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Musings on Communication

Update: Fixed a few spelling errors and a missing word.

In my current theory about Life, the Universe, and Everything(tm), I've come to the conclusion that the main cause of problems in life is communication, or rather, failure to achieve communication without data loss. Given current circumstances, I'd like to spend a little while to illustrate this here:

Communication, at its core, is data transfer. As such, there is a source, a transfer medium, and a destination. The source, in this case, would be me. The transfer medium would be this blog, or more precisely, the written English language. The destination would be you.

Let's start with me: After I'd learned English, I realized after a while that I was not formulating sentences in my native German in my head and then translating them into English. Rather, I just had a few basic ideas or feelings in my head and then translated them directly into English. So, apparently, in the brain, there is an additional "encoding" in which all ideas and feelings are stored. So, whenever I talk, no matter in what language, I am already performing translation-work from brain-encoding to language once inside my head.

This theory is supported by my observations of discussions I've had throughout my life, and especially at school. Many of the discussions that went nowhere actually got stuck on simple questions of terminology. Surprisingly, even though people seem to be using the same words, they attach different meanings and connotations to them. This sounds obvious when you think of how we learn language as babies. Babies initially only know the "encoding" of emotions and experiences they have in their memory.

Then, later, they encounter various sounds and words and learn to associate them with the encoded data. If you only hear about the police when your parents are running from them, the word police is going to have a different meaning to you than to someone who was saved by an officer. Usually, as we go through life, these crude associations are refined. You get more experiences to compare this to, and depending on where you live, you realize that the police are mainly there to execute the law, which will get you on the same page as most of the other people you'll meet in your life.

Inside you, however, the word police will still be a shorthand notation for all the different experiences and emotions you've collected until then. In real life, where context will supply the missing information (e.g. happenings around you), that works just fine, but in discussions this will show itself, because you have to substitute missing context with experience.

In professionally managed discussions, people will often start by defining words. They will offer other, similar words, and the overlap of all the emotions and experiences you associate with all those words will specify the actual topic of the discussion more precisely than the single word can manage, and will make sure people understand each other better.

For example, there may be people who, when talking about XML, will think only about the core XML language and feature set. Others would include languages that are XML-based, like XHTML, RSS etc. Usually, you decide on context, but during discussions it is desirable to define this more closely, to ensure that there is no loss in fidelity when your encoded thought "XML (exclusive)" is translated into language as "XML".

When this theory is applied to communication between people, another point comes to bear: I think something in Uli-Think, I translate it into words, I transfer them to you, and you translate them into You-Think and in the process you understand it. Note that this involves at least two translations. If you have ever played with a machine translation service, you'll notice that while an initial translation may still let you get the gist of the original text, a second one will usually turn it into an incoherent jumble of words. Each translation holds the danger of modifying the original meaning, and it's a testament to God's 1337 h4x0r sk1llz that humans actually manage to get across their meaning most of the time.

So, if I've done a good job translating my thoughts into English, what ends up in your head is the same as what I wanted to write. But since my brain and your brain use different encodings based on different experiences, it can happen that one of my words conjures an idea or image in your brain that I didn't anticipate, or fails to raise an image that I usually think of first, and suddenly I seem to be thinking complete nonsense. That's often the case when one person claims somebody else had said something and the somebody else is sure he never would have said such nonsense.

If you're talking to someone, you usually hardly notice that translation process. Your brain will automatically manage to use information outside the actual words to fill in the needed parts. Inflection lets you detect anger, equanimity or irony, as will gestures and facial expressions.

Not so in E-Mail. While we have a crude analog to facial expressions in the form of emoticons, they again need to be translated. Even with them, there is a lot less context available. So, if you ever wondered what a nit someone has to be to start a flame-war, then maybe it just suffices to misunderstand someone this way.

Helps to think of that the next time a stupid flamer comes to your favorite mailing list or web forum...

 
Created: 2005-03-28 @863 Last change: 2005-04-02 @184 | Home | Admin | Edit
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