Does all human technology exist to mediate communication?
Human technology includes organizations, brands, institutions, email, and architecture. In opposition to natural technology: ecosystems, sonar waves, or mushrooms, we created language to facilitate intersubjective spaces, and creativity. All technology exists to promote connections, and all connections facilitate communication.
Our technological work has immensely enhanced the relationship between words and ideas, giving birth to asynchronous communication in writing, long-distance messages with letters and phones, and hyper-connectivity through cybernetics and the internet.
I am postulating that any connection (/transaction) is secondary to communication. These connections and their underlying communication happen within a system, and it must be the same one. In equilibrium, both allow for balance; of natural resources, creativity, well-being, and social ethics.
Interestingly the 20th century did nothing to help us in this trajectory. We can think of the 20th century as the age of mediation.
Taylorism, the pursuit of efficiency in early American factories, was one of the earliest technological mediation forms. In creating a clear separation between managers and employees, connection and conversation were both limited, something we’re unlearning to this day.
Claude Shannon’s 1948 invention of digital communication added another level of complicatedness to the ways we communicate. The creation of binary, which translates all poetry into meaningless 0’s and 1’s in transit, has us playing a constant game of ‘broken telephone,’
Technological innovation and mediation go hand in hand. New ways of connecting don’t necessarily mean new ways of communicating and are often proxy, or proprietary versions of the original. More often than not, they put a strain on meaning and make it harder to keep context. We can think about how it is like to hold context across multiple messaging platforms instead of a group discussion in a room.
This process gradually moved us from whole communication to small communication. Whole communication asks for full context; small communication foregoes all of it. The first asks the individuals to show up fully (as a person), while the latter means they would converse as personas (job titles, reading scripts others wrote for them).
Part 1: Communication
In communication, we can create thirdness; meaning that is independent of either side, and generative to both. As we develop personas (a profession, role), pseudo–connection replaces meta-connection.
Once communication became predominantly digital, the ‘cost’ of producing different personas diminished. Social media, email alias’, and chat rooms are where mediation had little to no entry barrier. Digital communication inadvertently created a lot more personas one can choose from (and hide behind). We could say that we started building a stack of personas, the same way we have different suits or outfits. It is as mundane as choosing what email to send a note from to how we speak in various online groups.
When a persona connects with another–on Discord or Twitter–It is likely to end with informational exchange as opposed to a transformational one.
Part 2: Connection
Personas match with mediums. Each new platform brings with it new pseudo connections. By inventing new vocabulary, actions, and verbs, these are likely to hinder context, and context is the precursor of meaning (value). Emojis, abbreviations, and TicToc signals are examples of proxy-identities using proxy signals.
But design new forms of connecting can bring with them new ways of communicating and create thirdness. A good example is Shaun Leonardo’s work at The Guggenheim, who brought together recreational users of firearms, victims of gun violence, police officers, and military veterans; without revealing their identities, they engaged in non-verbal communication.
“I started to wonder how I could use this principle of translation and embodiment to work with more than a single, cohesive community. What happens if I bring two or more communities together? Is there a way in which words can be removed so that more truth might emerge? I really started to challenge myself to think about the ways in which I might use this practice to have what would seem to be very divided communities brought to the same space, and really see one another. “
—Shaun Leonardo // The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation
When intentionality allows people to show up, with safety and vulnerability, new modes of connecting can lead to meaning instead of mediation. Spaces become generative and result in thirdness.
Part 3: Mediation
Value and Meaning
As places of connection, each medium operates within an ecosystem, which is fed by forces of scarcity and abundance. Those are closely related, because neither of them is an equilibrium.
Finding equilibrium is as important in the late 19th century, as it will be in the late 21st century. And we are currently, as we were in those early days, out of equilibrium.
The 19th century was abundant with meaningful communication (and natural resources) but scarce with connectivity. Our current scarcity is of communication (thirdness, and natural resources). And an abundance of connectivity.
An equilibrium–of innovation, communication, and connectivity–will balance abundance and scarcity through creativity.
Value exchange is born out of the transfer of meaning (whole communication). There is no value without meaning. There is the illusion of meaning–say through aggressive advertising–but that is meaning In and of itself.
