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mathematizing human communication?

November 2, 2009

As I was reading this paper by Warren Weaver on the mathematics of communication science, I can’t help thinking how similar certain human attributes are to the attributes of encoded information and its ability to convey clear messages.

1. Quality of messages to be determined at the technical, semantic and effective level. Transmission of finite set of discrete symbols, transmission of one continuous function of time, transmission of many continuous functions of time or of one continuous function of time and two space coordinates. It is interesting that the example provided was on two people with one trying to get the other to understand what is going on but one is never able to achieve 100 percent understanding in communication, even after much energy is expanded on explaining in the hope that the other party will get the message.

2. Effectiveness issue: can that communication effect conduct? But then how can one judge if an outcome that does not stem from a desired conduct has to do with some communication block from the communicator to the recipient or an actual mental block on the side of the recipient that prohibits him/her from acting in a way desired by the communicator. What if it is only that this person refuses to acknowledge and therefore to act in the way desired because to do so will require too much work (he/she may be lazy) and pain in his/her (having to move out of a comfort zone) in his/her part. This is where economics/mathematics (think static versus dynamic game theory) and psychology comes in.

3.Let’s think about transmitter and the noise source. Instead of using electronic devices as examples, I will use human figures instead. Imagine trying to communicate a very subtly coded message to someone whose mind is of high-noise level (either he/she is highly distracted or has a mind too clogged up with other things such as fear, paranoia, trauma etc), much of it will escape that person. Think also if that person is obssessing over one thing. A particular tilt or turn in the ‘tone’ of the message (whether delivered verbally or in writing) will be accentuated, particularly if the recipient of the message sees it as relating to a particular episode in his/her life that is making him/her particularly nervous at that point. The recipient is supposed to be the ‘inversed transmitter’ according to Weaver. If that’s the case, how do we then talk about capacity and amount of information that the person is able to abide by. If this person’s task, let’s say in a guerilla warfare, is to transmit that encoded message back to another recipient, how is he/she able to do so in the most optimal, with minimal introduction of errors, particularly if he/she has to do so by memory due to fear of discovery by the enemy.

4.Information and meaning. Both cannot be conflated. Some people are good in processing information, so good that they can regurgitate that information. They get top marks in school for instance (or in the multiple choice exams such as the SATs and GREs) because they’re good as inversed transmitters of information. But in trying to discern the larger meaning of what they’re doing, many of these top scorers in information transmission fall flat on their faces. I didn’t say it first. Nietzsche did in his attempt to try to connect human intentions, epistemology and the ontology of knowledge production. The sensuousness and onticity of knowledge.

5. Can real meaning be coded in binaries, in yes and no, off and on? Old-time proponents of strong AIs believed so. They even believed sentience can be coded.

6. I do like the way in which Weaver tries to code all these mathematically, though of course, one must be wary of mathesis as there is no neat and clean parallel between mathematically enhanced communication technologies with a highly mathematical human whose mathematical model we have not completely understood.

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