Monday, October 11, 2010

Understanding Misunderstanding

I am never sure how much significance to attach to job titles;  but it appears that BBC News now has a “Technology of Business reporter” named Sharif Sakr.  I am not quite sure how this fits into their current ontology of news topics, since their “top-level banner” has categories for both “Business” and “Tech.”  I clicked to get to Sakr’s latest story through my “BBC News | News Front Page | World Edition” RSS feed to my Google Reader.  My guess is that it will also show up on my Technology feed (once I get around to looking at it);  but the page itself appears as an entry in the “Business” section.  I also wonder if Sakr’s job title is a one-off or if it is a sign that the BBC wants to provide more technology coverage in their Business division.

The article I chose to read attracted me through its somewhat provocative title, “Can avatars and hyper-real video conferencing replace business meetings?  This is an area in which I was actively doing research in my Silicon Valley days.  It continues to interest me;  but I would like to believe that my senses for detecting snake oil have become more refined, now that I no longer have a stake in pitching the stuff.

The main thing that has changed since the days of my own research is that more bandwidth is more readily available.  (I remember once attending an Institute of the Future symposium entitled Bandwidth to Burn.  It now seems hopelessly naïve in retrospect, which should serve as an object lesson for those who are attracted to the siren songs of futurists!)  Sakr’s article basically surveys a variety of ways in which increased bandwidth is now being exploited in the interest of improving personal communication, primarily in business settings but with one fascinating example of distance learning from the Manhattan School of Music.  My overall impression was one of bemusement at how many far-fetched speculations were now finding their way into products, rather than just promising prototypes.

Unfortunately, once you enter the world of products, you also leave the world of objective evaluation.  This was painfully evident when Sakr chose to conclude his report with an interview with Cisco's James Campanini.  Now that Cisco has begun to invade the airwaves of commercial television with what amount to “more bandwidth for everyone” advertising spots, one has to be suspicious of anything that counts for the corporate party line.  An excellent case in point is the conclusion to Sakr’s story:

In a further effort to persuade customers, Campanini commissioned independent scientists to compare video chat against old-fashioned telephone conferencing and instant messaging.

The scientists used EEG electrode caps and other sensors to monitor things like stress and attentiveness.

The results?

Luckily for Campanini, video chat won the day. But the study also hints at how much productivity could be lost due to people's current reliance on text tools like IM, SMS and email.

No matter which new technology wins the battle for our eyeballs - telenoid or telepresence or something else - perhaps anything is better than depending on the written word.

"Stress levels with IM were really high", says Duncan Smith of MindLab International, who headed up the study.

"It's just too easy to misunderstand each other using text."

I can believe that Cisco was able to commission an experiment that would be biased in their favor, but the result is that Smith’s summary of the results is misleading.  At best it should be reworded as follows:

It’s just too easy to misunderstand each other using instant messaging.

This is entirely understandable, if not blatantly obvious.  Instant messaging has reduced us to the exchange of cryptically abbreviated codes that deprive our use of language of just about any sign of grammar and rhetoric;  so it should be no surprised that the “logic” of the message may also get lost in the encoding-decoding exchange.  The risk of misunderstanding through a telephone call is far less than that of instant messaging, even without the rich media supplements of telepresence or robotic telenoids.

What is missing from Sakr’s article (not to mention the entire Cisco mentality) is an appreciation of the difference between the nature of communication framed as an engineering problem and the nature of communication framed as a social theory problem.  In the former case the problem always reduces to getting bits of signal from one place to another without those bits being distorted by noise.  Increasing bandwidth is all about moving more of those bits more efficiently, meaning that one can supplement (or replace) traditional uses of “raw text” with “richer media.”  However, the concept of “understanding” is beyond the scope of this framing of the problem;  and, unless someone can come up with a mathematical theory of understanding that is as rigorous and useful as Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, that concept will remain beyond the scope of engineering.  If we wish to appreciate just how remote the social nature of communication is from engineering thinking, we need only consider the recent problems our State Department has encountered as Twitter has begun to play a role in the practice of diplomacy, a discipline in which the problem of misunderstanding may best be described as “mission-critical.”

The bottom line is that it is very unlikely that engineering will ever solve the “problem of misunderstanding,” simply because that is not the sort of problem that can be framed in engineering terms.  On the other hand there is no reason why we cannot (in Wire-speak) dismiss this insolvability as “ain’t no thing.”  The bigger “thing” is the question of whether technology companies are willing to allow their products to be subjected to more rigorous and less biased analysis based on a social theoretic perspective on communication and understanding.  Such analysis may lead to identifying problems that can be framed in engineering terms, with the promise that engineering solutions would lead to better products.  Isn’t it about time that Cisco recognize the value of such a social perspective?

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