pragmatics for communication service providers

The scholarly field of pragmatics emphasizes the gap between sentence meaning and speaker meaning in communication. Pragmatics emphasizes that circumstantial factors are crucial to interpretation of sentences. What does “look at this” mean? Does “it’s midnight” mean it’s time to go home, or time to party?

Communication service providers might take from pragmatics the importance of conveying not just sentences, but also circumstances of communication. State information in presence indicators might do this. Background noise captured in a mobile phone conversation might do this. A show-and-tell communication device, rather than a camera phone, might do this.

Pragmatics also shows the dominance of interpretation in thinking about communication. The philosopher Paul Grice, a seminal figure in pragmatics, modeled communication as a rational activity conveying meaning based on a cooperative principle and conversational maxims. Examples of Grice’s conversational maxims are “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required” and “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.” Have you seen any violations of these maxims in blogs lately?

Relevance Theory is a more recent development in pragmatics. According to this theory:

the very act of communicating raises precise and predictable expectations of relevance, which are enough on their own to guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning.

Relevance Theory argues that the gap between sentence meaning and speaker meaning is larger than Grice supposed. It also includes explicit recognition that bodily processing effort affects choices in communication.

The scholarly field of pragmatics seems to offer nothing in communication outside of meaning, nothing about the production of presence. Developing the pragmatics of presence is up to communications service providers.

With honor to A.E. Housman and the scholarly field of pragmatics, here’s the Galbi Think! Poem-of-the-Month:

Oh, many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think

you and a brain in a vat

The idea that you are your brain has fascinated intellectuals at least since Descartes. Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA and a Nobel Laureate, described the “astonishing hypothesis”:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

That’s obviously true. The whole of you by weight is mainly water, but you also include some hot air. You might leak out some tainted water, and subsequently be slightly lighter and happier. But lose your brain, and you’re dead.

Neurons evocatively named “mirron neurons” have generated considerable excitement recently in neuroscience. Mirror neurons have the same pattern of discharge when an animal sees an action performed, and when the animal performs the action. V.S. Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist and an important contributor to the controversial field of neuroesthetics, has declared that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.

The film The Matrix popularized the idea of a person as a “brain in a vat”. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer popularized the idea of “jacking in” — connecting one’s brain directly to an alternative reality. I’ve argued that these ideas obscures much of how a living body makes sense in interacting with things of the world, especially other persons. In a recent essay, Ramachandran seems to take a “brain in a vat” and “jacking in” quite seriously.

Well, at least for awhile. Towards the end of his essay, Ramachandran emphasizes relations between persons:

We are all merely many reflections in a hall of mirrors of a single cosmic reality (Brahman or “paramatman”). If you find all this too much to swallow just consider the that as you grow older and memories start to fade you may have less in common with, and be less “informationally coupled”, to your own youthful self, the chap you once were, than with someone who is now your close personal friend.

So much for simulating a person with a brain in a vat. We’re all in this vat together. Either simulate us all, or forget about it.

oh no, not that modern!

Studying my unsolicited email, I came across this information:

Here are the 10 Most Read Articles on NYTimes.com from 2005.

1) Maureen Dowd: What’s a Modern Girl to Do?
Published: October 30, 2005
Burning your bra or padding it. Demanding “Ms.” or flaunting “Mrs.” Splitting the check or letting him pay. …

Another financial possibility occurred to this modern boy. Can you imagine it?

Probably not. The Vagina Monologues, performed in many fine venues around the world. They’re no longer just for Valentine’s Day!

low-production-value narrative and presence

Consider the new Kodak Photo Voice service. As described in a press release:

KODAK Photo Voice is a brand new way to relive memories, empowering two people to simultaneously view a customized slideshow, and to reminisce and react to each picture. Imagine if Grandma could see pictures from her grandson’s first day at school while he narrates every moment of the experience over Skype. Perhaps an old roommate could share detailed photos and recount stories of his new life in London, as his friend back home in California reacts to each picture.

Much of the value in communication comes from sense of presence. The human body naturally combines images and sound in making sense of presence. An external combination of images and sound reduces the bodily cost of making sense of presence.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Kodak Photo Voice is a auspicious type of service for the production of presence. It supports low-production-value, pre-produced visual content (a narrative skeleton) that one person places at the other’s attention. Offering to share one’s photographs of a vacation, relatives, a holiday gathering, etc., is a delicate relational move. Being subject to another’s narrative of their photographs can make one feel virtually non-existent. It can be a tedious, numbing experience where you feel that you are being simply controlled by the obligations of friendship or kin relation.

An auspicious “show-and-tell” communication device would put immediately into the stream of communication images that any participant spontaneously generates while moving about the world and interacting with things of the world. “Camera phones” don’t do this. Neither does Kodak Photo Voice.

Update: For more business insight, see Carnival of Business #4 at Techie Day.