The Physics of Communication

The Physics of Communication by J. Peder Zane
(This is the slightly revised text of the speech I gave at North Carolina State University to kick off its annual Communication Week).
When I was invited to speak at N.C State’s Communication Week I wondered – what do they do the other 51 weeks of the year? Is State, in fact, a monastery where everyone takes an oath of silence? Or maybe it’s just preparing students for marriage.

But as I thought it about some more, it made perfect sense. It is true that we communicate more than ever before. I, of course, would never engage in such activities, but my deep scholarly research has unearthed unimpeachable evidence that students routinely send emails at breakfast, visit shopping websites during lectures on European history and even text while driving.

And yet, ours is called the age of information, not the age of communication. In fact, communication skill appears to be inversely related to the amount of time we spend practicing this ancient art. If we continue on this path – filling the few unutterable moments left with communication – we may lose the ability altogether.

Or so it seems.

The situation appears so dire that a whole genre of literature has arisen counseling us to shut our traps and oppose our thumbs. Granta Editor John Freeman wrote a book in 2011 titled “The Tyranny of Email” that argues that the rising demands of e-mail reduces our time for leisure and contemplation, making life “an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox.” Now, I’m told that, two years later, only geezers still use email, but I think his point is still a good one.

So Communication Week is necessary because it focuses the mind – like a hanging, but in a good way. It asks us to pay attention to an activity we usually take for granted. I’d like to discuss some of the problems that we face trying to communicate in the modern world. Instead of telling you why you should get off the grid, I will turn to the world of physics to explain why such efforts are doomed to fall on deaf ears. And what we can do to move forward.

Technology is, of course, the tool driving much of this change. During our own brief lifetimes the pace of innovative has been so fast, has remade our culture in so many ways, that we almost take it for granted.

When I was learning to shave during the 1970s, there were no PCs, no cell phones and no Internet. Staring in the mid-1980s, all of that began to change. In 1988, 1.9 million PCs worldwide were connected to the internet. Today it is estimated that more than 5 billion devices are linked through this global network.

In 2010, the Radicati Group, a technology research firm, estimated that 2.8 million emails were sent every second – or 90 trillion per year. (Not surprisingly, anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of these were considered viruses or spam.)

The International Telecommunications Union estimates that the number of text messages sent worldwide tripled between 2007 and 2010 – to 6.1 trillion, or a total of 200,000 sent every second.

The effect of technology on human communication is unmistakable. An editorial in a London newspaper declared: “Our desire to outstrip Time has been fatal to more things than love. We have minimized and condensed our emotions. We have destroyed the memory of yesterday with worries of tomorrow. We do not feel and enjoy. We assimilate and appropriate.”

Another pundit observed: “There is no standard nowadays of elegant letter writing as there used to be in our time. It is a sort of go as you please development, and the result is atrocious. Epistolary accomplishment is considered altogether too puerile a study for the strenuous work of higher education.”

Here’s the striking thing about those quotes. They are more than 100 years old, written when the newfangled wonders of that age – the telegram and the picture postcard – were generating the same kind of handwringing that has accompanied just about every innovation in communication.

In Plato’s dialog Phaedra, Socrates describes a meeting between meeting between the Egyptian god who invented the alphabet and a King.

The god asserts that the art of writing will be a boon to the Egyptians, because it “provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” The King – who is clearly Socrates’ mouthpiece – disagrees, arguing that “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” Those who rely on reading for their knowledge, he continues, will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.”
Those words could have been yesterday – or tomorrow.

Complaints about civilization are as old as civilization itself. Each generation gives fresh voice to ancient concerns about the decline of manners and mores, of humanity’s headlong rush to forsake the very things that brought us to where we are today.

Nowadays people note that many of us spend more time with our computers than our significant others. It has made us distracted and reduced our attention spans.

In a cover story in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times entitled The Flight from Conversation, Sherry Turkle, a professor of psychology at MIT, warned that cell phones and computers are leading us to replace deep conversation with shallow text messages.

