Category Archives: Week 7

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.

Communication Models and Social Theory

In developing communication models, our broader theories of societal organization both aid and constrain how we might perceive the transmission/communication of information. As Carey points out, there is a reciprocal relationship between models of communication and the ways in which we actually communicate: “Models of communication are, then, not merely representations of communication but representations for communication: templates that guide, unavailing or not, concrete processes of human interaction, mass and interpersonal” (14) and “Our models of communication, consequently, create what we disingenuously pretend they merely describe” (15). This creates a circularity by which the representations we create become the real upon which further representations are made (generally, ones that reinforce the earlier representations). As such, in representing society as “a network of power, administration, decision, and control” (16) we create society as a network of power, administration, decision, and control. This leads Carey to take a stance against communication models based on “power,” “trade,” and “therapy,” and instead to assert the importance of “aesthetic experience, religious ideas, personal values and sentiments, and intellectual notions” (16).

In so doing, Carey appears to stand against not only information theory’s “transmission model of communication” (developed for militaristic and commercial purposes), but also the reigning social and critical theories built on the foundations of Marxism (power and trade) and psychoanalysis (I assume this is what he means by “therapy”). While I am tempted to agree that these aspects might be emphasized to the exclusion of others, it’s almost as if Carey suggests that overlooking unequal “relations of property, production and trade” would simply make them go away; as if collectively pretending the world to be just would make it so. This brings up a problematic aspect of theorizing that the real is nothing other than our representations of it. Should we then go back to Plato’s Republic, banishing illogical representations in order to create a logical reality? Carey, of course, is a fan of representations Plato would find illogical, but it appears perfectly possible for someone with a more Platonic sensibility to suggest as much.

In addition, I’m conflicted over Carey’s emphasis on “aesthetic experience, religious ideas, personal values and sentiments” (16). While I’m sympathetic to the re-emergence of questions of aesthetic value, recently re-reading Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” raises some concerns over Carey’s elevation of the aesthetic over the political. For Benjamin, this was the essence of Fascism, aestheticizing political propaganda in such a way as to short circuit critical reception (think “Triumph of the Will”). In addition, are these aspects of social life not entirely intertwined with the economic order? How might we develop a model of communication that includes all of these forces—social, economic, political, psychoanalytic? Current models appear too reductive. Might we instead draw from complexity theory and create a more ecological model of communication where these forces—sometimes converging, sometimes diverging—are depicted within a complex system, rather than the sender-message-receiver model?

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. English Language edition. New York: Schocken, 1969. Print.

James Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication” (from James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised edition. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. )



How the Transmission Model Works in the Dialogic Communication Ritual

Language and metaphors dictate perception by providing cognitive frames to make sense of the world.  The transmission model of communication is one of those conceptualizations, formulated by Shannon, to understand communication. This particular understanding of communication has dominated the discussion about communication and information. Shannon stated that “the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” [1] The fundamental problem of Shannon’s model, excluding semantical dimension of communication, would probably be resolved by using the term “signal” instead of the term “message.”

However, I would like to take a step back from this criticism. Rather than trying to situate meaning in Shannon’s model – and discussing how it doesn’t fit, I would like to understand what transmission system illuminates in regard to communication. All of the discussion about the transmission model describes how the model does not consider meaning, but there is no discussion about where the meaning lies. Lets consider the case of an e-mail, and try to locate meaning. The example of e-mail is particularly explanatory in this case, because there is a temporal dimension added to communication in e-mails, unlike face-to-face communication, or telephone talk. Communication technologies did not only provide communication among distant places, but they have also included a temporal dimension to it. Communication is not instant anymore; I may read an e-mail days after it was sent. Communication is, however, is still a dialogic practice regardless of the time and space introduced by new technologies.

In an e-mail, something is transmitted through the Internet network. In the case of e-mail communication, lets apply Shannon’s model not between me and the person who is e-mailing me, but rather between our e-mail boxes. In this case, the transmission model functions to describe the process between 1) a person sending an e-mail to me 2 ) that e-mail emerging in my Inbox. As an e-mail falls to my inbox, the transmission model is completed. My inbox receives a signal. The transmission model, in this case, works well in describing the signal duplication process. A documented “difference” is transmitted, and replicated through interfaces.