When a person communicates with another, in their exchange, they create thirdness (value). If we use an example of a meeting in the market, let us consider a conversation between two people (persons), each fulfills their role (persona). The seller in this situation might move from the market to a dedicated space. The value is intact, although the communication might suffer slightly, through their employees. But as that happens, there might be a new channel for thirdness with the shopkeeper (as previously was the case with the shop owner).
As the operation continues to grow, the owner might hire more people, and choose to organize their staff. At a certain point, some will be assigned as managers (persona).
At that point, the value starts to suffer because of the bureaucracy, and the communication diminishes as well.
The business, or institution continues scaling, and the firm will be born. The organization can start separating from the physical place, and the person in that location will become a persona. They might have a protocol to follow and pursue uniformity across all sites.
As the firm grows, it needs to get more value to more people. More infrastructure means more overheads.
But communication does not scale. So some reduction of context must happen. That is when we switch to small communication.
A single representative can’t show up fully for each customer, and they start considering compartmentalizing their day and tasks. The organization can choose archetypes to map different protocols. Archetype (in the Jungian, or modern marketing sense) is, in fact, a persona.
That creates an apparent dissonance, because no written persona, entirely fits an individual. People are not average buckets, as beautifully illuminated by Todd Rose. By exercising reductive thinking, we create presets of individuals and trim out the rest.
That sameness hindered people’s individuality. That is where marketing and advertising can compensate for lost value. Suppose we cannot speak to each person individually (and create value/thirdness), we will fall back on aspirational stories (advertising), so the marketable persona can ‘fill the gaps’ in their domains. A Jungian hero, or sage in a commercial, will allow the self to feel individuality and supplement the diminished value.
With the internet, we can collect quantitative data on communication engagement but not in its meaning, or value). Using CRMs and ad tech to personalize communication, but a person can stack different personas, and etiquettes, names, monikers, and tones for each medium.
In pursuit of a model, we can use one as full meaning, and 0 as none.
1 = meaningful human exchange, 100% context
0 = complete mediation, all meaning lost
By accepting this view, we appreciate that context is a focal point of meaningful communication, and can never go over 1.
Technological innovation, scale, cybernetic ambitions, and even travel to space will do nothing to increase the meta (original) meaning.
An excellent example of this is the (original) overview effect.
“There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught… I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it.… I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
—Edgar Mitchell, Sixth Man on the Moon, from Overview Institute
The idea that we need to travel to space to receive an unmediated version of earth.
No technology would make a meaningful, one to one exchange, any better. It is as true in virtual reality, as it is to watching TV. Those will render pseudo-meaning, the opposite of meta–meaning. By traveling to space, the astronauts have removed any mediation of their earth experience and reportedly expanded their consciousness. Does it follow that over-mediating our knowledge of the world, and our communication within it, narrows our imagination, and possible ways of being?
Modern businesses make use of various technologies to connect and communicate. Management science will help organize groups of people to increase productivit. Digital technology will help with personalizing communication across different channels, and keep physical visitors experiential in their connection. Websites will make connections abundant and available.
The necessity of reductiveness costs in value, and impersonal communication. Advertising, and marketing will help widen the channels of connection.
As we are physically distancing, this equilibrium of connection and communication if affected. Abundance of opportunities to connect will present themselves, but will almost certainly disappoint in their communication. The more mediated our connections are, the less we can communicate and create meaning (/value).
Without intentionality, we will stay at the persona level, and will default to small (or no) communication.
Through reflection, meaningful communication, and intentionality, we will be able to reach an individual (and collective) equilibrium.
To recap, technological innovation and the connectivity it generates is in pursuit of communication.
Organization’s mandate is to create connections and communicate. COVID disrupted both of those in a genuine way. Connectivity is suffering from abundance, and wastefulness; and communication is suffering from over mediation.
As we move from artifact thinking to system thinking, we should focus our attention on our identity (person heuristic), persona, places of connectivity, and conversation. In a modern connected world, the value we put out into the world is the result of what we create, and not only pass around. The more we study the psychology of creativity, our digital habits, and our capacity to be in solitude, the more we will operate with no gravity, and in ambiguity. The pursuit should be one of creativity and not certainty.