On Communication

Originally posted 2011-09-14

“Communication usually fails, except by accident” - Osmo Wiio

Isn’t that a silly thing to say? I’m successfully communicating with you right now, aren’t I, and it certainly isn’t an accident. So what then, did Wiio mean by “communication”?

I’m actually not sure what Wiio originally meant by “communication”. (See? The quotation proves itself.) But I have thought about it, and have come up with my own interpretation of this quote.

Imagine the richness of your internal experiences, the complex web of thoughts and ideas within your mind. Imagine all the associations, benefits, consequences, caveats, disadvantages, limitations, personal inflections on connotation, and related ideas that arise in your mind, every time you think about anything remotely complex. When you have a vision, an idea that you want to communicate with other people, written and spoken language - as well as painting, sculpture, dance, music - are often utterly inadequate for communicating this internal state of mind. This is my take on Wiio’s law.

In writing entries for this blog, I’ve come to experience Wiio’s law many times. Often, I will write a rough draft, send it to a friend, and have him tell me that it makes no sense at all, or he will miss the subtleties that I’ve tried to explain. The essence of being a good communicator is in being able instill a new idea in another person’s head, by making use of literary devices (similes, metaphors, etc.) to express connections between your new idea and existing ideas.

Science communicators and science teachers have a difficult task, as conventional explanations for scientific phenomena often rely on other scientific phenomena. For the layman who knows very little science to begin with, it’s hard to bootstrap a scientific concept.

Artists of all kinds have a similar task. Artists have some sort of vision, powerful emotion, or interpretation that they want to communicate to their audiences. Depending on their medium, they have a different set of tools to work with. Often, artists simply fail to communicate. Most paintings, sculptures, musical recordings, dances, or acts will evoke a “huh?” or an “oh, that’s cool” reaction. Very rarely, a piece of art will strike a chord with a person. As Wiio would say, an accidental success of communication.

It’s easy to create a work which you understand. It’s far harder to create a work that others understand.