Monday, September 19, 2011

Communication: Attempting to Define the Undefinable

The definitions of communication are as muddled as their roots. With Plato, Aristotle, Harold Laswell, John Dewey and other philosophers/thinkers piling on top of each other's notions we receive a convoluted picture of what communication should be. Thankfully, media theorist James Carey's article "A Cultural Approach to Communication" can break it down into two distinct spheres, at least in the Western tradition of thought. These are the transmission and ritual views, and they embody what I see as the great debate of communication: is it a scientific or human study?

To borrow from Carey's definition, the transmission view of communication views the topic as more of a concrete process. It is the act of sending out messages and symbols over a certain distance for purpose of control over space. In that light, we look at an example like China, that has enlisted its "Great Firewall" to block certain bits of information from its people. This exhibits control over the communications getting to Chinese citizens, and uses communication as a tool of power.

Transmission relates to another theory that gained popularity when communication research was brought to the forefront, information theory. Developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, information theory invovled breaking down the process of communication to its technical and even mathematical roots. Instead of earlier thinkers like Laswell, who thought communication was simply a one-way process of sending a message from a sender to a receiver, Shannon and Weaver considered the possibility that a message could be altered or interrupted in its journey from sender to receiver, thereby coming up with the term 'noise'. Also, they reasoned that messages, once being received, will have a certain level of feedback to the sender, because a receiver does not simply receive a message, but will respond in some way, shape or form.

These views are systematic and technical in that they were developed to be thought of in the same way as a ballistic missile aiming for a target or nodes in a computer network communicating with one another. There is a starting point A, a destination point B and the route at which something travels, along with potential obstacles in the way.

Far from the realm of such concrete thoughts is the other classification brought up by Carey, the ritual view of communication. This takes the technical and systematic properties of the topic out of the equation and brings it into a more liberal definition. In the ritual view, communication is seen as a cultural string that ties people together.

Consider the act of watching television in the evening with your family or reading the morning newspaper. Do we participate in consuming this media simply because want to or do we participate in it because everyone else in our American culture does it? Because we feel we belong to a particular culture, we tend to participate in that culture's media or else be excluded from society and the messages/information they provide. This helps us to function as a culture and ultimately identify with one another within common standards and processes of communication. As a result, organization and control is brought about as a collective understanding and bonding of the people, rather than a control of one authority over space.

Whether one's view of communication falls more under the transmission or ritual viewpoint, it is important to note that both are constantly being fulfilled in the various communications on a global scale and are inextricably tied together. It is also of importance to remember these are just two theories in the Western thought of communication, and there are many other classifications in other regions of the world where all or none of what has been discussed is relevant. With this in mind, perhaps communication can't be boiled down to a simple definition, it is a different dish no matter where you go.

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