An Unnoticed Signaling System

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith makes a fascinating distinction in the way squid and baboons communicate. It serves as a surprising way to understand our own methods of communication, especially on the web.

Compare the baboons with cephalopods. In baboons the production side of their vocal communication system is very simple. There are only three or four calls. An individual's choices are limited, and a call will reliably follow interactions of a particular kind. The interpretation side, though, is complex, because calls are produced in ways that allow a narrative to be put together. The baboons have simple production, complex interpretation.

The cephalopods are the opposite. The production side is vastly, almost indefinitely complex, with millions of pixels on the skin and a huge number of patterns that might be produced at each moment. As a communication channel, the bandwidth of the system is extraordinary. You could say anything with it — if you had a way to encode the messages, and if anyone was listening. In cephalopods, though, social life is much less complicated than it is in baboons, as far as anyone can tell. Here we have a powerful signal system, but most of what is said is going unnoticed [...] But it's also true that with all the chatter, all the mumbling of the skin, a lot of what is going on inside is made available on the outside.

Godfrey-Smith tackles the communication comparison from a matter of production & interpretation. Both the cephalopods and baboons exemplify the vast bandwidth of communication we are capable of each and every day online.

Sometimes our online tools give us a limited means of production but a high degree of interpretation. I am always amazed at how Twitter can produce complex reactions from a couple hundred characters. How you can say something might be constrained, but how it can be interpreted isn't. This wide range can also lead to the vitriol we see on these kind of platforms – from people taking statements out of context to amplifying hateful messages. I find myself in a state of exhaustion as I try to comprehend the 280 character tweets as they scroll by on my feed. Such little footprints of communication can set our brains off.

On the other end, there are tools similar to the cephalopods – complex in what is said but little interpretation going on. I sometimes feel like personal blogging can be like that. You can display as much or as little of your interior life as you want, in whatever form you want. A post has more bandwidth for production than a tweet. However, unlike a tweet, the experience of blogging is extremely personal by default. What Godfrey-Smith said of the cephalopods can be said for blogging — a lot of what is going on inside is made available on the outside, but whether anyone interprets it can be hard to tell. And one could say that comments and replies are there to add that layer of interpretation, bringing the baboon-like communication systems to a blog. But there's something to the experience of communicating on a blog that feels satisfying even when nobody is there on the other end to interpret it – more akin to a personal journal.

We need both ends of the communicative spectrum. But let's not forget the power of those channels of communication that allow us to be expressive to an audience of one – ourselves. There's something to be said about interior communication on the web. It might sound antithetical to what the web is, but I think there's an imperative to having unnoticed systems of communication going on online.