That's one of the "big think" questions in ISIS 120, "This Is Your Brain on the Internet." To think big, you have to begin by understanding what communication as a process really is. We take exchange so much a part of our everyday life that a lot of trite comments about "new forms of communication" happen because we do not adequately consider what the forms of communication really are, all the verbal and nonverbal cues, the gestural languages that imply cultural forms and norms, the language of facial expression that also include a range of markers. It is often remarked that email causes many problems because people often send emails as if it were oral communication (with a loose form of control) and receive them as if they are written communication (as if they are carefully crafted). Similarly on the Internet, it is very easy to offer a performative comment that is snarky or ill-considered, forgetting that it will be read by both "audience members" and the "author," and in different ways and in different contexts.
The speech act that is Internet communication is remarkably complex and comes with a variety of situational and cultural rules. I wanted to strip the rule-nature of communication to its most basic elements. Thus, the first class (after the tedium of introductions and the requirements on the syllabi and all the other class procedures of a first day) was given over to students working in pairs, taking turns in the role of the translator and in the role of the person with locked-in syndrome.
We began with a discussion of locked-in syndrome (what the French call "maladie de l'emmur vivant", literally walled-in alive disease), a terrible form of paralysis caused by a brain-stem lesion in which the person's mind continues to function but cannot move any voluntary muscles of the body except the eyes or, typically, one eye. Students worked in pairs, with one holding up an alphabet frequency card, reciting the letters, the other, in the role of the person with locked-in-syndrome, blinking at the correct letter until a sentence or sentiment was communicated. And then they switched.
When we did this last year, one student wrote this poem:
My eye, I
Not bad for never having done this form of communication before--especially as she'd also never written a poem before. That made for an interesting conversation about form and method. (Do we write in a different way with a pen than with a keyboard? In 140 characters? In a term paper versus a blog? These are all topics in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet.") The student also expressed frustration because her translator didn't know it was a poem and she couldn't communicate that, so actually it was one incomprehensible scramble of writing until she wrote on the board the poetic form, with line breaks and punctuation. That allowed for a great conversation about "facilitated writing" and various hoaxes (Ouija, anyone?) including some perpetrated on those who are comatose, not with locked-in-syndrome, and who are being used by anti-euthanasia advocates. Ah, yes, politics leads quickly to communication.
This year one person blinked "A synapse by any other name . . . " (no ellipses, actually). And someone else: "I hate this."
Some people invented a more sufficient form of communication (row by row first) but when I asked how that was derived, it turned they talked about it, which was a violation of the protocol. Violation is always a great avenue to discussion so that allowed us to talk about who creates the protocols of communication and how. How is a protocol of communication different from the content of communication? Tools and pipes. That's what we will discuss next, and, as you can guess, we're only one small step away from one of the foundational issues and principles of open architecture on the World Wide Web.
fyi: We'll also be reporting back after reading Bauby's memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictated after he suffered a brain stem stroke. Bauby, formerly editor of French Elle, died four days after his memoir was published. We'll also be viewing artist Julian Schnabel's movie of the same name. Point of view is radically different in the memoir and in the movie. Point of view is seldom discussed with the Internet but is crucial. That's Class #2.
Class #3 will be reading popular scientific accounts of locked-in syndrome and the work done in the lab of Duke Professor Miguel Nicolelis implanting electrodes in the brain of patients with this disease so they can communicate their thoughts by way of a cursor on a screen. We will also read Prof. Nicolelis' own scientific arguments, to chart the different between professional communication and the popular version, and we will be guests of his lab for a class session, our first field trip. So a literal patient with brain stem damage communicating by way of computational tools and new neuroscience, scientific accounts, popular accounts, an artist's movie, a first-person (or is it a collaborative?) memoir?
The roles of everyone in all interactions will also be part of our conversation of communication which will also be a conversation about the HASTAC methodology of "collaboration by difference" that we will be working on and developing throughout the course. Most management literature on collaboration is about learning to work as a team in similar ways. Recent studies have argued this form of collaboration can lead to the opposite of innovation, with a kind of "group think" taking over. Collaboration by difference isolates unusual skills (what Tapscott calls "uniquely qualified minds") and fosters communication and collaboration that draws from those skills in a complementary way, not dissimilar to crowdsourcing. Differently-abled individuals (NT's included) will be part of this course too, so all of that will get rolling in Class 2.
I'm also excited that the HASTAC Scholars have decided on their first book for the HASTAC Scholars Online Bookclub, and it is Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, the most radical critique of the "wisdom of crowds" out there, a real manifesto and protest against the worst forms of group think. New forms of communication will be part of that conversation, starting in about two weeks. I hope you will join us!
That's a long way from communication by blinking. But we won't come up with anything interesting in the end unless we go back and really unpack what communication and what it does on its most fundamental levels.
REMEMBER: Use the search term ISIS 120 to find all the blogs about this course