Media 5

Related to Media 5 post, it is funny that Shannon and Weaver’s transmission model of communication (1949) was always presented as a vital and yet ludicrous point of disciplinary origin. What enabled this apparently very crude model of senders, messages, channels and receivers to serve as an origin for the field of Communication? Why not, for instance, trace a very long history within Western philosophy? Why not examine the Pre-Socratic thinking of mediation, or Leibniz’s conception of the interaction between monads or Hegel’s notion of dialectical logic? Was it because Shannon and Weaver had clearly and explicitly produced a diagram of communication, while earlier traditions had focused on more general issues of relational identity (and hadn’t spoken of “communication” as such)? The strategy of diagrammatic representation seems particularly significant. It provided a means of conceiving what had previously been thought in philosophical- humanistic terms in mathematical-mechanical terms. The controversial character of describing the technical transfer of communication (along phone lines) as “communication” is key towards understanding the novelty of Shannon and Weaver’s model, but was never acknowledged or discussed in my Introduction to Communication classes. Instead, the model was lampooned for its crude reductionism, its failure to represent the complex social character of communication. Ironically, however, rather than sternly resisting this attempt to abstract and simplify features of communication, subsequent Communication theorists (Berlo, Schram, Barnlund, etc.) simply developed more complex and nuanced diagrammatic models (incorporating context, incorporating feedback, etc.). The essential radical thesis then of Shannon and Weaver’s model – that issues of technical information entropy were somehow equivalent to “communication”, that communication could be described in the discrete terms of electronic processes, that communication could be shifted away from any necessary focus on the human – all of this remained at some level within subsequent, more sociological and humanistic models through the acceptance of the underlying diagrammatic mode of representation. In this sense, Shannon and Weaver’s model does constitute an important point of origin for the Communication discipline – its novelty inextricably linked to its apparent crudity.

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