Introduction to Thesis

On April 16, 2000, a diverse group of activists, anarchists, artists, anti-corporate agitators, union members, and students converged on Washington D.C. Their common purpose, as much as there was one, was to disrupt the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in an attempt to draw attention to their perception of the organizations’ agendas, and to encourage discussion of specific issues which were not being addressed in the political arena. The protesters hoped to build on the success of the Seattle World Trade Organization protest of November 1999, and intended to employ similar tactics . I was among a group of students from Bennington who went down to take part in the rallies. I had some idea of what to expect, but was still blown away by the intensity of the action and the experience. The details of events, political agendas, encounters and their impact upon me are not relevant here. What is important is that, at least in later considerations, the actions and interactions of those three days served to focus my interest on the relationship between communication, the structure of social relations, and human events.

Fig. 1.a Confrontation between a protester and a man who tried to cross through the line at the IMF/World Bank protest. (Washington D.C. April 16, 2000, photo by author)

I had never really been a participant in mass action before. The task of organizing, informing, and discussing the activities of several thousand people seemed at times almost impossible. Furthermore, activists at the A16 protest in Washington D.C. were attempting to coordinate action among themselves – a huge collection of diverse groups with divergent agendas – without creating autocratic leadership or explicit command structures in the traditional sense.1 The immense amount of time and talk required to create collective action was both frustrating and inspiring – and for me it began to highlight the incredibly important, but normally transparent, role that communication and information play in our daily lives. For me the protests were a far more extreme situation than almost anything I had experienced before. The stakes were much higher. Sometimes information seemed to spread through the entire city in a matter of moments. Often it was completely off the mark. Everyone had different impressions and interpretations of what was going on. Even people standing at the same intersection had radically divergent accounts of seemingly unambiguous events: Did they just use tear gas? Who attacked first? Where did the buses of riot cops come from? And even if there was consensus on the streets about what had happened, it didn’t necessarily agree with the same facts after they had percolated up through the media and emerged on the evening news.

Fig. 1.b An encounter between police and protesters near the capitol. A large group of riot police just pushed through the intersection to escort several buses into the 90 cordoned off blocks around the capitol. (Washington D.C. April 16, 2000, photo by author)

Stress, fear, trust, rumor, and discussion were everywhere. At certain times I found myself attempting to wring every last drop of information from an idle comment, or read meaning into every gesture. Most of the people, police and protesters alike, had little concrete information to base their decisions on. I often felt that I was scrambling to make sense of what was going on, sifting scattered remarks and reports to try and assemble a coherent picture, searching for the slightest contextual cues which might affect my judgment of what was occurring. I suddenly found it necessary to evaluate the validity of everything I heard: How many mouths has this passed through? Is this information still recent? Is the person likely to be biased in their perception? I became conscious of my contacts, the people I was in immediate communication with. Who has a cell phone to contact the outside? Who has a news radio? Who went to the planning meetings today? Who might be a police informant? Who has a camera to tell this story?

My experience made me realize that it is quite remarkable how good we normally are at collecting and disseminating information. To function in daily life, we must employ a tremendous range of knowledge about our social and physical environment. But, despite the fact that most of us have spent a great deal of time in formal educational situations, much of the information that we utilize in a daily pragmatic fashion is not explicitly documented or taught in a school setting. Evidently we gather a great deal of what we know about the world through some mysterious process of direct experience, observation, and inference. Yet we often have knowledge (and certainly opinions) about events or environmental states which we have not directly observed.

The communication ability with which humans are equipped allows us to utilize each others’ experiences. This is something which I think we largely take for granted: we do not each need to go out and create a situation which allows us to glean the same environmental observations – in many instances we are willing to take another’s word for it. To put it another way, an individual in a social group can draw on the collective knowledge of the diverse experiences and multiple life histories of each of the other members. The process of exchanging information makes it so that collections of humans can in a sense have collective properties – knowledge shared among members – without the requirement of redundant direct experience. This process of culture or social information exchange has the potential to act as a powerful knowledge amplifier. There can be an assembly or accretion of a body of tested explanations or facts which can be unquestioningly adopted by individuals and used as background for further explanation and exploration of the world. “Progress” over time can occur in part because certain aspects of knowledge about the world can become cultural properties of a group which are passed on without the associated learning costs.

