On Some Limitation of Papers


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Models of communication have developed much from the minimalist abstraction of Claude Shannon in 1948 to the elaborate ones that we see today such as the ecological model advocated by Davis Foulger. But human communication is such a complex mechanism that there still seems to be something missing from the picture. Let’s first look at what we have on the table: messages, people (producer of the message, receiver of the message, or other roles), languages, codes, the “alphabet”, media, channel, time, space, noises, etc. (These are the most basic ones, but we should never neglect the sub-branches in each of them such as dominant/preferred/professional meanings/codes and the importance of symbols.) There are links between each and every one of these components that it would seem almost impossible to fit all of these comprehensively onto one piece of paper.
Now we see the problem. Here we face a limitation of the medium. Most people who have struggled with drawing diagrams have perhaps experienced this frustration of not being able to fit their thoughts into a two-dimensional simplistic model. There are aspects that are too complicated or confusing to show with a bunch of lines, bubbles and notes, and there are also ideas that simply cannot be sufficiently illustrated on a single surface (for example, time). Such is the limit of paper.
However, academic work has, traditionally and dominantly, been considered a form of work constrained to the medium of paper. In fact, a majority of them are even explicitly called “papers” with an emphasis on this character. For a piece of academic work to be influential, it has to be published in a prestigious journal, which usually has its primary existence in printed-paper form. Even in this era of digital culture, most journals still insist on this paper-based way of operation, paying at the most very limited attention to a digital copy of the paper version. One possible explanation for this phenomenon of stubbornness is an attempt of the ivory tower to establish its authority by demarcating themselves against the quickly digitized business of mass media and the grass-root bloggers whose contents can theoretically be just as rigorous, and another is the mindset/mental models humans possess that places an importance on the cultural value of paper/book forms. There has been much debate on this, yet the tradition lingers on. However, this insistence on paper has substantial consequences. In this case, such a choice of media has served to limit and hinder the development of the theories of communication.
Now, suppose we use an interactive, three-dimensional demonstration for our communication model. We will be able to move around the structure, paying specific attention to each element/link from different angles; we might even be able to illustrate the role of time/delay, which had always been a tricky part to explain in a diagram. Although it seems that the paper culture is here to stay, at least for another few decades, there might be ways to work around that. It would be helpful to look into other fields that are more model-structure-dependent and see how they got around the issue. For example, chemical science should have had much more experience in dealing with this problem of presentation of complicated models in journals. Or we can also put a two-dimensional code in the middle of the printed article that one can scan with their digital devices to link to the multimedia model. (Although this may still be hard to accomplish with a stubborn editor who has made up his/her mind to cling onto the “tradition”.)
Of course, a change in the medium would never serve as a panacea. There are still aspects of the complexity of human communication that cannot yet be modeled. However, by liberating ourselves from the limitation of the two-dimensional space, we will be instantly offered more choices and perspectives to illustrate and contemplate the puzzle.

References:
Foulger, D. (2004). Models of the Communication Process. Retrieved at http://davis.foulger.info/papers/ecologicalModelOfCommunication.htm
Hall, S. (2001). “Encoding/Decoding.” In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks (166-176). Blackwell Publishers.
Shannon, C. (1948). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. The Bell System Technical Journal; 27, 379-423, 623-656.