White Noise: On Communication and Identity

Posted on December 14, 2014
* Disclaimer: Mostly brainstorming, neither accurate, nor holds my actual views

First and foremost it is important if you haven’t yet to read this post. As this will be a good introduction to understanding that people are both flesh and symbols. What remains then is what baffles me most, human-human interaction.

Now over the years I have been mostly interested in building Lego blocks when I was a kid, and then I grew up further and tried modeling and then programming. The materialization of such systems into reality was quite interesting for me, as it shows a major dialogue between what is abstract and what is real. Manifestation from symbol to physical is something I am pretty sure artists are familiar with, and likewise physicists. At the time when I was young till approximately my first college year I have found myself fascinated with these systems, I rejected most of the human interaction due to it being orderly fitted into roles, due to it being dull. I often asked myself: "Well if that is what society is, then it seems pretty silly". Social interaction was based on a rule-set, while easy to master, its easy to predict, and generally can be imagined, so there was no point in exploring simple systems. It wasn’t until I started having close friends and expanding my reading that I discovered that human-human interaction is most surprisingly the most complex system I have had to interact with. I discovered that as I was unique myself very few people escaped the norm and were unique themselves. This was interesting, although since we had nothing to navigate or a model to base interaction on. Many a thing had collapsed, there were plenty of fights, plenty of harsh things said, plenty of pain, but also, plenty of growth. There was also an understanding that the current world is merely one reflection of the reality symbol-set that generation of culture and religion has placed. In fact it appears that we as humans have evolved our mind so as to cater for this social hierarchy (See Machiavellian Intelligence and this). Complexity in human-human interaction is quite high as I will explain later, therefore it is important to reduce it by creating equivalence classes, illustrated as social roles. However what happens when we explicitly break them down, and focus on the complexity itself? Can our minds really understand it?

C.G Jung points out in one of his letters:

The “truths” of natural science or “existential philosophy” are poor surrogates. Nat­ural “laws” are in the main mere abstractions (being statistical averages) instead of reality, and they abolish individual existence as being merely exceptional. But the individual as the only carrier of life and existence is of paramount importance. He cannot be sub­stituted by a group or by a mass. Yet we are rapidly approaching a state in which nobody will accept individual responsibility any more. We prefer to leave it as an odious business to groups and organizations, blissfully unconscious of the fact that the group or mass psyche is that of an animal and wholly inhuman.

I will start with a fundamental assumption (and as the nature of it suggest, I will not try to prove it). I claim that every human being is unique in the way they are both existing as a genetic entity (high complexity) but also that translate into a person with unique experience. Intuitively, one can see the genotype, phenotype, unique order of stimuli, environment etc. creates a unique entity. Every human possesses their own symbol set, and unique experience. For some people they might find one specific word to be a trigger for emotional breakdown. To another it might be a an analogy. In short people are unique. It naturally follows then, then when interacting with other unique people, the interaction itself is unique. Interaction can be defined as the medium which allows people to communicate their symbol sets. Sometimes people like to communicate what is important to them: “but this means a lot to me!”. Communication of symbols is then a prime problem to look at. It follows that communication is important to look at, since in its different forms, it allows for the person to express themselves, and to translate that self to others.

Communication can happen on many levels, some communicate by voice, some through songs, some by words, others by images. Some communicate by hugging others by beating. Expressiveness uses all these mediums, a parent might beat their child to express something specific, and a lover can send a poem to their partner as a show of love. Therefore, we can perceive different mediums and communication styles. Every communication medium allows for specific symbols to be expressed and shared, revealing one dimension of the human complex symbol set. The sum total over all dimensions and all mediums is then what defines the true transmission of human identity and symbols. To simplify WLOG, we will only be considering two-party communication, that is there’s only two people involved. It is important that when interacting with other beings, our own symbol set is also modified, therefore it is not only one-way communication, but it is also altering communication. Therefore, communication can be also seen as a feedback system. Apparently “control theory provides a model of self-regulation that is useful in the analysis of human behavior” (source). (More interesting stuff, detailed in a book)

Here’s what we have so far:

  1. Human’s own symbol sets are unique as to themselves
  2. Communicating these symbols to other humans is also reflexive; that is it affects the symbol set itself.

Understanding social structures is key to understanding how we shape these symbol sets. As by shaping those we shape character and what matters to all people. In particular I am sure you have said yourself or have heard someone tell you: “but you don’t understand! Nobody understands!” and the truth is, this will always be true. Even reflecting on our own symbol set we often find ourselves lacking in understanding.

The general problem with language and society is that, there is no way to find a word that describes such complexity. That is, for every person, we need to make a up a new word to describe them. If you think that’s enough, it is actually more complicated, words cover only one dimension we can use to communicate, therefore they particularly do not explain all dimensions properly. By having one word, one song one painting etc. we still wont be able to capture that which is the person. It’s that complicated. And therefore what we do is approximate them by using existing words, existing classes and existing structures. Usually that doesn’t seem to be dangerous, however as long as it is recognized as such: words and description are merely poor approximation of the symbols that are unique to a person. The problem with such perception is that, people take it quite literally, and such the process is inverted. And this is quite dangerous, we no longer try to fit words to describe people, we try to fit people to describe words. This blows away all complexity that makes up people.

