The word ‘communication’ has its origin in the Latin communicare meaning ‘to share’, or ‘to be in relation with’. This links the term to community*. A disease can be communicated: that is, it can be transmitted. This sense came into being in the early nineteenth century. Communication referring to sexual intercourse is now a largely obsolete eighteenth-century meaning of the term.
Of relevance to long-established meanings is the notion of the religious community and the idea of communing with God. And of the communicant in Holy Communion receiving the blood and flesh of Christ as a confirmation of the community that is the Christian Church. The sender and receiver of the ‘message’ in the communion are, by that very fact, at one with each other: complete communication creates a single entity. Only in situations where there is ‘failure’ of communication are there individuals (see difference-individuality).
The religious meaning of communication has given way to the secular sense of the term. In the environment of the twenty-first century, the colloquial sense of communication evokes the idea of sending and receiving information over a distance using a form of media technology (telephone, internet, television, radio, newspaper). The context can be domestic and private, as when friends and family contact each other, or public, as when politicians and advertisers communicate messages, or when messages are communicated (or at least sent) in times of war. Again, and more directly: individuals might say that they have something that they want to communicate to each other. Or the members of a couple might say that they are just not communicating, meaning that they are not getting along very well.
‘Communication theory’ is about the communication of information* understood as a statistical entity. In this context, communication could be a signalling system, or a variant of a stimulus response system. Information here is understood in a purely physical sense.
As a development on this, we can refer to Michel Serres's work, where communication is studied as the translation between order and chaos. Chaos also means noise in Serres's terminology, and communication takes place when noise is overcome. For Serres, the overcoming of noise or chaos is essential to human life. Noise, in short, is the raw material for communication. Noise (chaos) must be translated into a message (order). It is a ‘joker’ necessary to the communication system itself (Serres 1982: 66).
Certainly, in an age of information technology, communication is so frequently invoked that it has become a cliché. Modernity itself was, for early sociologists such as Durkheim and Tönnies, a product of a communications revolution, in which the telephone, the telegraph and radio changed society's relation to space and to time. An event occurring in one part of the world could be known in other parts in a dramatically shorter time than in the eighteenth century. Compared to the months the first Europeans settlers in Australia in the eighteenth century had to wait for news of events from ‘home’, the instantaneous (at the speed of light) communication of events to, or from, anywhere in the world in the twenty-first century has made place increasingly irrelevant in informational terms, and thus in terms of the commonly understood sense of communication.
With potentially instant, worldwide communication speculators are no longer able to take advantage of price differentials in national or international markets. Bernard Stiegler relates that, in 1836, the Bordeaux Stock Exchange still followed the prices of the Paris exchange, but with a certain delay, due to the later arrival of information. As a result, the Bordeaux exchange became the object of speculators when the new telegraphic technology enabled information about changing prices in Paris to be communicated to Bordeaux before the official change in prices had occurred. In short, because of the telegraph (which was not yet officially in use), some speculators knew in advance what the changes in the Bordeaux stock market prices would be (see Stiegler 1996:124).
Stiegler uses this example to claim that information exists only when there is a differential in the possession of it: when some people are ‘in the know’ and others are not. If so, the information society becomes a misnomer, for the electronic means now exist for an instantaneous knowledge of events in any place on earth. In practice, this state of affairs has not yet arrived, with certain locales not yet being part of the ‘global village’, for political or for cultural reasons. The point, though, is that, in principle, all locales can now be included in instantaneous information networks, where information travels. Distance has ceased to be a factor with regard to information.
Part of the communications revolution is the now widespread use of personal computers, allowing access to the internet wherever there is a telephone line. Messages can be sent instantaneously through the internet - even to Antarctica. Communication has become decontextualised. And the question arises as to whether it is still communication in anything but the minimalist sense of making contact. To throw some light on this, we need to return to the eighteenth-century letter writer and the materiality of writing, which is relevant to communication.
In the first place, the material incarnation of the message will be in the handwriting of the author, something that can only be imitated with difficulty. The signature is another material reminder of the author's presence. There might also be some idiosyncratic features, such as writing from right to left on the page, as Leonardo da Vinci did, or the leaving of wide but irregular margins. Or, the author might characteristically leave no margin and write some lines vertically as well as horizontally. Of course there might be tell-tale ink blots, which suggests carelessness about the amount of ink on the quill. Or maybe the letter is written in blood. A political protest, as well as a love letter, could conceivably be written thus. The features referred to here can be called semiotic*, as opposed to purely semantic features, the latter being easily communicated electronically. They are also very contextual, as opposed to the decontextualising force of electronic technology typical of the information society, and are difficult to reproduce.
It is possible to argue that there is a loss of communication in electronic formats because of the loss of certain semiotic features. Decontextualisation seems to bring with it depersonalisation - the personal dimension being articulated by the semiotic dimension of the communication medium.
Of course, it might be argued that, as far as personal communication is concerned, there is no imperative to allow letter writing to disappear or, for that matter, other, older forms of media. Mail services still exist along side the internet, and in any case the dominance of one media format does not necessarily entail the demise of the other. Furthermore, would not the claim that the existence of the electronic technologies leads to the loss of letter writing amount to a form of technological determinism?
The answer to this question must be in the affirmative. And yet sociological observation would suggest that personal letter writing is a dying activity, if not a dying art. Part of the reason for this might be that people do not want to reveal personal semiotic indicators, which are only partially consciously produced. In societies which are becoming even more highly differentiated, individuality seems to demand more anonymity at the semiotic level. Spelling and grammar, once semiotic markers, no longer apply in electronic communication. The goal seems to be the complete instrumentalisation of the message, which implies its complete decontextualisation. This, in turn, implies the possibility of adopting a range of personas to ensure anonymity. The often-heard claim that people feel freer to express themselves on the ‘net’, should perhaps be tempered by the insight that this ‘freedom’ is the result of finding the means of hiding ever more surely.
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