That is not to say that the process occurs without error, or that individuals normally adopt views and accept information without question. I would actually argue that one of the fundamental tasks humans perform is to use their cognitive and perceptual abilities to question, filter, process, and assemble the flood of often inconsistent and conflicting information into a roughly self-consistent conceptual framework. The details of how we achieve a sense of understanding and a useful synthesis of incoming and previously learned information are probably in the domain of cognitive psychology and are outside the scope of what I want to look at here. But I think it is useful to keep coming back to the concept of an individual who is continuously assembling interpretations of her surroundings based on her accumulated experiential knowledge and the knowledge of the people she communicates with. What fascinates me at the moment is how this creative knowledge-making process, acting simultaneously in every individual of a group, works to shape and mold the information as it moves. What forces are evident? Where does the information used in constructing knowledge actually come from? Are there patterns to what gets lost or filtered out?

If people were excruciatingly rational automatons and language allowed for instantaneous and error-free communication, we might have an instance of a omniscient “group mind” in which every person has perfect knowledge of everyone’s experience. But this is obviously not the case. This may be partially due to the psychological properties of individuals, but I believe that it is also caused by the mechanics of language and the communicative process. Language is a tricky and little understood tool. I’m referring not just to its spoken and written aspects. I’m including in language the full range of processes that rely on semantics, symbols, abstraction, and approximation to convey meaning from one mind to another. When examined closely, language appears to be at the same time infinitely expressive and infinitely vague. Communication, like perception in general, inherently includes the process of extracting only the relevant aspects from information or an experience. It can never be instantaneous and lossless because it must encode the full breadth and sensuality of life experience into a brief set of understandable communicative actions. The high bandwidth of perceptual information must be compressed into a set of narrow communication channels, and this must be done with great speed and efficiency if any useful meaning is to be conveyed in a finite period of time.

When viewed in this manner, accurate or complete communication would be a limiting process which requires time and repeated instances of attempted communication to overcome errors and bandwidth restrictions. Even in a society of compulsive gossips it is unlikely that a person would ever be able to obtain all of the facts present in the minds and culture of the other group members. There are, of course, a tremendous number of factors other than communication errors which prevent us from reaching a state of homogenous knowledge. Language, physical distance, ideology, access to media, education, and socio-economic barriers are some of the first which come to mind. All of these forces may act to drive (and in turn be driven by) patterns of interaction and communication: cultures, sub-cultures and social groups.

The information, opinions, and communal knowledge available to any single individual seemingly would depend on an almost unimaginably complex layering of context, chance, and social structure. Yet at the same time there seems to be a strong degree of order and perceivable patterns of knowledge and beliefs both at the level of individuals in a group, and at the larger scales of communities, regions, and countries. It may be difficult to give specific examples of what makes someone an American, but it seems clear that there is a degree of common experience and cultural referents – and that these may be in some ways distinct from what makes someone French. At the same time, there is a sense of universality; that there are some properties of social collections of humans which are broadly cross cultural.

This paper will attempt to sketch out some of the processes and phenomena which I believe are relevant to, need to be accounted for, or hint at, a greater understanding of information flow in human social groups. My goal is not to try to understand the full complexity of human culture and behavior. I do not anticipate being able to predict trends or make sweeping generalizations. Part of me doesn’t believe that the beauty, craziness and sheer creativity of people can really be reduced to a set of differential equations – no matter how complex. It is more that I am searching for simple classes of systems in which some of the more salient features of culture and social process are apparent. It is unlikely that any theoretical model of cultural process can be complex and detailed enough to be deterministically predictive on a fine scale. My hope is that if I can begin to understand the dynamics and relevant parameters of a few simple systems, my understanding and appreciation of the real messy world of the dynamics of culture and social structure will deepen.

1 The activists employed what might be described as a hierarchical consensus process. Ideally, when decisions were to be made, small groups would reach consensus, each group would send a spokes-person to form a larger group which would come to consensus, and the final decision would be passed back down.

One thought on “Introduction to Thesis”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *