Communication is hard.
Like… really hard, y’know?
In many ways I would consider communication to be one of the core challenges of humanity, up there with getting food, having kids, and seeking out perilous adventures.
‘Cause why even do the other stuff if you can’t tell anyone about it, right?
The problem is that there’s this intellectual universe inside any given person’s head that is way bigger (and more information-dense) than anything we can really express.
In Getting More, A very good book; a fun trivia fact is that its marketing hype of “being used for training at Google” is actually a real thing.Paperback edition published 2012-08-14 by Crown Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0307716903 Stuart Diamond hits repeatedly on how important it is in negotiations to fully understand the other side’s perspective. It’s a point he actually circles back to several times, using this specific phrase that I thought was kind of funny at first; he talks about that side’s perspective as “the pictures inside their heads”.
Like I said, I thought that was a funny phrasing, but it was funny in a way that made sense to me, because it emphasized that people often struggle to really express what it is they’re seeing, thinking, and feeling—at least in a way that you find easy to understand. Diamond’s choice of words emphasizes that it’s not just about understanding how they would describe things, you have to actually understand their vision.
In real life, when you’re having an ongoing conversation with another living person, I think we tend to do that through back-and-forth discussion where we essentially iterate on our concept of the other person’s vision, filling in details with clarifying questions and trying to verify it by expressing our concept back to them.
In any kind of text (in the sense of an artifact), though, we are instead left to try to import this external thing into our mental construction of our private little universe. I think that process is what people mean when they talk about any kind of “literacy”, and I think that’s where things get really interesting.
Everything you talkin 'bout matter, don't matter Wait, Jeezy, What You Say?
So, one of my favorite poets ever is actually this guy John Allen, who studied under Mary Kinzie at Northwestern—the same Mary Kinzie who wrote A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Also a good book, originally published in 1999; I personally bought the very affordable paperback from 2013.Paperback edition published 2013-07-08 by the University of Chicago press, ISBN 978-0226923062 a book which first came to my attention when John Allen recommended it at one point.
The recommendation was a good one, A good recommendation, although Allen definitely wasn’t lying about the “rigorous and mechanistic” thing! but his summation of Kinzie’s “biggest lesson” was also something that always stuck with me:
write a poem as if you’re reading it;
read a poem as if you’re writing it
Poetry is largely about playing with how much we can compress our ideas and emotions as we transcribe them into these tightly bound parcels of text. The challenge and beauty of it is in the work of crunching all that down as much as possible, but still having an end-result that can be unpacked by the reader so they can relate to those original experiences as much as possible.
To my eye, and as someone who’s worked with both, the technical component of poetry as an art-form is actually very similar in its modes of thinking to the way we reason about lossless compression algorithms. Just like in digital data compression, too, there isn’t a great universal solution, and it’s not obvious whether or not that one can even exist.
If we’re going to use the compression metaphor, then poetic constructs like meter would be the codecs. If you don’t know those constructs—if you don’t have those codecs—then you can’t get the same amount of information out of a poem that uses them as someone who does.
Those constructs can get very elaborate and intimidating, something that’s not necessarily helped by the academic culture around poetry. But, like Allen said (while paraphrasing Kinzie), if you explore those texts like you were writing them, you can pick at the things that you couldn’t see yourself doing, and that will help you learn about those shared conventions. You essentially upgrade your abilities as a decompression engine, reading more out of the same material like you’re becoming more literate in a new language.
(Whether or not spending that time and energy is ultimately worthwhile is up to you, of course…) My HOT TAKE here is that (written, English language) poetry might be more popular in the U.S. if there was more effort from poets and publishers to be respectful of the reader’s time and energy—but that’s a whole separate discussion.
But, really, all of our communication has this compression-like quality to it. The constructs of “what we say” and “how we say it” are fundamentally intertwined—even if we “say” things through purely visual languages. That’s both powerful and tricky to actually work with, because it introduces a level of uncertainty about how your audience will unpack your expression in their minds.
A lot of the time, we’re disappointed to find that we couldn’t really get anything across; sometimes we’re shocked to find out that we fucked up the compression process and a benign sentiment produced something that unpacks into a disturbing one. Even worse, people have good reasons to lie about these effects, claiming after-the-fact that they either did or did not intend XYZ, and it ends up being essentially impossible to know. If it was easy to truly understand what was inside other people’s heads, then we wouldn’t have the compression challenge—essentially, the very idea of communication—to begin with.
The infinite space between us
Jeff Atwood had this blog post back in 2014, talking about the processing speed of computers vs. their ability to access additional input to those processors. I’ll note that Jeff Atwood tends to make me a tad queasy in large doses, but there are many worse things.
It sort of made (and makes) me cringe because it does a great job of seizing onto a surface-level message in Her, The 2013 film directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson. expanding on that wonderfully, and then never stepping back for a second to think about how that message got their from the currently-living, plain-ol’-flesh-and-blood-human creators of the film.
Atwood does a great job of pointing out that, yes, CPUs are fast, and I agree with him that that’s kinda cool. But he never really challenges himself (at least in that piece) to ask how relatable that is as a human. Which I find really weird because he’s notable within tech as a relatively prolific blogger.
Not to go all Jack Gilbert here, Reference is to “Games”, a poem from Gilbert in his 1982 collection Monolithos. The actual poem is both very short and very popular; if you just want to read it (as opposed to the whole book), Google for it and you’ll definitely find it.Monolithos published by 1982-04-01 by Knopf, ISBN 978-0394523866 but I sort of read Atwood’s post and wondered to myself:
Oh yeah, imagine what it would be like if you had an endless series of thoughts in your head, and you were only ever able to authentically express a tiny fraction of those. Who could even handle that? To work with people for years and only ever know a tiny fraction of their full lives, to even wonder if anyone could ever truly know you…
…I’M GLAD THAT’S NOT AT ALL WHAT LIFE IS LIKE.
It seems obvious to me, though, that the writers of Her have almost definitely felt that disconnect. Even when you’re writing science fiction, you don’t just include technical information if it doesn’t mirror truths about humanity. SciFi is truly about the intersection of our constructions and our lived selves; we explore the constructions not to learn more about them, or to spread that information, but to reflect on what they say about us.
I think that model of thinking is really useful in particular for cases like this one, because we really don’t know nothin’ about how the mind works. Saying we know what part of the brain does what is like saying we know what gene is responsible for what trait.
A cool thing about computers and programming, though, is that the paradigms that take hold and spread are the ones that we can relate to; they’re ways of describing instructions and decision processes that are more intuitive to us.
Here’s the thing: there are specific physical properties of electric signals that make it easier to develop insanely fast processors than equally fast networking, but the imbalances Atwood quantifies aren’t at all incidental. We kept pushing for faster and faster CPUs that were orders and orders of magnitude more powerful in processing than they could truly output because that intensely hierarchical architecture made sense to us. We could reason about it, and not just in the physical way that Atwood describes, but in a hyper-intuitive way.
We made computers that could “think” far more than they could possibly “talk”, and I think we found we could do useful things with those computers because that’s how we all are as humans—the similarities lowered the friction of writing new software. Those kinds of forces don’t just apply to your business org chart.
I think some introspection can show us that there are very real ways in which we all have this challenge of the endlessly running CPU that is struggling to get input from (and send messages out to) the outside world. And in the same way we compress data before sending it from a server to your phone, we tend to pack a lot of information into any form of expression that we try to use to communicate.
Getting “compression” right
The hardest part of human “compression” is that there are essentially no real standard specifications—at least, none that really seem to work for even a majority of people for a majority of the time.
Even just within, say, the United States, we have both a plethora of verbal languages and an endless array of cultural attitudes about the proper use of them (or even the languages themselves!), ultimately meaning you can only ever really get your message to land with a pretty targeted subset of the country’s population. Visual forms of expression can help address different groups, but it doesn’t seem like your maximum potential audience size really differs that much.
I think there’s an unfortunate trend for people to think this reality is a new development in the Age Of The Internet or whatever, but it’s really just that we’re more aware of all the people we’re leaving out of a conversation at any given point in time.
One approach I’m pushing myself to explore, though, is actually trying to leave less information out if I can get away with it.
Our audiences do have finite attention spans and it’s important to respect that and try to stay interesting, but the beautiful thing about hyperlinks and footnotes is that it leaves them the option to pursue any given thought in more depth.
The phenomenon of the Wikipedia K-hole (where you click link after link and end up on a page you never anticipated) is actually really empowering to me, because it gives you a very real sense of how information is connected, and where ideas come from. I think that kind of thing is really fundamental in how we learn and expand our little mental universes.
The constant challenge with creating these kinds of texts (again, in the artifact sense), is that they truly exist totally separate from you. They can reach people in places and times completely removed from you and any audience you intended to have. And often times those are the exact people that are most interested in what you were trying to say, and who are willing to put in more effort to unearth all the context you had that they’ve never encountered.
I don’t think we have enough tools available to us to help with preserving this context and depth for other people. Just doing things like tracking down sources to make references in this post is a disproportionately time consuming endeavor; I end up paying the cost in having an even smaller addressable audience because I don’t have time for certain changes in presentation to make the content more broadly appealing. But this need is also something that (to my knowledge) is really even being seriously worked on by people in tech. Hopefully if the demand is more observable then that might change. Even if it doesn’t, though, I think our audiences will still benefit.