e. The Systems Approach to Communication

The Systems Approach to Communication

Communication is about the transfer of information. The latter is held in the way that matter or energy is organised. A key feature of information is that it can be replicated, whilst matter and energy cannot, i.e., organisation in one place can be copied to another. The term “replication” is used because information is established in the latter, whilst also being retained in the former.

An example is cellular reproduction. Information is held in a cell’s DNA and provides a template for the way in which the cell is formed and functions. DNA is an interlocking double helix. Each individual helix or strand contains the necessary information. Before a cell divides, its DNA is replicated firstly by splitting into the two strands. The matching strand for each is then fabricated from chemicals in the DNA’s cellular environment. When the cell divides each carries a copy of the original DNA and, thus, information in the original cell is replicated. This is just one example. Similar processes exist throughout the living world and are essential for the propagation of information, including human knowledge and beliefs.

The Shannon-Weaver model of communication identifies five key components: the sender, the encoder, the channel, the decoder, and the receiver. Shannon explained miscommunication by introducing the concept of noise in the channel. However, this neglected other ways in which human communication can fail.

The principle of discrete minds denies the existence of telepathy, i.e., the ability of one mind to transfer information directly into another. Rather, each person must translate his knowledge into one of many languages, and transmit it via a medium of communication, for example a book, an email, or speech. The recipient must then acquire knowledge from that medium by translating from language into meaning and remembering the latter.

In the case of human communication, Shannon’s sender is the original source of the information, i.e., someone’s memory. The encoder is the same person translating his memory into an encoded form, e.g., speech, text, etc. The channel is a medium of communication, such as sound, a book, the internet, etc., which holds the encoded information, making it accessible to others. Sometimes information is held temporarily by the medium, as in the case of speech. Other times it is held more permanently, as in the case of a book. Shannon’s decoder is someone else who translates the codified information into information that is meaningful to him. Finally, the receiver is the ultimate destination of the information, i.e., the memory of the decoder.

It can be seen from this process that there are opportunities for replication. A book can be duplicated several thousands of times, and speech can be heard by several individuals.

However, human communication is not inevitable. If someone holds information, this does not necessarily imply that they communicate it. It is very common for information to be withheld, and there are numerous reasons for doing so. For example, it may confer advantage to a competitor, it may be of little importance, or it may overload the processing capacity of the recipient.

The relevant information can, of course, be false at source. However, even if it is true, there are several ways for it to degrade and become false during the communication process.

  1. If someone communicates information, this does not necessarily imply that he believes it. He may be lying, or to put it more politely, providing misinformation.
  2. Errors can arise during encoding by, for example, a poor choice of words.
  3. As Shannon points out, there can be noise in the channel of communication. Noise is anything which can alter information during its transmission. If the medium is speech, then noise is literally any random sound, such as traffic, pneumatic drills, or the buzz of a crowd, which drowns it out. With the advent of more complex forms of communication, the term has become more general, however. The problem of noise interfering with communication can be minimised by information redundancy. In its simplest form this is repetition. It can also mean retransmission in an alternative form, or via another channel or medium, or some way for the recipient to check that the information has not degraded. Natural language itself contains much redundancy. Grammatical rules mean that it is still possible to decode a sentence even when words and letters are missing. For example, “I … happy that George l?kes t?e bisc??ts”.
  4. Our senses are fallible, and it is possible to misunderstand what is expressed in a medium of communication, e.g., by mishearing or misreading it.
  5. Our information processing abilities can also become overloaded. The principle of requisite parsimony means that there are limits to the rate at which we can decode information. However, the principle of requisite saliency says we can deal with this limitation by prioritising the information we do receive, and process only what seems to be the most important.
  6. In memorising information, the principle of effort after meaning plays an important part. When attempting to store new information in memory, we often modify it so that it is consistent with what we already know.
  7. Finally, memories fade if not constantly accessed, and even when they are accessed, this can result in them being modified.

Given all these factors, errors in human communication are inevitable. Indeed, it may seem surprising that we are able to communicate at all. Perhaps information redundancy is the reason.