Contextual Frameworks

Orality, the act of speaking, qualifies as a world 3 construct, even if its W1 vehicle is only ephemeral air pressure, carrying it on short hops in and out of the subjective realm. With the invention of writing, which Walter Ong calls "The technologizing of the word", the human tribe entered a new world of autonomous discourse.

A deeper understanding of pristine or primary orality enables us better to understand the new world of writing, what it truly is, and what functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing. Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does... More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. Walter J Ong Orality and Literacy1

An initial and revolutionary effect of literacy was the temporal-spatial decoupling of the written word from its immediate surroundings and this applies, though non-uniformly, to all W3 constructs. Yet once W3 objects are removed in time and space from their W2 origins, the faithful reproduction of original intention becomes dependent upon to what degree the contextual framework (the environment and circumstances) of their origin is available to interpreters.

It is easy to understand that the records of some lost culture stored on microfilm would be unreadable if we had destroyed all our microfilm readers, yet that problem is only technical and could perhaps be solved with some alternative apparatus. But if we did not understand the language used, or if we did not know what people and things named were, or what they did; if we did not grasp the motives, the methods of reasoning, the norms and conventions underlying decisions made - then those microfilms would have little meaning for us, even if they had explicit meaning for their creators.

There is a legal term, "the four corners of an instrument" which audaciously implies that there are documents where all there is to know about their contents is that which lies within the four corners of the paper they are printed on, without need of reference to any extrinsic factors. This contention is myopic - it simply neglects to accept that shared context is an absolute necessity to understanding anything at all. See Borge's spoof with "the four corners of an instrument" below.

Economy in all communication lies in shared context. The famous example of brevity in correspondence, between Victor Hugo and his publisher

"?", wrote Hugo.

"!" answered his Publisher

exemplifies this. The writer was enquiring about the reception to his book and his publisher was answering that it was doing marvellously. In order for these two marks of punctuation to express any meaning at all, both correspondents had to share a considerable amount of knowledge and contextual harmonization.

An example to the opposite extreme is Argentina author Borges' tale On exactitude in Science.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography2.

The above examples help to illustrate "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" as formulated by Claude Shannon, in one of the most seminal papers in the history of modern technology. In layman terms it goes roughly like this.

The amount of energy and bandwidth needed to send signals between a transmitter and a receiver is measured by:

    1. The pre-existing knowledge shared at both ends of the communications channel

    2. The ratio of what-is-said to that which could-be-said

    3. The interference (or noise) inherent to the channel.

In terms of a, Victor Hugo and his publisher were being extremely efficient because they shared so much pre-existent knowledge. They were contextually harmonized and could express a great deal with minimal effort because of that.

In terms of b, Victory Hugo and his publisher were being inefficient because their communications channel - written language, allows so much to be said, and they were saying so little. Of all the letters, words and punctuation marks at their disposal, they were using only two of the latter.

I realize this might seem counter-intuitive, but think of it this way. If these two men had both spent a great deal of time learning their language and internalizing all sorts of knowledge, and all they did were to write a lot of letters to each other using just these two punctuation marks, then they would have been making wasteful use, of not only their learning, but also of the communications channel built to handle a much richer set of signals.

Writing was invented in order to say anything you could speak, nothing more or less. A written sentence is one in a set of all possible sentences. A communications channel is designed to transmit one particular message from a set of all possible messages. The efficiency of any system is the ratio of what is done, used or said to that which could be done, used or said.

In terms of a, Borges's cartographers were being extremely inefficient because their solution precluded all use of contextual harmonization. Without the use of shared context they were forced to build a hopelessly over-dimensioned channel - the 1:1 map.

In terms of b, the cartographers acted efficiently, because they were making maximum utilization of their channel.

For Shannon channels were wires and airwaves, and signals contained code, text, video and audio coding, but in a wider perspective channels of communication are myriad: the flow of energy in machines, Adam Smith's invisible hand, the facial expression of lovers, the firing of neurons in our brains, the evolution of species by genetic code, and so on. And in every instance Shannon's laws apply. We will return to this in the discussion of trust in the second part of this essay.

1Ongs book

2Translated by Andrew Hurley - copyright Penguin 1999

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