C-30. “8S”: Communication’s roots and future

Is communication an art or a science? Is communication a field or a discipline? No, but it is trending toward yes on both questions. We have started forward on all four counts, but much is left to be achieved. A better sense of the history of communication development can help us.

Communication is a rubbing of behavioral functioning, in addition to being the carbon of behavioral structure. This sheds some light here because behavior is in direct consequence of the Nature of Things. From the trio of general persisting conditions that characterize the Nature of Things (partial order, consequentiality and discontinuity) we have inferred incomplete instruction to follow for behavioral entities … with a continuing cascade of hard collisions to make that point over billions of years, collisions softened only somewhat and only sometimes by the relatively recent developments in communication.

The history of communication begins way back there with the fact of incomplete instruction. Behavioral entities, in the relatively early stages of their development, before the emergence of effective communication, had to cope with this incomplete instruction. Functionally, we can describe their task in terms familiar to us now as what communication does: Seek, Say, See, Solve, Signal, Save, Share and Stretch (ergo: 8S). But in the early going, steps did not amount to much in meeting the need for what we now speak of as information (C-33). It was more an evolutionary story of the body’s sensory capacities, of reaction rather than action.

But it is because communication now does much of the work of the 8S which behavior once did without it that communication is a rubbing of behavior and the carbon of its spectacular advances in step taking technology – in its compound and complex molecular developments, working to defeat the behavioral constraints of body (least effort) and body relationships (less action at a distance).

(Of the many definitions offered for “communication,” one seems to stand apart from the others. S. S. Stevens defined it as any discriminant response to a stimulus – i.e., an informed move. [Information, therefore communication?] But cognition, as in the case of E. Coli [the "tumbler"], had the capacity to inform, before communication as developed capabilities came upon the scene. ["Information" points back to incomplete instruction, not just forward to communication content as we know it. The rubbing could not be clearer.])

Our familiarity with messaged communication enables us to easily grasp the 8S distinctions. We search for information available from others (Seek), express ourselves in words and gestures (Say), visualize points AT – what’s being talked about (See), work to grasp points ABOUT – what’s being said about what’s being talked about, and sometimes use points ABOUT to see the points AT, OF and FOR too (Solve), tell others and ourselves to start or stop (Signal), retain points in linguistic memory for later use (Save), make points available for others and they for us (Share), and extend our reach (Stretch).

(Communication’s contributions to behavioral needs do not end with these 8S. Together with cognition [App. III] it plays a part in the development of many capabilities, such as some of those listed for the Behavioral Manifold [V].)

In terms of informative functionality we have come quite a ways from the body’s sensory capacities. Unsolved problems, however, should remind us that communicative development, as with many other capabilities, is still much in need of principled invention and reinvention. For that an appreciation of the Nature of Things, for the roots of communication, seems paramount.

Our investment in transportation should be instructive here. We often compare communication with transportation with regard to their respective traffic loads and the widening of our life space that they provide. But we are less attentive to needed improvement in communication’s infrastructure. Technology for connectivity (e.g., the Internet) has advanced (to the economic advantage of toll takers) but language is still too much a collation of charming byways.

Communication has sometimes been characterized as a “window on the world.” (This although transparency is not its outstanding feature!) Perhaps we might see it more productively as a “scope” – in the sense of telescope and microscope, in that it extends (in consort with cognition our sensory capacities into the realm of enhanced minding capability.

This 8S view offers another perspective on the functionality aspects of community (C-10), journalism (C-26), and public opinion (C-25). For community, as Dewey noted, these communication capabilities are a behavioral necessity. However it is one thing to see that communities live by communication and another thing to realize that the quality of that communication has much to do with the quality of that community’s life and its future prospects.

The development of communication has much to tell us about where we are coming from as humans. Now the latter has much to tell us about where communication should be going. What communication as a rubbing points TO should also become a point OUT.

Getting back now to our two opening identity questions about communication….

Given the Nature of Things, communication has to be all of art, science, field and discipline. All four in one way or another must engage the fact and facets of possibility in light of the Nature of Things and of what the future ought to be and could be: art for the consequentiality our compositions might bring about; science to understand consequences already observed; field for the vast, assorted aspects of our communication environment; discipline because we need better intellectual tools.

The matter of discipline brings up the somewhat parochial matter of communication as an academic discipline. Considering the impressive range and scope (sic, as above) of communication phenomena and the roots of its development, the best reason for communication’s low status in higher education seems to be that its parts have been parceled out to every other department, school, institute, et al in the institution. Like behavior (and the status of “behavioral science”) communication has been too good not to be shared (or co-opted?).

What did we get in trade, so to speak, for all the communication and behavior ceded to other fields and disciplines? We got their assorted concepts, models and methods. For adopting these we got (sometimes grudging) acceptance of our graduate research programs. We joined the “5 % solution” club of researchers asking questions in search of the order of things (C-17). Too enthusiastically for the good of problems to be solved and the Nature of Things?

The concept of “paradigm,” as employed by Kuhn with respect to the interdependence of explanatory theory and applicable method, addresses the challenge of discipline (App. VI). A paradigm that fully and accurately treats behavior and communication (along with cognition) has not been forthcoming from these other academic enterprises. (They have difficulties of their own: Witness the sometimes political fractioning of departments into clinical vs. research vs. teaching interests.)

The obvious centrality of communication in life, so evident in education via the 3R’s – if not the 8S’s –at the elementary level, disappears in higher education. (Adding insult to injury, a required composition course has often been removed there, to the distress of art’s development as well as to that of communication’s and cognition’s.)

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter