You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world.  You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The problem with communication

I used to think that communicating with the written word would be easy.  After all, we share a common language and a common culture (please excuse my blatant ethnocentrism).  Likewise, writing allows revisions and adjustments that should encourage greater clarity.  However, extended "conversations" with others on MySpace have changed my mind (particularly debates I've had with Zephram Stark and Over Unity).  At first, I thought this difficulty with language was because we are all idiots.  I still have difficulties getting past this perspective.  However, I also recognize that I suffer from the human tendency to oversimplify things, which of course is aggravated by living in a universe of mind-boggling complexity.  Realigning myself to that complexity, I now believe that it's incredibly hard to communicate, perhaps because it appears so easy and we take for granted a common foundation that is partly illusion.  So I certainly understand Zephram's desire to clarify things by creating a new lexicon, but I don't believe it's going to be useful to do so.  Let me explain.

Because of the way we learn language, there are often subtle differences in the meanings that each of us assigns to words.  People learn language from actual usage, not from defined lexicon.  We analyze context and use pattern matching to acquire meaning.  As a result, the meanings we assemble vary from person to person.  We learn very few words from a dictionary, and even a dictionary is just an incomplete record of the confusion that language carries.  After all, a dictionary uses words to define other words, the very definition of circular reference.  It doesn't help that words often have multiple meanings that are hard to tie down.  For example, an intelligence agency hires people of higher intelligence to gather intelligence.  And now Zephram has suggested another meaning for "intelligence," supposedly to make things clearer.  And he wants to give it a meaning that is already assigned to some extent to another word or words, as Over Unity correctly points out.  No thanks - I must politely refuse the new lexicon.  But I understand that Zephram sees the same problem that I see, a problem that has caused all of us great consternation, not only on MySpace but in many other areas of life.  The problem is that we too often find ourselves using the same words but speaking different languages without even being aware of it.  Unfortunately, we are analog creatures that lack the precision of digital machines.  We use "fuzzy language" in much the same manner that we use "fuzzy logic", and both get us into a lot of trouble, but they allow us to explore ideas that digital thinking could never take us to.  Of course, the flip-side is that we waste a lot of time exploring ideas that digital thinking would quickly eliminate.  So as analog creatures, our journey towards knowledge is richer and much more entertaining, but painfully slow.

My father tells me that when I was a very young boy, I brought him my tricycle and asked him to fix the seat.  "Do you want to lower it?" he asked.  "No, I want to higher it," I replied confidently.  That should have been my first clue that language was going to chew me up and spit me out, but I simply couldn't fathom how rocky a road I was to travel.  As you can see, I'm still trying to figure it out.

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