Ideal Communication





Ideal Communication



Life on earth has reached the point that germs are in the ascendant. You can’t touch someone without catching a disease. Naturally this puts a crimp in people’s romantic lives: no more dating, no more kissing, and certainly no more sex. The future of the human race is in jeopardy. Fortunately, however, technology is advanced, particularly robot technology: it is possible to buy a disease-proof avatar that can go proxy for you in romantic encounters. Thus love life is conducted by employing such avatars as intermediaries—with the advantage that they are beautiful, ageless, and skilled in the arts of love. You send your avatar on a date to meet the object of your romantic interest, while she sends hers to you; by remote control you take it from there. Marriages are made this way, sex becomes feasible, and the human race is saved. The main difference from current arrangements is that languagebecomes far more important in this brave new romantic world, because you have to instruct your avatar about what to do, as well as speak through it to your human partner. Instead of touching your partner, you instruct your avatar to touch him or her, and this can get quite complicated and detailed. The act of love becomes an elaborate series of verbal maneuvers, more or less well executed. Accordingly, verbal skill is paramount, as opposed to actually doing any touching. What was once non-verbal has become verbal: physical interaction has been replaced by linguistic interaction—talking not touching.  [1] There is a language of love, literally.

            After a few centuries of this it becomes taken for granted. Everyone has a romantic avatar and all amorous relationships are conducted via avatar; it works quite well now that the kinks have been ironed out. People have become adept in the linguistic feats needed to operate the system, and a whole industry has sprung up to serve their new romantic needs. There are no more wordless amorous interactions, since participants need to direct the proceedings verbally—instead of actually kissing someone the human operator says, “Kiss now” to the avatar. Everything is mediated by language, with no direct communion between people. Human bodies never actually touch; instead words are exchanged, information is transmitted, and a goal is achieved. People do get into romantic contact, but indirectly, using a symbolic medium. They are in direct physical contact with avatars, but not with each other. The avatars act as expressive vehicles for flesh-and-blood humans—a communicative medium, in effect. People romantically communicate, but only via language; there is no direct body-to-body communication, such as we observe today (though the avatar body provides a satisfactory surrogate). People can be married with children and yet never meet and touch—they have a “long-distance” relationship. It is fortunate they can speak, for otherwise they would be condemned to a solitary life; and indeed for the few with language problems romance is ruled out.

            It seems to me that this parable mirrors our actual situation with regard to interpersonal communication. Consider Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and suppose that they have no communicative language, communing with each other non-verbally, yet happily. They are perfectly attuned to each other’s emotions and can pick up on the subtlest of cues—they have a perfect mutual understanding. They can even communicate telepathically. But then Eve bites into the apple and they are cast out of Eden—finding that they can no longer communicate as they did before. Now they must invent a public language with which to express themselves, making audible noises that are intended to convey messages. Oh, the labor and tedium! It used to be so easy, so immediate and so intimate; but now they have to pronounce these things called “words”, stringing them together into monstrosities called “sentences”. Jagged noises issue from their mouths, clashing with other noises, often not making it to the recipient. Thoughts and feelings get mangled in translation. Misunderstandings abound. Adam and Eve dejectedly wish they could read each other’s mind, as in days of yore, but now they have to resort to the intermediary of speech—so clunky, so inept! The sinners have been forced to become speakers (the word itself repels them). They are condemned to indirectness, remoteness, mental distance—their minds never touch any more. They squeak out their messages, wielding the avatar of language, but they yearn to communicate more directly—mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart. True, God has not condemned them to communicative solitude by subtracting all means of communication (for he is a merciful God), but he has condemned them to an inferior proxy in the form of spoken language. Since that distant time in Eden the human race has grown accustomed to the new communicative reality, but underneath it still irks and rankles—it still seems distinctly second best. They fantasize of direct mind-to-mind contact (as my imaginary lovers fantasize of direct body-to-body contact), but words are all they have.

            The point I want to urge is that we yearn for a more intimate form of communication (while also perhaps dreading it). For language is not the sole and necessary method of communication. It is contingent and dispensable, not the very essence of communication. The OED defines “communicate” as “share or exchange information or ideas”, and “convey (an emotion or feeling) in a non-verbal way”. Here there is no explicit mention of language (except negatively): language is just one way to communicate. Animals communicate in all sorts of ways that don’t require language–and so do humans; language is just one component of our communicative repertoire. If telepathy were biologically possible, it is doubtful that spoken language would ever have evolved—a gene for telepathic communication would surely have arisen. Language (the external kind) only exists because of the problem of other minds; it is designed to make up for an epistemic deficit. And it is not difficult to imagine modifications in human faculties that would render spoken language otiose. For instance, suppose that we had brain receivers that could pick up whatever someone else is thinking: why wait for people to express their thoughts in language when thoughts can be detected before anyone opens his or her mouth? Why bother to speak if you can communicate what you are thinking already? I want to share an item of information with you: I just direct my brain to your brain scanner. This would make giving lectures a lot easier. Or the human brain could evolve tentacles that physically reach out to the brains of others and insert themselves into their informational pathways, thus actually sharing the thoughts of another—a “brain-meld”.  [2] No more squeaky noises emanating from the oral cavity, subject to masking and misunderstanding, just direct contact with the cerebral centers of information themselves—a return to Eden. If we are to believe the futurists, the human species will soon be half-robot anyway, possessing downloadable brains, with files swapped at will: what need for speech? We are already talking less, what with the rise of texting—how long till writing gives way to direct brain transmission? Speaking and writing are just dispensable tools, destined to go the way of the dodo. Communication is transferring information from A to B—by whatever means possible. In all likelihood language first evolved as an instrument of thought and was only later co-opted for communication; it might then eventually fall away, if and when new means of communication become available. The issue is technological not conceptual.

