The art of communication is an imperfect science

The other day, I was talking to a friend and we were arguing a bit about communication.

Now (and you may already know this), professional communicators have a tendency to do a very poor job communicating in their personal lives.

But we were doing pretty well, he and I, or at least I thought so, and the gist of what he was saying was this:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had inherent telepathy – not reading minds, but, like, being able to send a thought completely and be understood completely,” he said.

I’ve known him since junior high when he was short and skinny, and awkward wearing glasses. Now he’s a great big fellow who studies nuclear physics; he still wears glasses, but now he plays guitar.

People change, and they grow, but he’s just a fantastically smart individual now, and one could see how the limitations of his audience would be frustrating.

“Exactly, not approximately,” he said, and he had the idea that if you could understand the exact thought a person had, you’d also feel complete empathy, and no one could lie to anyone or swindle them; maybe even money itself would go away as people knew each other fully.

I had been reading a Bible out in public when he walked up, underlining various passages and proverbs that struck my fancy.

This one isn’t in there, but I like it anyhow.

“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

And that was my argument to him: advancement is usually more often a wasteful groping in every direction than a movement forward. That extra stuff may not be useful for what was intended, but it could be useful for something else. The accident of penicillin is the sort of prototypical example of that, but language and writing are, too. We spoke first to plan to get food; we wrote first so kings could tally their tribute.

My friend is, I think it’s obvious, quite right that language isn’t the perfect tool for communication because sometimes you use a word someone else doesn’t know, or they have a different connotation with it than you intended, or sometimes you just misspeak.

But it really is the lack of straightforward intelligibility that’s helped us get where we are as a species.

While we might live all in perfect harmony and peace, harmony and peace are overrated.

The Hebrews, people of the book that they are, were successful in a large part for taking important knowledge out of the head and putting it into the code of letters. You don’t have to learn all of the information, just the code. And all the cold words of dead men and women come alive again (approximately).

I have to think if we’d gotten along very well with one another all of these years, we’d never invented the technologically complex things we need to kill and otherwise ruin one another’s lives. It’s hard to foresee the discovery of math or industrial revolution, or any of the widespread communication technology we have today, including the newspaper or Internet.

With telepathy, I might be able to understand someone completely, but without it, we can misunderstand people a little bit from all over the world, and go to the moon, and maybe further.

I had been underlining things in my Bible as my friend and I spoke. One of those is Exodus 4:24-27.

We’ll never know what the author meant with that. But getting to touch a 3,500-year-old brain is still an amazing thing, even if I can’t understand any of it.

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