This simple question just came to me while I was guiltily snacking on spoonfuls of peanut butter and honey.  It’s a silly question in some ways because it really revolves around definitions and the use of words in language, both of which are often transient and arbitrary.  Regardless, when we talk about “communication,” are we assuming or at least insinuating that the transfer of information is being performed by sentient beings that understand the material?

To illustrate the idea, the first example that came to my mind was a book.  When I read a book, am I communicating with the book?  Is it communicating with me?  There probably aren’t many people that would answer either of those questions affirmatively.  Instead, one might say that the author of the book was communicating, by way of written language.  The information is being transfered (with highly variable fidelity depending on innumerable factors) from one intelligent being to another.

Here’s a slightly different scenario but with the same overall idea.  If my roommate were to phonetically teach me to repeat a phrase in Russian without telling me what it meant, and I later recited that phrase to another individual fluent in Russian… would I be communicating?  Would he?  Would it be different if he had indicated the person to whom I should recite said phrase?  Would it be different if I had understood a single word in the phrase?  What if that word was “pizza”?

Without teetering into discussion regarding the existence of free will (Sam Harris has put out a couple of phenomenal articles on the topic lately) or the Turing test, what about computers and computer generated knowledge (or organized information perhaps)?  I can ask my computer a question that perhaps no human has asked ever before.  What is 23409058394^2049384 — 2?  Ends up it’s approximately 3.521367180754732403578987894944332528902258274157 × 10^21250849, at least according to WolframAlpha.  WA was probably never told to recite that response — it was given rules regarding how to respond.  At what point might we consider this “communication”?  Watson certainly seems to be getting close.

As I said, this really isn’t a “functional” idea, but it’s made me rethink my use of the word “communicate.”  A lecturer speaking way over the heads of his audience, telling a joke that someone “just doesn’t get,” complex metaphors in a story told to a child… or how about art?  Funny how little I’d thought about how much the idea of “communication” depends not only only on the originator (accurate and price terminology for example) but the audience.  On one hand, when we try to communicate, we can use a multitude of techniques to try to modify our message and fashion it into a form that we think will be most accurately represent an idea… but at some point, the “communication” will also depend on the capacity to understand.

Try as you might, you can’t communicate with a rock.