The duplication of signals, letting me to see a person’s e-mail in my computer’s interface, can be excluded from communication. If we do not let the temporal breaks and spatial distances enabled through communication technologies misguide our understanding, we can still employ Carey’s[2] ritualistic approach to communication external to the transmission model.

Meaning, on the other hand, lies in the sequence of letters. It is a certain use of alphabet that determines the meaning, and as long as the sequence of letters in an e-mail is reproduced, Shannon’s challenge, “reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point” is accomplished. The transmission model describes a successful transmission process, which has created an interface, for a possible dialogic communication process to happen.


[1] Shannon, C. E. (2001). A mathematical theory of communication. ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review5(1), 3-55.

[2] James Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication” (from James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised edition. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. )

A mundane brain

 “No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mundane brain.”

—Alan Turing

The readings for this week introduced a model called “conduit metaphor”. Associates with Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication – which “the signal transmission model is based on binary math, it simplified and cleared the noises in human communication system. This model suffers from a radical disconnect with the processes of natural language in that it does not really address meaning. Deacon defines Shannon information as, “the amount of uncertainty that is removed with the receipt of a given signal.” In addition, Deacon utilizes the concept of Boltzmann entropy which described in thermodynamic terms is, “a change in the state of a physical system that would not otherwise occur is inevitably characterized by a local reduction in its physical entropy resulting from work done on that system from outside.”( Deacon, 2010). Deacon uses the example of a typo in a manuscript explained the information can only be decoded with receivers’ background knowledge support .

According to Deacon, the essential qualities of information are uncertainty, surprise, difficulty, and entropy. Uncertainty, in turn, can be measured by counting the number of possible messages. If only one message is possible, there is no uncertainty and thus no information. Therefore, the vast messages we extrapolated from digital data on webs and texts are embedded in our per-existed meaning systems. As Prof. Irvine explained, “The meaning contexts, semantic networks, and social functions of digitally encoded content are not present as properties of the data because they are everywhere systematically presupposed by information users. Shared meaning, contexts, and networks of prior expressions necessarily precede encoding and are there in our meaning communities to be activated when we catch what’s decoded.(2014)”

The conversation between Deacon and his former scholars reminds me of  C. S. Peirce. He mentioned symbols are not just the connection signifier and a signified, but rather the relationship between the sign, the representamen and the interpretant. Therefore, I have no trouble understanding Deacon’s information system. The reason people can interact with the data and use then to build other artifacts such as music and art relies on the very basic model. When developing the mathematical models, Shannon proposed feeding “cultural things,”such as music, to an electronic brain, and they outdid each other in brashness. I think base on Deacon’s and Peirce’s models of information and human meaning systems, Shannon’s dream can never come true.


Terrence W. Deacon, “What’s Missing from Theories of Information?”, In Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics, edited by P. C. W Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, 146–69. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011).

Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Theory of Information and Communication (video)

“If You Don’t Get It, You Don’t Get It”: Distinguishing Information from Communication (And Why Meaning is Inseparable from Signs)

This week’s examination and distinction of information and communication resulted in an unexpected, subtle yet abrupt realization, when reflecting on my daily use of both terms. Considerably oblivious to the intricacies of man-machine interaction and information technology/science, I never dissected the ordinary microcosm that is communication – which is simply, the exchanging or units of information, or signs.

In Ronald Day’s essay, he explains that Claude Shannon’s conduit model remains a cornerstone in understanding the basis of information science. More astoundingly is technology’s evolution in the realm of information retrieval “towards … matching the source’s data and the receiver’s desires.” This objective ideally exemplifies a relatively new iOS feature on iPhones – the QuickType bar. The technology within the mobile device generates a list of suggested words – or signs – based on the user’s initial input. The source – being the user – generates a message, or a thought, subsequently articulating this thought by way of manual typing. The receiver, which in this case is the iPhone, produces a list of words, matching the first alphabetic sign and continues to predict subsequent words as long as the communication between user and phone – better yet, man and machine – continues. Autocorrect settings and functions on word processing applications conduct in the same fashion. This organizational method works similarly to the human mind, in how it attempts to categorize and place context on signs into groups like “places,” “names,” “food,” “events” and so on. However, what this model of information delivery and retrieval lacks is visceral context, particular the role of prior experiences to mold the meaning of messages.



