Information Exchange vs Communication

I was recently talking with friends about our mutual reluctance to share big life news on facebook. People want to know this news, they sometimes feel offended if they discover that an important event has occurred and they haven’t heard – but the efficiency of communicating with everyone at once doesn’t feel appropriate for certain types of personal information.

Of course there are plenty of examples of people sharing everything under the sun via facebook – births, deaths, engagements, divorces, even the details of psychiatric diagnoses, to name a few examples.

With those friends, I began to clumsily try to articulate a difference between information exchange and communication. I think that in modern times, they’ve been assumed to be similar or the same phenomenon. One of the functions of communication is indeed the sharing of information – facts, observations, opinions – so, our tools for communication are largely evaluated based on their ability to convey information. This is true of everything from the telephone to the email to the fax to the tweet. How well do they meet my needs to give and receive info?

Quantity, complexity, and efficiency seem to be major factors for comparing and contrasting different media of information exchange. A tweet is efficient but not complex, so it’s especially well suited to some types of message, but not others. It makes sense that these factors would be foregrounded in a discussion of technology specifically, because we are talking about, essentially, the capacity for data transmission. It is quantifiable, and it must be reduceable, ultimately, to a waveform (for audio) or a series of ones and zeros (for data).

But this discussion of the utility of different media for carrying data is ultimately reductive – reducing all communication and interaction to a data exchange, making everything quantifiable in discreet units of information.

What if, conversely, there is something irreduceable, unquantifiable, intangible about real human communication? What if there are nuances involved in expression, posture, gesture, tone of voice, inflection, articulation, that do not travel across even, say, Skype? Moreover, it’s easy to talk about communication as just aural and visual, not taking into account, for instance, smells and spatial dynamics. I communicate differently with someone three feet away than with someone ten feet away, and when I orient myself to a tiny webcam, it changes my perspective and impacts all of my choices about how to move, where to look, how loudly to speak.

A lot of communication, at this time of year in Minnesota anyway, is about the weather – but there’s actually very little “data” or information involved in these conversations.

It has been my habit to just ignore exchanges about the weather, to get impatient and wait for these interactions to be done so that we can get onto more substantive topics. But what occurred to me, in light of this question about the difference between communication and information exchange, is that perhaps these interactions are important precisely because they contain almost no information.

Communication without information is a really interesting idea – if an interaction about the weather is very specifically not about information about the weather, then what is it about?

I would say, “everything else.” Meaning: people’s feelings and relationships, to the weather, to the world, to one another. Perhaps we actually learn a lot from talking about the weather, if we’re paying attention – we learn about our attitudes toward the world and nature, how we interact with systems we can’t control, how we commiserate and find solidarity with others in challenging times, how we celebrate together.

I vividly remember, as a teenager, getting so frustrated by adults talking endlessly about the weather. I would roll my eyes and think to myself, “is this all these people think about? Is there nothing more meaningful on their minds?”

At age 35, perhaps for the first time, it occurs to me that if I retune my ability to listen just slightly, I will discover that a lot more is being shared than I ever imagined.

  2 comments for “Information Exchange vs Communication

  1. November 7, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    I really like the way you give room for thought in this piece. I just roamed the web, trying to find something on the difference between information exchange and communication. I am writing an article on RFID and the Internet of Things, and try to use some of Katherine Hayles’ work on agency in RFID, where she writes that we have to look at information exchange again and consider it as a form of “ethical action”. Somehow your piece resonates with my doubts about whether and how this is possible… Anyway, thank you for sharing.

    • Kevin
      November 7, 2015 at 8:18 AM

      I so rarely get a real comment here! Thank you!

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