Claude Shannon's metaphors

Claude Shannon in A Mathematical Theory of Communication:

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproduction at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is, they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.

Shannon’s “fundamental problem” was also a fundamental myopia. This is a problem for engineers, of which he was one, not people engaged in conversation. Their “fundamental” problem is meaning. Also, it is really interesting to note that he thinks the semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to engineering. The medium does matter. How the medium is engineered will affect the expression, and thus meaning of the communication. Sorry Shannon but McLuhan is correct.

The problem that is not just relegated to Shannon. We often say “Communication broke down” or “You are not getting through to her.” This is an instance of the the conduit metaphor. Klaus Krippendorff explores:

Just as one can not let different fluids run through the same pipe without creating impurities, the conduit metaphor motivated divisions of the spectrum of possible human expressions into channels, each describable in terms of different communication characteristics. Besides technical distinctions between different band widths or wirings, we find it natural to distinguish between verbal and non-verbal including gestural channels or, in another system of classification, between auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory and gustatory channels. Under the governance of the conduit metaphor human communication thus became a multi-channel phenomenon.

The metaphor is restrictive for language. We blame miscommunication on the sender and the technology. In the process, we disregard the importance of listening and shift out attention away from ourselves and onto the medium.

This is often the argument for content regulation on the Internet (and cable). The Internet is the chokepoint, it is the place where communication occurs, and naturally calls for regulation occur here. Many of the arguments follow as such: “We must do something to change what is happening on the Internet because it has allowed these things to be said.” Let us not forget that individuals said these things, rather, the Internet must be changed because of it. Metaphors do alter our perceptions. It is important we consider them.

First published May 14, 2011