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Lorraine Ford: on 6/6/14 at 0:35am UTC, wrote Hi Conrad, Yours is one of a number of interesting and enlightening essays...

Luca Valeri: on 6/2/14 at 10:25am UTC, wrote Hi Conrad, In a newly published Preprint from Aerts he tries to find...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/12/14 at 22:29pm UTC, wrote Mohammed -- Thank you very much. So far I've only glanced at your essay,...

Mohammed Khalil: on 5/12/14 at 20:32pm UTC, wrote Hi Conrad, Great essay! You offer good arguments supporting your views...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/7/14 at 14:12pm UTC, wrote Hi John, I take your point about "inarticulate" concepts. My own notion...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/7/14 at 12:35pm UTC, wrote Ben -- thanks for your interest and your kind words. You're right that...

Conrad Johnson: on 5/7/14 at 12:07pm UTC, wrote Luca -- Thanks very much! Yes, I think the project of uncovering a...

Luca Valeri: on 5/7/14 at 9:26am UTC, wrote Dear Conrad, Great essay. As I understand you, that our very possibility...


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December 9, 2022

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Rediscovering Communication in Electronic Culture by Conrad Dale Johnson [refresh]
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Author Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 11:24 GMT
Essay Abstract

The electronic “global village” envisioned by McLuhan 50 years ago is now fully operational. Communications technologies are expanding our connectivity at an accelerating rate. Yet despite their obvious impact on how we all live and work, it’s not easy to grasp the depth of this transformation or its implications for our future, in part because our social and economic institutions are evolving much more slowly. This essay focuses on one specific consequence of the shift to electronic media – that they’re changing how we understand communication itself, both conceptually and in our everyday lives. As background, I compare the emergence of computerized media with the much slower transition that took place in ancient times, from oral to literate culture. As written text gradually became the dominant medium of cultural evolution, it fostered a distanced, objective mode of thought that made deeper levels of interpersonal connection seem irrelevant to the serious business of civilization. Today the new media vastly extend the power of published text, but they also revive the immediacy of real-time participation that belongs to oral culture. They make possible a new appreciation of the depth and complexity of communications systems, both at the physical level and in human interaction.

Author Bio

My studies focus on the evolution of basic concepts in physics and philosophy, and in how our intellectual history reflects deeper changes in consciousness from prehistoric times to the present. After finishing grad school in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California Santa Cruz, in 1979, I worked in the corporate world until recently retiring. I’ve written two essays on physics for the last two FQXi contests, interpreting the physical world as a communications system – “An Observable World” (2012) and “On the Evolution of Determinate Information” (2013).

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Rick Searle wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 18:26 GMT
Wow Conrad, that was great!

There are so many interesting sections it is hard to know where to quote. I liked this one especially:

"But over the last century we’ve become more sensitive to the “between” in our existence. Even in the intellectual world, still so deeply rooted in writing and print publication, there are signs that the depth of “I and Thou”, the underlying dimension of participation, is starting to be recognized

in many fields. [14] This isn’t to devalue the kinds of thoughtful reflection and analysis made possible by off-line reading and writing. Nor does rediscovering the depth of interpersonal presence make any less valuable all the various ways we can connect through new media. But it is reminding us that

we ultimately depend on the oral culture of friends and families and local communities as well."

A lot of people lay out how electronic communications is undermining the world of print- The Gutenberg Elegies etc- you've shown me something genuinely new- that electronic communications are in many ways a new form of our first oral form of communication and are a hybrid of the oral and print combining the strengths of both id we use them in the right way.

Thanks for expanding my horizons!

Best of luck!

Rick Searle

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 12:06 GMT
Rick -

Thanks very much for your interest. I was glad to find in your essay on Utopia another set of ideas developed against the background of our history of thought.

As for the notion that electronics brings us a "secondary orality" related to the "primary orality" of pre-literate cultures, that was a major theme in Walter Ong's writing, also developed in Havelock and McLuhan, the pioneers in this field. So it's hardly original here, though I learned a lot in the process of writing the essay, and I tried to put it in a new perspective.

Thanks again for reading!


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Joe Fisher wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 20:37 GMT
Dear Mt. Johnson,

Your fine essay was extremely well written and your analysis of communications systems was superb. I do hope that it does well in the competition.


Joe Fisher

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 12:10 GMT
Joe -- many thanks, it's great to have an appreciative reader.