She wrote: “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. … Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.”
If we concede Turkle’s point, we’re have to ask: Why have billions of people around the world adopted communication technologies during the last decade or two that seem to undermine our ability to know and understand one another? Are they simply ignorant of her arguments? Have they failed to perform a cost/benefit analysis of their choices? Or is their behavior guided by deeper, inexorable forces powerful enough to lead each generation to ignore such cultural complaints?

Stretching back to Socrates, why have those who’ve loudly warned us about the dangers of new communication tools been fated to play Cassandra?

One answer is provided by the work of Duke Professor Adrian Bejan, with whom I published a book last year, Design in Nature. Bejan’s great discovery is a principle of physics called the constructal law. Briefly, it holds that all design in nature, all shape and structure, arises to facilitate movement, or flow. Raindrops on the hillside coalesce – naturally, spontaneously as a manifestation of the law – to form rivulets, streams and, eventually, the tree-shaped river basins that cover the globe because this design facilitates their movement. Lightning bolts form a similar tree-shaped pattern across the sky because this design is good for moving current (electricity) from an area (the cloud) to a point (the church steeple, or another cloud). It’s no accident that we find the same tree-like design in our circulatory systems which ferry blood to all our cells. Look around you, at a landscape filled with design and ask: why does any of this exist? Why do mindless things organize themselves not just into designs, but designs that are predictable once we realize that they have emerged to enhance movement? The answer puts a new spin on an old saying: Go with the flow – it’s the law.

The constructal law also summarizes the tendency of designs to evolve with a direction in time: They constantly configure and reconfigure themselves to enhance flow (to carry more current father and faster per unit of useful energy consumed). Not every change enhances flow (just as not every random mutation in biological creatures increases the survival of the species); but those that do, stick. This process never stops.

Physics encompasses everything. Its laws are obeyed by rivers and trees, mud cracks and bees. Because human beings are part of nature, we too are governed by the constructal law. Just as inanimate systems configure and reconfigure themselves to facilitate flow, we, too, create designs to move ourselves and the things we make more easily. Our currents – such as people, ideas, money – move through the designs we create (including transport networks, university systems, economies). Over time, these designs have evolved to carry more current faster, cheaper and more quickly.

Communication is a flow system for movement of thoughts and feelings. Its design – whose channels include verbal and nonverbal symbols and technologies to disseminate them – has evolved to allow us to spread more information, more efficiently on the globe.

To cite one example, consider the evolution of language. In pre-history, the rise of language greatly expanded the range of things we could express as compared with the more limited choices of nonverbal communication. Over time, innumerable tribal languages and dialects have been supplemented by a lingua franca (Greek, Latin, French, English) that has eased the flow of communication among far-flung people.

The design of written language has evolved from limited pictographic alphabets to our current system that uses just 26 letters to create millions of words. The evolution is in one direction: toward greater and easier flow. Whose flow? Our flow.

The rise of technology used to spread communication tells the same story. Just as river basins naturally generate channels to move more water more easily, human beings have instinctively created and attached themselves to devices – from papyri and printing presses to telephones and fax machines – that have empowered us to move more stuff, more efficiently. This is why billions of people around the world, school children and senior citizens, have adopted cell phones and computers.

New modes of communication do not obliterate old ones. The invention of photography did not eliminate painting – on the contrary, it made painting even more special. We still draw pictures to express deep and casual thoughts; despite the rise of computers, we use pencils and pens or even carve our names on trees. A quick visit to a restaurant, pub or family dinner table confirms that conversation is in no danger of disappearing.

A scientific principle, the constructal law does not address the idea of free will or human agency in philosophical terms. Instead, it reminds us that people are not distinct from, but are a part of, nature. As such, we are governed by its laws. Even as it opens our eyes to the forces that guide us, it empowers us to understand why civilization is always changing – and attracting complaints from cultural critics.

As a practical matter, people will continue to embrace new technologies that allow them to send and receive more information, more easily. Socrates lost his argument because despite all the soulful advantages offered by the oral tradition, writing helped people spread information more efficiently.

