Wednesday 8 May 2024


One of the problems with digital communications is that they are easily subverted. It can be difficult to ascertain the real intention behind electronic communications: they can be subject to deception or coercion and that can lead to serious consequences. With face-to-face communication we at least have some insight into the lived experience of the other in the flow of communication. Human trust relies on this. 

A friend of mine commented on this phenomenon a few months back when she said of Generative AI "I am not sure who I am talking to". Quite right. We know that we are interacting with some kind of process which in itself is amusing and fascinating, but it is also deceiving. The fact that we are looking for ways of exploiting this form of deception for real-life activities says more about the poverty of our inter-human engagement where communications have become transactions than it does about the miracle of the technology. 

Fernando Flores, in "Understanding Computers and Cognition", argued that IT systems were essentially communication systems for managing the commitments we make to one another. So, for example, the email chain quickly reveals who promised what to who and when. But there's a problem with this. In recent years, the evidence trail creates lots of noise as (for example) it is revealed exactly what some cabinet members thought of Boris Johnson. As more intimate communications are recorded electronically and subject to search, we see communications intended at source to be private become public. This happens in verbal communication through gossip, but gossip permits deniability which a WhatsApp message doesn't. Because the internet is increasingly wired into the psyche, intimations and thoughts are at risk of public exposure, with social and psychological consequences.  

We might think that total transparency of communication - the tracking of commitments - is a good thing. I used to think this. But not only can it be corrupted, it also throws away huge amounts of information from the embodied source of communication. When all channels of communication are subject to surveillance, communications themselves can be coerced. In domestic situations this can be worse, because it gives rise to a "double-bind" where messages of care go hand-in-hand with threats and intimidation. Work communications too can put people in very difficult situations where they have to communicate one thing electronically, but really think another. Imagine having both coercion at home and at work. It's no wonder there is an explosion of stress. 

We probably need what Stafford Beer called an "algedonic loop" in our communications - one that provides assurance to those communicating that they are in fact "ok" - or provides a way of pushing a red button if they really are not and need help. It's not hard to do - probably something like this would work: Wellbeing (

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