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George Gantz wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 23:17 GMT
Conrad - Thanks for the beautifully written essay. The transformations in human communication are profound and we are all dealing with them everyday. I do wonder, though, about the fitness of the human brain and physiology to this new environment. Oral language and some level of abstraction has clearly been with us for most of our evolutionary history. Written language is more recent. Conveniently, our hands have proved quite capable of mastering the challenge (indeed, typists were so fast that the predecessor of IBM invented the QWERTY keyboard to slow them down), and our facile minds have been able to bend that technology to our purposes. The changes of the last century, and more so of the last few decades, seem to be quite a different situation. Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) points out that to some extent, our devices are now controlling our attention, rather than the other way around. Other studies have noted limitations of the human brain in interfacing with digital devices or being able to keep up with large human networks and demands for multi-tasking. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

I'd also welcome your comments on my essay, The Tip of the Spear, which speaks to the evolutionary process for human civilization and our institutions. I did not address communication technology specifically, but it was integral to this evolution.

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Anonymous replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 13:09 GMT
Thanks for the kind words, George. I will check out your essay.

The emerging technologies definitely pose a challenge, because they're evolving so fast, and interacting with what it means to be human at so many levels. I was listening to some friends in their 20's yesterday talk about how younger people are connecting... how Facebook and such things that were the rage a few years ago are way out of date. A new "generation" of users arises now every 3 or 4 years, at most. So we have no clue what people will be doing a few decades from now. But computers and interfaces are very adaptable, and the human brain even more so. I imagine we'll evolve a better fit between the two.

The ways we're able to pay attention will surely change, as the informational environment changes. But as I noted in the essay, the diversity of new ways of being in touch are making us make conscious decisions about how we focus our attention and spend our time, in the course of the day. I think that's to the good.

One obstacle is that there's still no clear understanding of how differently brains and computers operate. This is one version of a very basic difference between evolved systems and designed systems - which is what I originally intended to make this essay about. (Designed systems are made of control mechanisms, evolved systems made of support-contexts.) Just one indication of this is that two computers can communicate any amount of information over a single wire, while two human brains can connect only via the most complicated indirect multi-channel communications system in the known universe. What gets communicated over the wire is precisely definable and controllable, unlike the meaning conveyed through human connection.

Thanks again for your interest - Conrad

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Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 04:00 GMT
Hello Conrad, May I post a short appraisal of your essay, a little on the critical side? I would ask you to return the favour. - Mike

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 17:11 GMT

My compliments, a very broad topic that is well focused. Personally I exist in a fairly organic context, a horse farm and in my own entry I posit reality as the dichotomy of energy and information. With energy manifesting as information and information as the defining structure of energy. This relation being far more profound than our perception, as mass is energy taking form. What I would argue is that we are experience as a conscious energy and as it interacts, information is the form/knowledge it acquires. Then we lose sight of that underlaying dynamic and view the resulting informational structures as foundational. Yet since this dichotomy persists, it creates a natural conflict between awareness pushing out and stored knowledge channeling it in prescribed directions and frames, yet constantly being tested and pressured. Sort of like the relationship between youth pushing out and age trying to train and channel this energy.

So then as we go through those ever more evolved stages of communication, they serve to channel our perceptions in ways which the awareness pushing the medium takes it. So it seems the medium does give our thoughts form and seemingly define them, yet it is the raw awareness which animates the medium. The premise that reality is fundamentally information has lost sight of the process that manifests these forms.

In fact, participating in these contests is a personal reflection of this dichotomy, as I sort out and read those essays which are both engaging and which the authors continue to participate in the discussions.


John Merryman

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 17:14 GMT
Messed up that link. This should work.

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Anonymous replied on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 13:22 GMT
Hi John -- Thanks for your comments.

I think I see what you mean with your dichotomy of energy and information. My problem with terms like "energy" or "raw awareness" is that although they're evocative, they don't articulate any of the important structure of what's going on in processes that define and communicate information, either at the physical level or at the human level. For example, that information always appears from a specific point of view in space, in a specific ongoing present moment, in a context of ongoing relationships with other viewpoints.

I think the key issue is whether we're using objective language, or language that reflects a standpoint inside the real-time web of communications. Both are needed. Our intellectual tradition (evolved in writing) has from the beginning adopted a standpoint outside the world, describing things as they are in themselves, abstracting from the context of present-time relationships that make what they are meaningful. That's not at all a bad way to describe the world, but it's one-sided. It abstracts the lasting information from the living context.

