Got context?

From the broadest to the narrowest definitions of communication – whether James Carey’s concept of it as “the ambience of human existence” or the transfer of a set of binary digits from one device to another – all communication, and all meaning, must have context. Furthermore, as Dr. Irvine puts it in his summary for this week, “In any model of information and communication, we also need to account for contexts in two senses of the term: both the sender’s and receiver’s context (world of meanings and kinds of expressions assumed), and the message’s contexts (its relation to other messages both near and far in time).”

Many of the readings this week seemed to focus on parsing the distinction between meaning and medium, but given these two types of context, meaning and medium cannot be completely separate from one another. Medium itself, the way that a message is transmitted and even its potential for “noise,” is a component of what is received. An email is a digital text that arrives in ones inbox – it is not a telephone ringing and a voice on the other end talking in real time. This context affects the meaning of the message. That said, medium does not fully account for meaning either, at least in the conduit model. It leaves out the broader context.

We’ve talked about layers of meaning in past classes and I think that concept is useful for thinking about transmission and context. What layers of meaning are communicated through transmitted information depend on the receiver. A song with the lyrics in Spanish can activate a meaning for a Spanish speaker that wouldn’t apply to a receiver who doesn’t understand Spanish. It would activate a meaning for someone who’s studied that genre of music, or who came of age when the song was popular. We each have our unique cocktail of references from the collective cultural encyclopedia with which we derive meaning from information.

Debray’s concept of mediation is useful here in suggestion that information reception can be facilitated by mediators, improving communication. A translation of song lyrics or a thoughtful visualization of a complex concept can help more people receive meaning. If communication describes the transmission of meaning through information, the receiver’s ability to interpret meaning matters, not just the message being transmitted. This meaning may change over time and space.

Carey writes, “If one tries to examine society as a form of communication, one sees it as a process whereby reality is created, shared, modified, and preserved. When this process becomes opaque, when we lack models of and for reality that make the world apprehensible, when we are unable to describe and share it; when because of a failure in our models of communication we are unable to connect with others, we encounter problems of communication in their most potent form.” If a message is transmitted and received but doesn’t carry meaning for its receiver, communication hasn’t taken place.

In other words, we’re back to the interpretant. I was thinking about Agile software development as a starting point for a potential model for this interactive approach to communication. It’s an iterative approach to development that includes ongoing feedback and communication. The developers’ vision only matters if it works in practice and meets their clients’ needs. A message only matters if it has meaning for its recipient. Cultural and technological context evolve because of our feedback loops of communication and interpretation.

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.