Weaver and Wiener further explain that there is no grand difference between human and machine transmission of information if the original message’s intentions are identical. Therefore, a Freudian slip or an instance of tongue-tying is just as a minor finger slip on a keyboard or a touch-screen device not properly registering the user’s touch in selecting a symbol.

As we clearly understand, we are encased within a network of finite signs that carry innumerable possibilities of meanings and values. So how is it that we distinguish an email message on a computer from a text message on a cellular phone? With the advent of tablets and merging message technologies, the lines of homogenous and unique methods of communication via respective devices are becoming blurred; the Messages application on Apple computers allows its users to send signals to others by using their email addresses or phone numbers. Similarly, smart phone users can access their email accounts from their devices to send/receive information. At one point, I even recall being able to send photos and audio from my phone to my email account and my actual phone number would be displayed in the “From” field.

The origin and context in which emails are commonly used are in the workplace or in academic scenarios between faculty and students. Therefore, there is an indirect value or meaning placed upon email as a medium for communication that is related to formal, impersonal messaging. This is an instance in which the technical cannot escape the social. Hand-held devices – which have swiftly evolved since the Millennial generation’s existence – has seemingly become affiliated with younger audiences and more informality, particularly because of application appeal for youth and the generation’s familiarity with advances in mobile and digital technology. (Brief aside: The same familiarity with one sign system can be juxtaposed with that of the example given in Ray and Charles Eames’ video: If one can determine the frequency of a pregnant woman’s contractions, her cervix dilation can be approximated, or one can determine the time of day based on the sun’s location.) Because of its affiliation with lax, off-the-clock communication, less scrutiny and pressure is placed on adhering to Standard English grammar and spelling when hand-held devices are the nodes for communication. Moreover, consider that few professors share their mobile phone numbers or “home” email addresses with students, unless allowing the open-door policy for emergency contacts. The distinction between these identical communication modes with differing meanings and contexts explains the needs for codeswitching, or as I like to call it, “Let me put on my best workplace voice.”


Finally, I’d like to highlight my fascination with the concepts of presupposition and noise. In previous posts, I have mentioned the complexities of digesting new information and the common assumption of shared code between sources. A dialogue about coding between a professor and a student may not render much decoding of information, yet if another student dissects the encoded information and re-communicates that to the same student, understanding of the signs or information can be achieved. As Eames’ video explained, “In any communication system, the receiver must be able to decode something of what the transmitter coded, or no information gets to the destination at all.” This is a fundamental skill and assessed scenario in the field of education. A similar occurrence of miscommunication happens in computer science, when used applications such as Python and Processing. While both programs use Java as their language system, each has its own rules or contexts that call for specificity in order to manifest successful result; just like with HTML and CSS.

In terms of noise, I was interested to learn the variety in ways it can interfere with information retrieval and how people are more invested in the meaning as opposed to the sign. Could a cultural predisposition qualify as noise? Could a cognitive or sensory malady, like colorblindness or dyslexia could fall under the category of noise? What about non-visual cues, like stressing about paying bills during a Philosophy exam?

As we have discussed preciously in regards to the social importance of meaning over signs, it’s never just a phone or a shoe. Culturally, we have attributed meaning to a branded commodity, which signifies things like our fashion taste, socioeconomic status or moral composition. The inclusion or exclusion of an object or sign carries great meaning, such as the exclusion of a signal in a movie title or the inclusion of more signs than another. However, as Professor Irvine explained in this key concepts video, meaning is not stagnant but instead temporal and ever evolving. The meanings are fluid and cannot be pinpointed. Information is translated to fit into a meaning, unique to its recipient based on their previous experiences and use of the signs or information. Because of this flexibility of sign systems, the possibilities of meanings in the far or immediate future cannot be predicted.

