Monday, September 21, 2009

Finding the right words...

It has been some time since my last post. That doesn't mean I have already run out of thinks to talk about.

A simple synonym for communication can be the sharing of information. This can be a one way street as for example in me writing this post or more interactive if actually some one comments on it or reacts in other ways. One way or the other, most facets of life, technology, economy, politics, etc depend on this sharing of information and especially how the receiving party is reacting on this information. And depending on how precisely defined or context heavy this information is, a lot of things can go wrong as well. This is old news to all of us and especially human interaction is full of pitfalls due to the multi-dimensional nature of it.
I do not know of any human language that is not completely context free but we have usually grown pretty sensitive to it and usually try to avoid the worst mistakes. As soon as you take the emotional component of human interaction into consideration and move away from the pure semantics of the verbal communication you step into a new minefield. Sarcasm, irony, feelings are already harder to be modulated and transferred onto a string of words not to mention when words and phrases are used to provoke certain reactions intentionally or intended to divert or misguide you (lies take this to the extreme). Step further to cultural, gender related, social or age related differences that influence how we interpret, how we try to make sense out of the spoken or written word. This again heavily depends on our ability, knowledge and sensitivity to try and understand this other person's intentions.
Being able to see the mimic or gestures of the other person can be helpful. But even they can be subject of misinterpretations. The tone of the other person's voice can be a hint, if available. But all of the above shows that every level of human interaction is quite sensitive to its context and our point of view. I assume we've all gotten into arguments before where both sides meant to say the same or we had the feeling that we haven't said anything wrong but somehow ended up stepping on somebody's toe. We try to adapt to this field of problem by using a rather clear language, free of emotions, when addressing people we don't know well. Take a press release of a bigger company. You don't want to scare your shareholders so you are as clear as possible. Or we pass responsibility to others who are more accustomed to make sense out of spoken or written word. Legions of lawyers, judges and PR consultants make a good living out of this.
Scientists, engineers and other professions share the common reputation of being rather rational and emotionless in the way they share their findings. That is partly since they have tried to overcome the problems of communicating with each other and thus leave misinterpretations to people who don't speak their language. To achieve this they redefined their ways of communication and came up with their own abstractions, algorithms and languages.
Math is seen by many as the pure form of transferring your view of things to your peer(s). Wrap it in a formula which is based on a precise set of rules and there should be no more problems. 2+2 = 4 and 2+n = 4 for n = 2, speed can be defined as distance traveled in relation to the time it takes to do so and so on.

Use a context free grammar to talk to your computer and it should do precisely as you have told it to do (sometime that differs from you wanted it to do, but that is not the problem of the language).
The recipes according to which computers are cooking are called algorithms and given the same set of input and state, one given algorithm shall produce always the same output (wouldn't that be handy for cakes and the alike?). And rather than having a computer try to understand the differences in cultural background, amount of sleep the night before, changes of mood and react accordingly this intermediate language abstractions actually work quite well.
I know there are also people working on making computers understand human language and they have really taken on a big challenge for which alone they deserve my respect.
It is hard to offend somebody by presenting her/him with a formula (except for the Catholic church when the sun was still revolving around us and some current hard core creationists). But since the majority of people prefer to use one or more human languages to order a beer or glass of milk in a bar, show affection or just talk about (any) god and the world one can be assured that we won't run out of funny misunderstandings anytime soon.

While face to face communication has its pitfalls we usually know the consequences of it or can contain problems that might have arisen from our spoken word. We can always try to get the other “on the same page” by adding background information and asking a some control questions.

After this little detour I want to get back into the modern world of communicating. How much background information can I pack into a tweet, dent, text message, …? For the recipient of such messages, how can I trust it, know for sure that I have understood things correctly? For the sender, how can I know what consequences will be triggered by sending a message? In times when everybody can be a news or event generator (who -in theory- can reach half the planet almost instantaneously) and even reputable news wire services like the German dpa fall for a hoax , can I really overlook the consequences of my post? To get a more profound answer to this we have to understand the dynamics, rules and dependencies of complex systems like economy, society, politics or technology. But this shall not be part of today's post...