that plants communicate with other organisms: “Increasing evidence suggests that root exudates might initiate and manipulate biological and physical interactions between roots and soil organisms, and thus play an active role in root-root and root-microbe communication.” Search Google for “bacterial communication” and you will find nearly 50 million results. Clearly this generalised notion of communication is extremely prevalent. Some theorists even speculate that there is communication of information at the quantum level. Whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, it is not at all uncommon for pheromones to be described as as a form of "nonverbal communication" or for body posture, eye movements etc. to be called "body language."
Most people recognise that language is a subordinate concept of which communication is the superordinate. This is why we distinguish between the verbal and the non-verbal; between language on the one hand and what are sometimes called "the mimetic arts". Nonetheless, it is possible to find cases where communication  is conceived as a "kind of language" (Argyle 1975, Hudin 2009). This sense of communication is what the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1949) would have called a "category mistake" (which, incidentally, I would argue, is a subordinate form of conversion error). Instead of conceiving of language as a sub-category of communication, communication is regarded as a sub-category of language. We find such category mistakes for example when people claim that language is a kind of picture (Wittgenstein 1922) or that a "picture is a model" (Ibid), that "models describe the world" (Daiper 2003) or that "Drawing is a mode of description" Ingold (2011). There is little illumination to be gained by explaining one form of representation in terms of another. Strictly speaking, pictures do not describe or model anything, language does not picture or model anything and models do not describe or picture anything. A cat is not a kind of dog. With this in mind, it is understandable that Wittgenstein later rejected his "picture theory" of language as misleading. And I suspect that this realisation may well have had a significant influence on his later important emphasis on conceptual analysis.
The final—and I think the most coherent—sense in which the concept of communication is commonly used can be found at the beginning of the first sentence of the current Wikipedia entry devoted to it: "Communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning 'to share') is the purposeful activity of information exchange between two or more participants..." In contrast with "pervasive communication", this more restricted sense emphasises that all communications are meant; that they are intentionally produced with a purpose, usually of eliciting a response on the part of another individual or individuals. This is why it is incoherent to conceive of communication as an act that can exist without an intention, goal or purpose. Bacteria do not intend anything, quantum particles do not pursue goals, roots do not deliberately influence microbes and people do not purposefully generate pheromones.
Communication is a purposeful activity because in principle it involves an anticipated outcome: a response on the part of another perceiver. We cannot communicate with trees because trees cannot communicate with us. Communication is a reciprocal affair. There is no such thing as communicating at something.


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