Put in the starkest terms: when the trade-off is between quality and quantity, humanity will embrace quantity every time. While critics ask – how can we communicate more deeply and meaningfully? – people are governed by a principle that tends to make the rest of us ask: how can I communicate more quickly and cheaply.

This is a vitally important point because it counters the idea that technology is a force that has been imposed on people – along with notions of “progress,” consumerism and the quest for material goods. No doubt, the working of the constructal law seems to be in conflict with celebrated ideas about what it means to be human.

But there are ideas and then there is reality – which includes the actual choices people make. Most of us here endorse Shelly Turkle’s call for more meaningful conversation, and we’ll tell our friends about it through a tweet. This is our instinct. This is what we do, naturally. It would require much more work for us to think to pick up the phone or make an appointment with friends to discuss her piece.

In his celebrated 1967 work, “The Society of Spectacle,” the French critical theorist Guy Debod wrote: “The reigning economic system is founded on isolation.”

Libraries overflow with books informed by this idea. There is no doubt that cell phones, computers and other tools that connect us enable us to spend even more time apart. People don’t gather around the PC as they once did around the fire. Surfing and texting are solitary pursuits. However, instead of being imposed on us, this isolation is something we choose freely– as long as we define freedom as actions taken in a world governed by the laws of nature.

Culture is a social construct and, as Freud observed, it is largely coercive. It requires us to renounce our desires in the name of personal safety and for the good of the group. Culture is never one thing, it always is what it is. But still, we can say that, at least in the West, its coercive power has become less onerous during the past few centuries. The vast wealth and expanded rights created by the industrial revolution have given many of us greater freedom – there is less pressure to conform to strict social norms, to follow a religion, to tie our identity to our particular tribe. That is, we are increasingly able to define ourselves as individuals than as members of a group. One of the ways that we exercise this freedom is by spending more time communicating with others while alone.

As you can probably guess, I do not believe this a phenomenon that can be undone through stronger counter-arguments. Instead, it should prompt us to reconsider what it means to be a human in an age of freedom.

As we think about how the constructal law shapes the world around us, it is important to note that it is an evolutionary process. Evolution is usually a gradual process. It took a while for our sulfur-sucking ancestors to morph into Cleopatra and Joan of Arc.

Humanity’s gift is that we are able to recognize the direction of evolution – toward better flow – and to make things that accelerate that change. However, our capabilities often overwhelm our biology as we transform the world more quickly than we can process those changes.

In evolutionary terms, the five hundred sixty years since Gutenberg invented the printing press is a blink, and yet consider all the changes human beings have had to adapt to since then. It is overwhelming and, for many, disorienting.

In his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” Douglas Rushkoff echoes the common observation that modern technology has left us “marooned in a timeless space, struggling with endless streams of sensory input.” Barraged with information, we are unable to recognize the patterns around us and form narratives that explain the world to ourselves. Like lower beings we witness phenomenon but have a hard time finding their meaning.

There is some merit to this argument. However, it ignores the fact that we are living during, perhaps, the greatest period of pattern recognition in history. The computers that generate so much information are also helping us – through the development of algorithms and other pattern-seeking tools – find order where once there was only noise. In a recent article for the New York Times, I asked seven past winners of the MacArthur Genius what X-Prize they would create if they had $20 million to bestow on the winner. Three of them dreamed of creating an algorithm to find meaning in data (experience) to solve problems in their fields.

In our own field, I recently read about researchers in England who scanned billions of words in millions of books published during the 20th century that are now on Google Books to compare the emotions of one generation to another. This task – of applying meaning to experience – was impossible just a few years ago. And this technology is still in its infancy.

Looking ahead, we can be sure of three things. 1. The years ahead will bring rapid change to communication. 2. Critics will arise to decry these changes. 3. The vast majority of people will embrace these changes if they allow their information to flow more easily across the landscape. This is not a matter of taste or will – it is physics.

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