Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Cybernetic Communications

Originally posted on June 1, 2012

Folks used to think that communications were simple. I say X you understand X. Then we realized that to communicate well, the sender must be clear—from whence came editors, spell-check, revisions, etc. And the receiver should be educated. And/or the sender must calibrate vocabulary etc. to the level of the receiver if the goal is effectiveness. But this was all print-based. Feedback was not in the system. It’s like teaching people that what counts in shooting is aiming and taking wind etc. into consideration.

But when long range artillery came into existence, what was needed was feedback and adjustments. Aiming at really long distances was not possible—not even by the most expert marksman. What you needed in the system was a spotter with a spyglass or binoculars. Looking at where the first shell fell, he would call out, “Move a bit to the right.” The gunner would and try again. “Now up and to the left half that amount. Try again.” In artillery this process was called “bracketing.” In a wider sense, the name of the general category that works with feedback, re-calibration, and trying again process is “cybernetics.”

So what if we applied that to ordinary communications? Not I say x you understand x. Well, occasionally that happens, but not often. Instead, this: I say x you say do you mean x’ and I say x(elaborated) which is not exactly what you said but closer in this way and further and that; then you think about my feedback and revise: “Aha, you mean X”? And I say, “Closer, my friend, you are getting closer. And then I try again, just give a few more cues: “X+ this nuance.” And you try again, and I am very patient, correcting you, as we go back and forth, each time closer, until I say, “Ah, I feel you understand me now.”

Then later in the conversation you say something and you don’t feel I’ve understood it. I beg your pardon and ask you to try to work with me patiently. I say what I heard, you correct it, I try to get your meaning, and we go back and forth until you feel that I do indeed get your meaning, or at least closely enough for the purposes of our conversation.

Cybernetic conversation recognizes the truth of a funny sign I saw many years ago that said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I am saying, but I am not sure that what you hear is what I mean.” This brings intellectual humility into the system. It’s not always the receiver; often the sender is less than crystal clear. What for sure needs to get out of the way is the prideful illusion that either of us has done a perfect job and it’s the “fault” of the other.

In summary, we need to radically revise what is actually an early but pervasive 20th century illusion that if we just “try,” what I say can be understood accurately. Instead, we need to check and revise, check and revise, and assume that the first or even second pass is at best a fair approximation; at worst, it can be quite misleading—and this operates throughout the culture. Understanding a more realistic, cybernetic nature of communication and developing the skills for using this approach is thus part of consciousness-expansion.

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