Saturday, October 08, 2005

Improving communication

Social influence (and power) depends upon the ability to recruit the aid of others for your projects. In turn, the ability to recruit others begins with the ability to communicate with them. In the USA, a person's ability to get a message to others is heavily dependent on how much money that person is willing to spend on getting that message out: meaning that we have to "pay to play" in the broader society. This condition has corrupted our politics, our economics, and our culture--making everything dependent on money.

Fortunately, us regular folk have recently made great advances in our ability to communicate with others, but we still need more tools and we need to make better use of the tools that already exist. In future posts to this blog, I will provide an overview of the tools that we can use to increase our ability to communicate, but first I want to provide a very brief analysis of social communication systems, and my (non-expert) view of how these systems have changed throughout history.

Producers, distributors, and consumers

There are three roles in a social communication system: producers, distributors, and consumers. Producers assemble various bits of information into a coherent and self-contained structure (speech, article, movie, advertisement, etc.), while consumers receive and interpret this information. Distributors connect producers with consumers.

According to my layman's understanding of history, the relative importance of these three roles has changed drastically over time, and we are currently experiencing another drastic change.

In the most primitive societies, the only communication technologies are speech and gestures. For all practical purposes, this creates a symmetrical system: if a person can interpret the message, then that person can also create the message. The only difference is that some individuals are be better speakers than others. Almost all communication are directly between the producer and consumer. The only distributors ("middlemen") are minstrels, chiefs, or sages, who either repeat works produced by others or tell one person to go speak with another person.

The development of writing changes things a little, but not much. Writing is still a symmetrical communication technology; if a person can read, that person can probably write. However, if only a small fraction of a society is literate, then those members can take the role of distributing communication. The literate class is able to record the speech of others, store it or transport it, and then transform the writing back into speech. This increases the influence of literate individuals. For example, consider clerics in medieval society.

Printing really changes things--no longer does the ability to interpret a message go along with the ability to create a message. Print publications (newspapers) become central institutions in society, and the expense of publication means that the producers need to collect considerable revenues from their activities. The shift from reader-supported publications to advertiser-supported publications means that the producers of media content become a rather small elite, while the rest of the people becoming passive consumers of information.

This concentration of power is amplified by radio and television. Not only does the production process increasingly expensive, but the nature of the broadcast technology limits the number of potential competitors. In the USA, the Federal government even took the unprecedented step of regulating what could be said "in the interest of the community," since the radio spectrum is a valuable public resource. By 1990, this was the boring, exclusive, and controlled communication system that dominated our society and inspired the angst-driven movie Pump Up the Volume (brief review of this movie at the end of this post).

Finally, we (the general public) discovered the Internet. Computer networking returned us to a more balanced state, wherein a person who has the ability to receive a message also has the ability to produce a similar message. The main limitation at the moment is the difficulty in setting up a web-server, but if you have enough money to go to the movies once a month, you have enough money to hire someone to provide a web server for you. Now that the technical limitations of many-to-many communication have essentially disappeared, we only need to set up the appropriate social structures. I'll address that in future posts.

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Extra content:

You may be interested in the Wikipedia article on Communication; it's poorly written (at the moment), but contains a lot of information. It seems that Marshal McLuhan (this Wikipedia article is well-written) made a lot of contributions to the study of communications, so perhaps he'd be a good read also.

If you're looking for a movie, I recently saw the Christian Slater move Pump Up the Volume, about a high-school student in the early 90's who broadcasts a pirate radio program. It's a well-done movie, but an adult can only find so much value in a movie centered around teen-angst. Still, it's an interesting view of how our access to information (or lack thereof) affects our behavior.

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