“Communication” is a big deal. It is one of the main buzzwords of our time, and has been ever since our intellectuals stumbled over such compelling cultural data as the number of years a child spends in front of a television and the billions of trees that yearly become pages of one sort or another. Now we have communications media, communications courses, communications theories, communications specialists and even a Federal Communications Commission.
Five years ago, in a grant application, I wrote elaborately of an oppressed people’s communication needs. At the time I thought that the people, who lived in a certain part of New Jersey, could achieve liberation through having those needs met by a community radio station. “Community” was a big buzzword back then, like “ombudsman” and “advocacy” and “encounter.”
Now, I ask myself: what in the name of Oz are communications needs?
Words. Words with a kind of vague meaning, like “viable parameters.” Words that buzz like flies around the excess of modern culture.
How far we’ve come. We are often reminded by those who are supposed to Know that we would still be eating slugs and acorns off the primeval savannahs if it weren’t for our words, our development of communication by mouth. More than the opposable thumb and the upright stance, it is our mouths that have made us what we are today. Or so They say.
Anthropologists are fond of telling us that a culture reveals much about itself by its vocabulary. Seafaring people have many names for water. Eskimos can distinguish 45 kinds of ice, and probably as many kinds of blubber. And what do we modern Americans have many names for? We have a dumpload of communications-related words: media, signals, talk, information, gestures, vibrations, drift, impressions, gestalts, connections, sendings, missives, dispatches, communiques, statements, language, writings, discussions, conversation, discourse, dialogue, talk, messages, transmissions. There are the prefixes: trans-, radio-, tele-. And suffixes too: ‑metry, ‑ation, ‑gravure, ‑gram, ‑graphy. And more.
Surely, based on these semantic artifacts, we can regard ourselves as a culture for which communication is as important as water to Polynesians or ice to Eskimos.
And so it is. We’re crazy about it. Look at all the junk we’ve got: radio, television, telegraph, microwave, radar, laserbeams, the written word, the spoken word, eight different copying processes, five different printing processes, and now CB too.
What do we communicate? The usual answer would be information. Of that, we have an overwhelming surplus — in libraries, on computer tape, in our heads, in the garbage.
But is information really the currency of the communications process? Not according to communications theorists. What gets communicated are messages, they say. There is, of course, a difference between a message and information. Most importantly, a message need not inform. But it’s more complex than that. To illustrate let’s look at the main theoretical communications model, which for years has been useful to behavioral scientists and textbook writers. It goes informally by either “Information” or “Transportation” Theory, but is more properly called the Shannon-Weaver model, after a mathematical formulation worked out by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in the late Forties. [Similar theories are the Schramm model or the Westley-McLean model or the Fearing or the Johnson model, all of which were forwarded in the Fifties and resemble the Shannon-Weaver model.] Briefly put, the generally accepted communications theory model — whatever you name it — includes a “source,” a “transmitter,” a “signal” or “medium,” and a “receiver.” To this we could also add “direction” and “destination.” What goes through this process is a message. The transmitter and receiver can be people or devices representing people. At the source end the message is encoded. It gets decoded at the receiving end. The coding can be language or anything else that involves the translation of meaning into something which can be transmitted and received.
Meaning, by the way, is something which tends to get lost not only in the communications process, but also in explanations of the model and its principles, as I just demonstrated.
The problem here is an old one, but misunderstood for the most part by the public. It has to do with the whole behavioral approach, which tends to exclude meaning from its analysis of human endeavors as a matter first of convenience and later of conviction.
The Information Theory of communications fits neatly into the larger behavioral model of How We Function, thus satisfying the rigors of scientific inquiry. But it seems inadequate beside concepts which affirm the reality of Mind. Writers on the subject are, of course, aware of this, and some spend whole books trying to reconcile the arid abstractions of behavioral models with the meaningful reality of minds in fluid contact with each other.
Our “systems” of communication are webs of near-inscrutable complexity. So occasionally they evoke a theoretical analysis of corresponding inscrutability, as with the writings of Marshall McLuhan, which for me, anyway, are insights clouded by nonsense which only a cultist could forgive. The insights are important, however, and that’s why McLuhan deserves serious study.