            This means that the study of communication is not the study of spoken language, save per accidens. Language is one means of communication not communication itself. We have grown used to language as an intermediary in our contact with other minds (like my distant chattering lovers), so that it looms large in our vision of what communication is; but really it is not at the heart of the phenomenon. The technology of communication has changed and advanced over the years, and it may well be that it is destined to change even more dramatically as neuroscience progresses. But even if nature stands in the way of such progress, conceptually it is wrong to place emphasis on spoken language. First, we must reckon with language as a tool of thought not communication; second, language is just one mode of communication not the essence of it. If communication is the intentional conveying of information, then the means of conveyance can vary. And let’s not define language so as to make it trivially true that all communication is linguistic (“anything that serves to convey information is a language”); we are speaking here of actual human languages with their distinctive properties—lexicon, grammar, phonology, and so on. This is what is a dispensable tool. Bats may think that the only way to fly is by means of a wing made of a hand-like organ with skin stretched between the fingers, but birds know better—as do airplanes and rockets. No doubt there are those who believe that only sounds can act as a means of linguistic communication, because they are so familiar with that medium; the existence of sign language may therefore come as a surprise (though the possibility of it is not conceptually remote). Similarly, spoken language is just one species of a genus—and a recent arrival at that (maybe only 80,000 years ago  [3]). As philosophers, it behooves us to take in the full range of communicative possibilities. And in so far as meaning is bound up with communication, our study of meaning should not be confined to human public language as it now exists: that is like studying cooking by inspecting pots and pans. There are many ways to skin a cat.

            I return to the point that spoken language may not even be optimal as a means of communication, let alone unique. It is true that human language has the important characteristics of discrete recursive infinity and fine-grained lexical differentiation, but it has also been found wanting in its expressive powers: not everyone can talk like Shakespeare, and even he probably couldn’t talk like that. It takes work to express perfectly what is on your mind, if indeed that is ever achieved. A lot can go wrong—which is why people regularly complain that language is more an obstacle to communication than a means to it. Our relationship to language is fraught—we wrestle with it as much as we blend in with it. On some occasions it seems wholly inadequate to express what we want it to (“There are no words to express…”). Let’s not idolize human language—any more than human anatomy. It is not a transcendental gift from God, perfect in every detail.  [4] Like other evolutionary products, it is a practical solution to a problem, based on what existed antecedently, capable of improvement, and maybe destined for extinction. It’s the giraffe’s neck of human evolution—one way to achieve a certain goal, but with its downside. Language is elongated, to be sure, but it takes some learning and operating, and is prone to breakdown, as well as being somewhat lacking in the expressive department (compare music). It may well be a better tool of thought than it is of communication. The fundamental problem with it is existential: it is an external sign of an inner reality—in its nature it is removed from that which it is supposed to convey, viz. thought and emotion. Mindreading would be so much better, so much truer to the facts. Speech is as much diversion as revelation. What have sounds got to do with thoughts? How can feelings be conveyed by phonemes? So we naturally ask, and we are not wrong to do so. The phenomenology of human “being-with-others” is conditioned by the proxy status of the spoken word—we never get the genuine article. This is very evident in the case of a foreign language—nothing of the other’s mind comes across without a means of translation. But even in the domestic case the hearer must interpret what he hears—the other’s state of mind is not present in his words. We are always trying to get behind the spoken word, so we have the idea of accessing this ulterior thing directly (hence the attraction of telepathy). Communication in its ideal form is not mediated by language. We resort to language in our communicative efforts.


  [1] The avatars touch the humans, but no human touches another human. No one loves an avatar, only the human it represents. Avatars don’t speak except as mouthpieces for their human operator. What has changed is that humans no longer have physical contact with each other—though they have verbal contact.

  [2] Followers of Star Trek will recall the Vulcan “mind-meld”—a deep mind-to-mind connection caused by Mr. Spock placing his hand just so on another person’s forehead.

  [3] Evolution took a “linguistic turn” only very recently, but surely there was plenty of animal communication on planet Earth before language arose.

  [4] Flaubert: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

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