I ran a fan every moment of every day, for three or four months, over the Summer. Now that the temperature has cooled down, I turned the fan off and immediately began to feel uncomfortable. I could hear too much, murmurs and traffic noises and doors closing, little sounds which had been muffled under the blanket sound of the fan. More than that, though, what unnerves me is the not infrequent total and complete silence – a little sound-bite-sample of the void, here to keep me company while I try to sleep.

I’ve rediscovered insomnia. How’s a guy to sleep with all this silence going on?

Oh well. I’ll get used to it eventually. It does make me think about all the things we tune out, though. We’ll never taste a meal that doesn’t also taste like saliva. We’ll never hear a sound that doesn’t also sound like blood rushing through our ears. We’ll never see a sight that hasn’t been filtered by the inadequacies and tastes of our visual and cognitive apparatus. Our senses are rooted quite firmly in our meaty command module, and it’s fortunate that by habit we can filter out much of that noise or we’d never be able to enjoy anything.

We can never forget, though, that no one else sees things quite the same way we do. I mean, metaphorically speaking of course, but also quite literally: The eyes which perceive the image are different, the brain which processes the image is different, and the spirit which interprets the image is different.

Most people are familiar with the game of Telephone, wherein one person whispers a phrase to someone else, and she to the next person, and so forth in a chain of people until, at the end, the last person recites the message, hopelessly and hilariously garbled by a dozen repetitions. Here’s a secret: It doesn’t take a dozen repetitions.

A simple message, passed between two people, can be hopelessly garbled just in that single transition. Even between two people, you have several possible points where communication can go awry: The mind of the speaker, identifying and encapsulating a discrete idea, then putting it into words: The mouth of the speaker, enunciating those words clearly: The ears of the listener, hearing those words: The mind of the listener, breaking those words back down into an idea, then interpreting that idea.

This process is a slaughterhouse. Very few ideas survive intact. Usually, if they do, it’s only because the speaker and listener know each other exceptionally well, and can account for each others’ idiosyncrasies.

It’s not all bad. Misinterpreted ideas can, themselves, become new ideas. These shadow-ideas can be echoed back and forth, expand upon each other, grow outwards from a simple seed into a nuanced and complex organism. Evolution.

It does, however, call into question the validity of all forms of mass one-way communication for actually communicating an idea. Television, textbooks… Blogs like this one. None will communicate an idea completely or accurately – and, with no established relationship, there will be no way to adjust for idiosyncrasies – and, with no extended conversation, there’s no chance to expand and clarify an idea.

It’s not a disaster. If you hear an idea that seems interesting, by all means, get what you can from it. Just know that, unless the stars have aligned and you just won the jackpot, what you got from the idea is likely just a distant cousin of what the author ever intended.

1 comment
  1. Miles said:

    Hah. You found a purple monkey dishwasher.

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