McLuhan, by the way, does not reject the basic communications model. He merely stresses the role of the medium in the process. He also expands the definition of “medium” to include anything from which information is derived. Then he expands the concept of information as well — to the point where a light bulb becomes a “pure” medium because it issues pure information and hence has no message. This means, he says, that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” For example, telegraph contains print, while writing contains speech. At its extreme, at the center of the media-within-media spiral, one always finds speech, McLuhan contends. “It is necessary to say [that speech] is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.” He then skitters off to what, when you boil it down, amounts to a central thesis of sorts that I hope I translate correctly: that the “message” of a medium is its effect on human affairs.
So, like the behaviorists and the behavior-theory-based thinkers before him, McLuhan has also eliminated Mind from the picture. The difference is radical though; because while the old-school theorists concentrated on the details of communications, McLuhan’s focus is almost hideously broad. He covers the landscape of human endeavors with the studied aimlessness of a saturation mortar attack.
Yet beneath the bullshit, of which there is much, McLuhan is right about at least one thing: the medium — be it light bulb or radio or airplane — “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” quite apart from its actual mundane functions. The light bulb profoundly changed the way we do things, our habits, our games, our work shifts. The radio changed our tastes in music, broadened our communities, our affinities. The airplane changed our rate of transportation, the configurations of our cities, the pace of our collective life. And so on.
But where does the person fit in all this? Well, it beats me. I suppose the person is confused, to say the least. Each of us are buffetted by larger forces, by limits of choice and trends beyond our control. Here I watch the evening news, feeling like I am being informed, like my understanding is being fed the information it needs to remain valid. Instead I find that I am participating in some kind of mindless global - tribal - formation - cultural - implosion without meaning but for the social change it creates. Well, that may be so, but I hope Barbara Walters makes it on ABC and the weather is going to turn out like the guy on Channel 11 says it will this weekend.
And with the glib stroke of cynicism, my Mind has once again victoriously transcended a ponderous theory. It has also successfully resurrected a concept that McLuhan insists we forget: Content.
My favorite media content of the past month is the first Great Debate, when half the adult American population witnessed the President and his rival stand motionless for 28 minutes, in mute fear of making any move which could be interpreted by the media. Ford and Carter were smart, of course, because they knew that the professional pundits, announcers, reporters and commentators of four television networks were filling time and the heads of the viewers with interpretations of whatever minutiae they could find. This told us something that should have been abundantly obvious all along. The media really run the country. The collective exercise of First Amendment freedoms by the television networks is more powerful than the President himself.
I suppose this further illustrates McLuhan’s point about how a medium influences human endeavors. The powers of television are indeed profound. (Incidentally, McLuhan appeared on the “Today” show the morning after the Debate and denounced the whole thing as “the worst use of the medium I have ever seen.” Asked what he would have preferred, McLuhan’s reply was hopelessly obscure, at least for TV. Now if it was in print . . .)
So we are not only a culture characterized by communications, but by profoundly influential communications at that. The whole communications web of Western Man has become powerful, pervasive, overwhelmingly diverse and probably insane too.
Remember mind? — the encoder, the source, the receiver, the destination, the deriver of meaning . . . I think that the mind is more than an element that McLuhan forgot or that the Old Schoolers find hard to fit in their theories. In fact I think that in concentrating on details, from encoders to light bulbs, too much has been ignored. We have only recently begun to see all the strange things that our minds have been up to. Most disconcerting to communication theorists should be the new evidence that communication between minds can take place without the assistance of radio, print, sign language or even speech. Hard scientific evidence for ESP has already been around for several decades. Psychokinesis (PK), Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE), Clairvoyance and other strange beyond-physical activities of the mind have been abundantly documented in rigorous scientific experimentation. Even life after death seems closer to being “proven” scientifically, having been raised for discussion in two recent books by authors with sound academic and scientific credentials.
What can we do to design a new formula which will make room for such findings; I don’t know exactly. So I will do like the politicians: I will “call” for something, I will call on Americans to create a new communications theory: one which puts Mind back in its proper encompassing station. And while you do that, America, I think I’ll just tune in a late-night radio talk show and listen while I brush my teeth and get ready for bed.