The two-way participatory aspect of oral culture, including some electronic media, suggests that a different conceptual language can be developed to describe the world from inside the web of communicating viewpoints. That should help us unpack the highly-evolved complexity that's hidden when we talk about objective "energy" or subjective "awareness" as existing in themselves.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Apr. 25, 2014 @ 13:23 GMT
System logged me out two seconds before I posted the above...

Thanks -- Conrad

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Margarita Iudin wrote on Apr. 29, 2014 @ 00:39 GMT
Hello Conrad,

You wrote very good essay. I really like you thinking about verbal and oral speech communication.

Specifically-human symbolic communication is not the main topic of my essay, but I hope you will still read it. My essay is about the imagining, analogous imagining and about how people think. I also wrote down my thoughts about logical design and ultimate goals of communication.

I also want to remind you foundational-level observations made by Lewis Carroll. These observations are important for the better understanding of the speech communication. For the first one, I could not find an exact quote .. it is about Alice saying that she knows what she thinks by speaking it out. Them the others are .. I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then ... I don't think ... then you shouldn't talk, said the Hatter ... He was part of my dream, of course ... but then I was part of his dream, too...

My essay is a part of a large futuristic work like one called Summa Technologae by S. Lem. I hope you have your ideas to share.

You may look at my entry about imagining the future. I hope my essay will encourage you to learn more about ways of knowing and to apply analogous imagining in your field of interests.

Please disregard any typo mistakes you may encounter.


Margarita Iudin

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 14:37 GMT
Margarita --

Thank you for your comment! Though I didn't note it in my essay, I do think imagination plays a fundamental role in human communication. I did suggest that there's a deep dimension of communication that's prior to language. In this dimension of emotional connection we're essentially learning to imagine the other person as another person, from very early on. A book I like very much, Vasudevi Reddy's How Infants Know Minds, describes the various stages of this development. The key point for me is that the "you" aspect of existential connection is already in play before we begin learning to imagine the "it" aspect, exploring the object-world we share with others. And the "I" aspect, learning to imagine ourselves, comes much later, only as we begin learning to talk.

As to your term "analogical" -- I do think there are profound analogies to be explored between the structure of physical communications that I described in my previous essays and the systems of human connection discussed in this current essay. Apart from noting that in both cases, "communications systems tend to hide their own functionality," I wasn't able to develop this theme here.


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Peter Jackson wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 12:24 GMT

Another excellent essay this year, looking in a perceptive way and identifying important things we take for granted, including erroneously i.e. "that every detail of this reality is also physically observable".

I particularly agree with; "The nature of communication itself tends to hide its own functionality." and your also previous suggestions that; "the reason we've

been unable to clarify the role of measurement in quantum theory, or the relation between quantum mechanics and relativity, is that we haven’t understood the communications capacity of the universe as something remarkable and significant."

So true in so many ways, and I'm very glad you didn't get into promoting superluminal nonsense. I look into the paradoxical elements of SR and find, by analysing the 'method' of communication (fundamentally OAM transfer) that we can derive ALL effects with classical dynamics.

Funnily enough I show that; "It’s true that to concentrate on serious issues we need to be able to be alone by ourselves." so send Bob and Alice off very much alone to work it out! (hopefully in a more understandable way than QM)

String of valuable little jewels, excellently written and presented, top marks, very well done. I do like to find commonality in such totally different aspects.

Best wishes


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 14:57 GMT
Hi Peter --

Thanks for your generous comments; I'm very glad you found my perspective on communication useful to you.

On my first read through your essay I found it rather tightly focused on a particular aspect of spin-measurement that I don't feel at all competent to assess. But I'll try again to pull out what you're saying about the method of communication.

As I understand it, though, quantum entanglement and the issue of correlation of distant measurements applies to any measurement of a quantum system, not just to spin. Does your argument generalize that way?

As to "superluminal nonsense" -- I think the seeming "paradox" arises from the very basic, nearly unquestioned assumption that all aspects of physics should make sense within a single unified structure. Yet all evidence seems to indicate that the way QM describes measurement doesn't fit into the causal structure of Relativistic spacetime.

If we think of physics rather as a communications system, though, we should expect there to be a number of essentially different structural frameworks, in base-level physics. That's because any meaningful (measurable) interaction always requires a context of other kinds of interactions, to which it makes a difference. Though I'm not yet able to argue this very persuasively, I think it's true that if the physical world were really the kind of coherent, unified mathematical structure that's usually imagined, it could support no observable information.

