MA Communication Design
Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design
London, November 2012
"The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point."
— Shannon (1948)
This research paper interrogates the question of "How does the structure of information affect the efficiency of communication?" in three steps:
Firstly it overviews the current landscape of digital communication channels by comparing their technological spectrum of narrative expression with traditional ones based on the Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver Model of communication (SMCR Model) (Berlo, 1960).
Secondly, it defines the structure of communication through levels of freedom within the Continuum of linearity (Munter, 1997).
Thirdly, it debunks conceptual frameworks of traditional linguistics and semiotics by pointing out handicaps for addressing the intended research question in favour of cognitive linguistics. (Fauconnier, 1999)
And finally concludes with referencing existing research and proposing the methodology for conducting further research on the subject.
"As humans experiencing language, we are fooled by an interesting variant of the Eliza effect. The famous computer program Eliza produced what looked like a sensible interaction between a psychiatrist and a subject operating the program, but the rich meaning that seemed to emanate from the machine was in fact read in (constructed) by the subject. And strikingly, just like a perceptual illusion, this effect cannot easily be suspended by rational denial. In the case of Eliza, the illusion may be hard to block, but it is easy to see. The more general illusion that meaning is in the language forms is both hard to repress and hard to acknowledge. And for that reason, it has made its way into many scientific accounts of language. In such accounts, the notion that forms have meaning is unproblematic, and the “only” problem becomes to give a formal characterisation of such meanings associated with forms." (Fauconnier, 1999)
The technological abilities of new communication channels — computer programs capable of interacting with one another on the backbone protocols of the internet infrastructure — have introduced means of altering the linear information flow of a narrative and defined new and unique forms of messages. While much of existing research focuses on studying how the meaning is derived from non-linear information structures from a technological point of view, very little remains known about the effects of information structures on the efficiency of communication between a sender and a receiver.
One of the most significant technological abilities of digital communication channels — in addition to lossless reproduction, speed of transmission, etc. — is the hyperlink. However the interaction of information between different messages is not native to cyberspace. Butler (2002) uses a quote from a significant postmodern theorist Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose: "books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told" in order to describe "a kind of textual idealism, because all texts are seen as perpetually referring to other ones, rather than to any external reality. No text ever finally establishes anything about the world outside itself. It never comes to rest, but merely, to use Derrida’s term, ‘disseminates’ variations on previously established concepts or ideas."
While the possibility to link information from one message (and medium) to another is not new, the hyperlink extends this idea to new levels, by enabling the sender to directly point to the precise location of the information within a global index of all messages (URL) and enables receiver to instantly retrieve it (HTTP). This ability influenced the shape of new digital forms and became the bedrock for the field of information architecture which studies the organisation, labelling, search and navigation systems in order to support accessibility and usability of information transmitted with digital messages.
"Just as the computer promises to reshape knowledge in ways that sometimes complement and sometimes supersede the work of the book and the lecture hall, so too does it promise to reshape the spectrum of narrative expression, not by replacing the novel or the movie but by continuing their timeless bardic work within another framework" (Murray, 1997). Despite the ability to encapsulate and transmit messages in traditional formats — designed to suit publishing conventions of traditional media (print, radio, cinema, television, etc.) — the hardware and software technology of the new medium defined and shaped new forms of messages, their production process, conventions and communication etiquette which are native to new channels. They have not only transformed the way information is transmitted through digital publications but also in real time communication best observed in form of IRC, skype, facebook and other instant messaging services allowing simultaneous conversations with multiple receivers at nearly the same time.
However, putting the receiver in control of how the information is transmitted — and thus changing the flow from a linear to a non-linear — is not a communication paradigm native to interactive digital messages. "Even books have the potential to be non-linear. The reader can jump from any page to any other (consider an Encyclopedia) and fashion her own meaning." (Munter, 1997)
By comparing conversation and hypertext to movement of a train, a car and a submarine, Munter (1997) describes the phenomena of non-linear communication as "a measure of degrees of freedom. The more degrees of freedom, the more non-linear an interaction. Non-linearity, then, spans a continuum ranging from the strictly linear to the totally non-linear."
"Because of the nature of human consciousness, any object can be treated in a non-linear fashion or in a linear fashion. The user could read a Web page from top to bottom without activating any of the links. Hypertext would then become linear." (Munter, 1997)
With different possibilities of structuring the flow of information arises a question of what effect does the structure have on the communication. The mainstream linguistics and semiotics, inspired by work of authors such as Chomsky and Barthes study how the meaning (semantics) is derived from the structure of language (syntax) through framework of grammar or pragmatics, but they fails to address questions regarding its effect on the transfer of information between the sender and the receiver that occurs on a metaphysical level. "In contrast to this sharply autonomous view of language structure, cognitive linguistics has resurrected an older tradition. In that tradition, language is in the service of constructing and communicating meaning, and it is for the linguist and cognitive scientist a window into the mind. Seeing through that window, however, is not obvious. Deep features of our thinking, cognitive processes, and social communication need to be brought in, correlated, and associated with their linguistic manifestations." (Fauconnier, 1999)
Fauconnier (1999) argues that "methods must extend to contextual aspects of language use and to non-linguistic cognition. This means studying full discourse, language in context, inferences actually drawn by participants in an exchange, applicable frames, implicit assumptions and construal, to name just a few. It means being on the look-out for manifestations of conceptual thought in everyday life, movies, literature, and science. This is because introspection and intuition are woefully insufficient to tell us about general operations of meaning construction. When we volunteer a meaning for an isolated sentence, we do it typically on the basis of defaults and prototypes. It is only in rich contexts that we see the full force of creative on-line meaning construction."
In his report on non-linearity, Munter (1997) arrives to the question of "What cognitive resources are required when navigating non-linear works?" pointing to a research of Michael Wenger's and David Payne's team concluding that "investigation of the above question has been minimal; more interest has been directed at the technology rather than the human side of hypertext." (Munter, 1997 cited in Wenger 1996)
In order to attempt to answer a portion of the research question, a further study of the relationships between the structure and its affects on the communication through the framework of cognitive linguistics is proposed with the following methodology: