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23 December 2006

Today's philosophic question is: What is communication?

Before you read my thoughts about the question, I suggest that you think about your own answer. I even suggest that you record your own ideas in a draft email, because that is what you think. If you write afterwards, then you will be writing partly in reaction to what I wrote, but I am more interested in what you think, not what you think about what I think. (I hope I already know my own mind.)

Shall I include a warning, too? Sometimes I upset people with my writing, even on philosophy. I think that's mostly because I write very firmly and clearly, even about difficult topics. It's actually my job as a professional editor to help other people write very clearly, and I believe I'm pretty good at it. However, the style sometimes creates the impression that I think I have absolute answers where I'm only describing speculations or ideas--but describing them very clearly.

Communication is really difficult. We can't directly access any other person's mind. Our access is only to words that give us hints about what sort of mental models the other person is thinking about, and then we have to build similar mental models before we can understand what they really mean. This is basically a tricky process, because the person who is trying to send the mental model also has to speculate about what sort of models already exist in the mind of the recipient. In other words, a very effective communicator is someone who is skilled at anticipating the mental models that are already there, and saying things that will quickly lead to the mental models that are being transmitted. A poor communicator might say either too much, too little, or completely unrelated things.

When it comes to people from different countries, the situation is even more complicated and interesting. My mental models are primarily constructed for English, and I only have rough mental models of how Japanese-based mental models work. English is not Japanese with different words, but each language is a completely self-contained system defined within itself. There might be some small pieces that have very similar models in two languages, but even then the associations and linkages and frequencies will all differ, and communication remains difficult.

Trivial example, but have you seen the screen saver of flying toasters? It used to be very popular, though I don't see it so often these days. However, the mental model of a flying toaster is pretty restricted, and I could describe it pretty quickly--but I still bet your imagination of the flying toasters would be different from my ideas. In contrast, a complicated idea like "friendship" is part of a very large and complicated model, and it's difficult to know what parts of it are similar between languages.

but we want to understand what other people are thinking. I think of real communication as the sharing of mental models. We use words to describe pieces of our own mental models. If two people succeed in communicating, then the second person will create a mental model that is similar to what the first person was thinking about. It seems trivial because we do it very often, but when you think about it more deeply it isn't such a trivial thing. To really communicate effectively, it's not enough to understand what you think. You also need to have some mental model about the other person's mental models... That's why I recommend you make some notes about your own thoughts about the question. Your own mental models have to be the starting point of any real communication.

If you wrote your own ideas before reading mine, then I'm very curious what they are. Also, I'm curious about your reaction to my thoughts. Perhaps I'm just a curious person? (Another example: In English, the word "curious" has two very different meanings that could apply in this context. One meaning is someone who is curious about things, and the other meaning is a kind of oddness, as in someone who makes other people curious.)