So I'm not surprised that QM gives us one system of correlations between our observations and Relativity gives us an essentially different one. The two don't contradict each other, and both seem to be required to support the kind of world in which things are measurable.

Thanks again -- Conrad

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Benjamin Schiek wrote on May. 5, 2014 @ 22:37 GMT

Your essay is as well written and entertaining as it is insightful. Same goes for your 2012 contest essay "An Observable Universe." Your remarks on communication, subject-object duality, and context resonate, for me, with the lesson taught us by the quixotic 19th century search for a complete and consistent axiomatic system. They also bring to mind the distinction Feynman drew between "Babylonian" and "Greek" mathematics.

It may be that much of the alienation between content and connection, which you talk about, can be traced back to Shannon's seminal paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" (1948). For example, Shannon says in the introduction:

"The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point...a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning ; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem."

Good luck,


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 7, 2014 @ 12:35 GMT
Ben -- thanks for your interest and your kind words.

You're right that Shannon's approach has been hugely influential. To become a useful concept in the physics of the last century, communication had to be reduced to the transmission of quantifiable data. What's unfortunate is that "the semantic aspects of communication" -- i.e. what makes information meaningful -- has rarely been connected with the physical issue of measurement. That involves a different and more complicated "engineering problem" -- how to set up the physical contexts that let particular kinds of information be determined. We tend to think of "meaning" as something we humans project onto the world.


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Luca Valeri wrote on May. 7, 2014 @ 09:26 GMT
Dear Conrad,

Great essay. As I understand you, that our very possibility to rationalize the world is dependent of our communication system. A system that itself changes in the process of evolution. This challenges my kantian approach in my essay to understand physics from the precondition of experience.

From that it would follows, that the precondition as itself is subjected to the evolution of communication process. And so our physical understanding of world. This is hard to swallow as we as physicist think that physics describes the world as it is. What do you think?


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 7, 2014 @ 12:07 GMT
Luca --

Thanks very much! Yes, I think the project of uncovering a rational pattern in the physical world could only be conceived once the Greeks got used to reading and writing as a form of everyday communication. Of course, the long development of thought leading eventually to modern physics was subject to many different cultural influences. But our communications systems play a special role in the evolution of consciousness, roughly parallel to the role of reproductive systems in biological evolution.

I'll post some thoughts on Kant and the idea of "preconditions" under your essay. But to clarify, I agree that physics describes the world as it is, independently of how we humans imagine it. I think -- as you suggested also -- that what's relevant for understanding physics are the physical preconditions for the kinds of events we use as measurements, i.e. events that define and communicate definite information.

The communications systems that constitute our human world are quite distinct from those that constitute the physical world. But both are complex and multi-layered. I think we're only beginning to recognize this kind of system and think about how they might evolve, for the reason I pointed out in section 2 of my essay... i.e. that when communications systems work, it's their content that stands out, not the "technology" that gets it across and gives it a context.


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Mohammed M. Khalil wrote on May. 12, 2014 @ 20:32 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Great essay! You offer good arguments supporting your views about communications technology and the future. I enjoyed reading your essay very much, especially the part about Communication and Community. I agree with you that technology had great impact on humanity's present, especially communications and electronic media. I believe that science and technology can lead us to a better future, and in my essay I try to discuss how to accelerate the path to that future. I'd be glad to take your opinion.

Good luck in the contest, and best regards,


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on May. 12, 2014 @ 22:29 GMT
Mohammed -- Thank you very much. So far I've only glanced at your essay, but I can see that you've put some serious thought into the question of how science itself can become more efficient. I'll read it and comment as soon as I can.


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Luca Valeri wrote on Jun. 2, 2014 @ 10:25 GMT
Hi Conrad,

In a newly published Preprint from Aerts he tries to find quantum structures in macroscopic structures (language, cognition etc.). This might be interesting for you.

And thanks for the interesting link you posted in my blog. I have to reread the paper again before I comment it. However it touches the main aspects of my essay.



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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jun. 6, 2014 @ 00:35 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Yours is one of a number of interesting and enlightening essays in this contest which I consider to be essential reading. I like your hopeful vision of how our symbolic communication technologies, from speech to writing to modern electronic technologies, has enhanced our engagement with others and enhanced our imagining of our world and our universe. As you say "But at least we're now seeing something basic about ourselves that's been taken for granted and largely ignored throughout our history". And I agree with you that "that has to help".



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