Saturday, 6 July 2019

Communication's Illusion

There was a Nostradamus prediction revealed at the beginning of this year that 2019 was the year we became closer to animals (see for one of the many click-bait references to this). One interpretation is that we might learn to talk to animals...

The question interests me because it invites the question as to how the noises we make when we talk compare to the noises that animals make. Because we are largely obsessed with processing "information" and "meaning" in our communication (that is, attenuating the richness of sounds to codes), we tend to be oblivious to the amount of redundancy our communication entails, and we also assume that because animal communication has so much redundancy, it carries less meaning. The redundancy of animal communication is much more obvious: why doesn't a crow only "caw" once? Didn't one "caw" do the job? Why does it do it regularly 4 or 5 times (or more)? Why with the same rhythmic regularity?

Understanding of information and meaning in human communication is far from complete, and certainly for the latter, the scientific consensus seems to be pointing to the fundamental importance of redundancy, or constraint, in the establishment of meaning in human communication. Animal communication is likely to be just as meaningful to animals as our communication is to us. Indeed, our perception of "consciousness" among animals seems to be dependent on our observing animals operating within a lifeworld which we ourselves recognise. Like this ape who was filmed using a smartphone:
One problem we have in appreciating this is the belief that human consciousness is exceptional. This single belief could turn out to be the greatest scientific error, from which the destruction of our environment stems. It may be as naive as believing the earth to be the centre of the universe. In biology, many believe DNA is the centre of the universe of life and consciousness, and human DNA is special. I'm with John Torday who argues this view is ripe for a similar Copernican transformation.

I'm making a lot of weird music at the moment using a combination of the piano and the Roli Seaboard. The Seaboard can create disturbed and confused "environments". The piano tries to create redundancies in the patterns of its notes, harmonies, rhythms, and so on. As living things, all us animals inhabit a confusing environment. The creation of redundancy in communication seems fundamental to the battle to maintain coherence of understanding and effectiveness of coordination. So birds tweet their rhythmic patterns... and I blog! (and others Tweet!). Even when we talk of deep things like philosophy, we are usually repeating what's gone before. But somehow, we need to do it. We need the redundancy.

Do we only think we are saying "something" - some key "new" information? Do we only think this because we believe our consciousness is "special"? This is an uncomfortable thought. But I can't help wondering that "talking to animals" is not being Dr Doolittle. It is about realising how much more like birds our human communication really is.

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