An interesting reminder from a dialogue from Mass Effect is this:

Sovereign: You are not Saren.

Garrus: What is that? Some kind of VI interface?


Shepard: Sovereign isn’t just some Reaper ship Saren found. It’s an actual Reaper!

Sovereign: Reaper? A label created by the Protheans to give voice to their destruction. In the end, what they chose to call us is irrelevant. We simply… are.

generally what is the problem of this kind of fitting? Well firstly when we have a word, people tend to associate patterns to it, not about what it is actually, but what its purpose is. Words evoke symbols, our ability to reason with words evoke a different set of symbols. In simple terms, when you see “that guy is a father” the father does specifically mean that he probably has a child. But that is not where it stops, a father is expected to do things, a father is a symbol of things for the community and society in which they live. Words are double-edged swords, where not only do they define, but they also try to add a set of expected behavior, or expected other symbols. When faced with this feedback, people might find themselves generally understood, I mean think about it in your head, can you conceive of a “woman father?”, you probably just thought of mother. Well what if they don’t identify with a gender? Parent yes parent is the word. Well you can see that a set of symbols, can be conflicting with another set of symbol, by just as much as evoking two words. Therefore labeling and expecting people to fit the label can be dangerous. At least to those with conflict in the labeling. We have already likened the symbol structure to a feedback system. Feedback systems usually have two typical feedback types: Positive and Negative feedback. (From wiki:)

Positive feedback is a process that occurs in a feedback loop in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. In contrast, a system in which the results of a change act to reduce or counteract it has negative feedback.

Negative feedback occurs when some function of the output of a system, process, or mechanism is fed back in a manner that tends to reduce the fluctuations in the output, whether caused by changes in the input or by other disturbances.

Whereas positive feedback tends to lead to instability via exponential growth or oscillation, negative feedback generally promotes stability. Negative feedback tends to promote a settling to equilibrium, and reduces the effects of perturbations. Negative feedback loops in which just the right amount of correction is applied in the most timely manner can be very stable, accurate, and responsive.

Society regulates itself through feedback, and one form of it. Society tends to pull people closer to the roles that it defines. In short society tends to stabilize the norms around something less complicated. To those who are exactly described by words, the feedback itself could be helpful to regulate their symbol sets (but that would result in decrease in complexity!) while for those who do not identify anywhere will most likely suffer not being understood. Applying negative feedback to a system that ought not produce the expected output will only perturb the system far beyond what it is, and therefore becomes what it should be. I may be wrong here but I’d assume that positive feedback increases disturbance (variety, uniqueness) while negative feedback pretty much would stabilize people into roles. Erich Jantsch in Design for Living notes:

The complexity of a system is limited only if the system is rigid, inflexible and isolated from its environment. Self-organizing systems in continual interaction with their environment are capable of tremendously increasing their complexity by abandoning structural stability in favor of flexibility and open ended evolution.

Therefore it is important to treat communication by maintaining its uniqueness. To do so, I personally treat every single person without labeling them. But to understand every symbol set ever so uniquely, I define two important qualities that need to be maintained in communication: Honesty and Openness. Honesty ensures that the feedback we both get on the interaction is as accurate as we can perceive it. Honesty specifies honesty with respect to our perception. This ensures that the interaction happens where both of our symbol sets grow in a matter that is consistent with our perception of them. Lying and deception would create a false feedback loop, which could threaten to change symbols unnecessarily, or it would lead to in-congruence (detailed later). Openness as an attribute merely speeds up the process of interaction, I try to be as open about my symbols as I can, that is, I do not purposefully conceal, or try to hide some thoughts from other people. By allowing an honest and broad understanding for the other party, I can benefit from their full and honest feedback in return.

There’s still a problem with conveying things to others. It is completely hard for me to explain to other how I interact with a certain person or how I view a certain person, since there is no labels, only experience to explain that. Experience has the funny property of requiring itself (so the same amount of time) to be experienced by other people, otherwise it cannot be conveyed accurately. Therefore usage of labels in the first context, that is, labels that try to fit people is necessary. The problem is of course, to find the best fitting set of labels, with least conflict in between them. It is always paramount to view things while being careful of: we no longer try to fit words to describe people, we try to fit people to describe words. In this sense understanding that these are a bit too improper but necessary leads to not make false assumptions on the people. These attributes ensure in my opinion, a constructive link that allows both parties to grow.

Therefore now and only now is it possible to convey and discuss the concept of identity. Whereas the identity is an entity that exists on the symbol plane, as to the perception of the individual of itself. If we are using labels, identity becomes a trivial question of choosing a label to match my best course of actions and goals. However without the need to use labels, identity becomes a complex organism that needs to be defined with a set of approximate labels so as to be conveyed.

Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of. Even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language. (Indeed, language itself is only an image.) The most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress. And whatever explanation or interpretation does to it, we do to our own souls as well, with corresponding results for our own well-being. The archetype — let us never forget this — is a psychic organ present in all of us. A bad explanation means a correspondingly bad attitude toward this organ, which may thus be injured. But the ultimate sufferer is the bad interpreter himself.

C.G. Jung