Two views of communication: signal processing (the engineering view), and the constructivist (postmodernist) view.


Signal Processing View

This is the traditional view of communication. It originates from engineering.

Communication accuracy refers to the extent to which meaning1 is the same as meaning2

Ultimately, communication accuracy is impossible: The meaning of something is a function of its location in a mental web of signification. My web is not the same as your web, so it is unlikely that the meanings are the exactly the same.

Of course, whether the meaning at one end is the same as the meaning at the other is a function of a number of things. First of all, there can be error in the transmission. When sending morse code or digital video, there are atmospheric conditions that can screw things up, changing a dot to a dash, an on-bit to an off-bit.

For example: "Je voudrais la poison [le poisson], sil vous plait.". One asks for poison, the other for fish.

Moreover, the encoder and decoder have to be matched. They might both be working perfectly, but if the decoder is the wrong one, you get gibberish. Like using a Japanese-English dictionary to read a Swedish message.

Similarly, I can say something to you, and if you and I share lexicons, you can understand what I said. If I say, "That is sweet". You probably understand me to say "That is really great --I like that". But not everybody is familiar with that usage of "sweet". Every age, every culture, every region, every company, every family and every person develops dialectical differences so that words don't mean the same thing, or they have additional meanings, or they are simply new words that don't exist in the other's language like the english "lorry" for truck and the australian "fair-and-dinkum" for ok.

The first time I heard the british use of the word "brilliant", I misunderstood. I went to a comedy shop with an English guy. When it was over, he said "that last guy was brilliant", which was memorable because I thought he was really funny but I didn't see it as particularly intellectual or clever humor. But later on, after hearing my friend describe a certain automobile and a greek island as brilliant, I finally figured out that it just means "swell".

It's well known that at Microsoft, "random" means "weak; questionable; no good".

But it's more subtle than all that. It's not just the lexicon. The decoding of human speech and action is much more complicated and depends crucially on shared experience and culture.

Suppose I say: "There was a disaster at sea, throwing everyone aboard a cruise ship into the ocean. Those that weren't killed outright were eaten by sharks, except one guy, who was lawyer. Why didn't the sharks eat him? Professional courtesy." Why is this funny? You have to know stuff to think this is funny. It is unlikely that a Maori tribesman would find it funny.


Constructivist viewpoint

A more modern -- actually, post-modern -- view of communication is this: communication consists of two connected processes: creating displays and interpreting displays.

To create a display is to put something in full view, to make it available. One kind of display is of course saying something -- i.e., talking. But pretty much everything is a display. Certainly every action you take. My choice of clothing, my haircut, my choice to wear glasses rather than contacts, all of it is saying volumes. My entire being is speaking to you right now.

To interpret a display is draw meaning from it. The meaning is not necessarily one that was intended by the creator of the display. In fact, there is no way to know what that intention was since we do not have access to other people's heads. So all meaning is created by us, not transferred as in the signal processing model.