“Semiotic School” of Communication and How It Takes Me to Re-think Google Gallery

While reading through every one of the readings for this week, several question bears in my mind that prevented me to lose focus: what’s in the communication model that Shannon and Weaver propose? Many scholars, afterwards, argue against that model for being too linear and semantics are not included. So what does it mean by bringing into semantics into communication models and information theories? How can we apply this realization into media and information technologies around us? What’s the implications?

I know that was lots of questions but it indeed helped me to keep having a clear mind when going through so many different theories. So first in this blog, I want to summarize and clarify several concepts that I think is important to me and how those crucial concepts lead me to re-examine the technology: Google Gallery.

Before goes into theoretical part, I want to share my conversation with Siri, which I think is pretty relevant to this week’s topic.




According to John Fiske (in Steven Maras article), there are mainly two schools of approach of Communication:

(1) process school

(2) semiotic school

People in process school care more about how senders and receivers encode, decode, and how to use channels and media to convey accurate information; Whereas semiotic school thinks communication as production and exchange of meaning. It is a good start to classify the thoughts we encounter in this week. However, most of the time, the boundary of these two schools are not a clear cut by which I mean, process schools care about meaning production in communication process, but in a different way with semiotic schools.


1. Process School: Floridi and Gleick (and of course those early information theoriests)

Even though the “semantics” part of Lucaino Floridi’s book Information: A Very Short Introduction is not convincing (P34), the way he talks about 4th revolution, the information age, is very interesting and helpful as a background knowledge. He describes information age as an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures, “We are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its ordinary habitat to the info sphere itself, not least because the alter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be informs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures” (Floridi, 2010.) I think his system view as oppose to technology determinism echoes what professor Irvine said in the video, “When we study technologies, we are not studying properties of machines. We are studying extensions and implementations of core human capabilities and collective symbolic thought. Our ability to exploit the material dimensions of symbols and multiple techniques of encoding and necessity of technical mediation, meanings, and intentions in symbolic form.”

What’s interesting is that scholars in this school do not deny the existence and importance of “meaning” in communication but rather, in my opinion, they understand “meaning” as something fixed. However, meaning are actually the pre-requisition of communication. It is underlying as a system, a network and communication work we have are interfaces of the meaning system. The so-called interfaces we use frequently in the class is similar to Stuart Hall’s concept of “phenomenon form.” So next I want to talk about semiotic school of Communication.


2. Semiotic School: Carey, Schramm, and Hall

Hall proposes the concept “phenomenon form”. He considers meaning as the power of communication, “If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’. If the meaning is not articulated in practice, it has no effect.” Communication is always in practice but meanings are not. Encoding and decoding are not points of stages in the communication process, but “determinate moments”, “the apparatus and structures of production issue at a certain point, in the form of a symbolic vehicle constituted within the rules of ‘language’.” Moreover, Hall doesn’t think “distortion” within the communication process are risks, as oppose to Schramm’s idea of building up the “same pictures in head”. Receivers, according to Hall, are not obliged to accept what’s encoded.

I think for me Stuart Hall’s theory is more convincing, or I can say, helped me to think through real world examples better. With his ideas in mind, I think about Google Gallery project again. What is communicated in the gallery. Is conveying the most “accurate message” as Google Gallery’s ultimate goal? No, obviously, it is not. The gallery collects art works from physical galleries all around the world. With the help of Internet, good interfaces (maybe you might think it is not good enough) and the ability of zoom in/out etc. It is ridiculous to think that Google Gallery is just trying to convey the most accurate message. What is the message here? The painting? The environment around the painting in the gallery? I think it is a minor question. The major question is: how meaning transmitted through Google Gallery that is impossible without it. How does it augment our ability of meaning making?

I don’t know all the answers to those questions but I think it indeed convince me one thing about communication: the accuracy of communication is always not as important as how communication reconfigure/reconstruct our meaning network.