Confused Terminology in the Field of Communication, Information and Mass Media: Brillig But Mimsy
Canadian Journal of Communication
The term "communication" has been misused by scholars, practitioners and laymen so long that definition is badly needed if solid study foundations are to be laid and meaning achieved for public participation. The word "Media" too is often used as a singular noun by laymen. "Mass Communication" is a contradiction in terms .and "the mass. media of communication" an abomination. Pluralizing communication(s) to mean the hardware of "telecommunications" is found untenable as is the word
... ations" itself except for telephone. The word "communication" derives from the Latin communico which includes the prefix "co", implying "with", and the morpheme or cognate "commune" with some other forms such as "communion", "communism", "commonwealth" and "company". "Sharing" or "holding in common" are what is meant. Two or more persons are obviously involved in the etymology. The mass media, being one-way do not qualify as communication and the little feedback that occurs through polls, letters or phone-in programs are controlled trickles into the mainstream of media information. To be called communication, media must include operating cybernetic loops with significant exchange between senders and receivers; dialogue must replace the-present monolgue. Commercial media claiming to "communicate" have usurped the term; they do not communicate; they do inform, however, but because of their excommunication function they may actually alienate people. Scholars usuage over the years is examined including some now beginning to recognize this solecism and to argue against communication's further abuse. Telidon is questioned as to its interactive claims. A paper presented at the Canadian Communciation Conference, at Halifax, May, 1981. As we are examining at this conference the intellectual foundations of communication theory, it would be well to retrace our steps toward a definition of terminology in this field, uninhibited by the ambiguities, confusion and misuse in places, high and low. Either that or we must change the technology from reactive to interactive to fit the terminology. It is understandable that these words have been so abused by the public and by practitioners, but puzzling that they should have been confused by scholars so long when they might have been producing a more scientific taxonomy. Meanwhile, study and understanding by students may have been arrested. Certainly, illumination has been blocked. Elaborate empirical studies have been built on a semantic quicksand and only commercial interests have benefited. The usurpation of the "warm" word and currently, an "in" wordcommunicationby those who dispense information or data for a price could not fail to benefit commercialists, even though it may have hindered others. The greatest misnomer is the central word, "communication" itself. Others are the word "media," and compoundings from the main word, i.e. "mass communication" or the ultimate monstrosity, "mass media of communication." And the word "information" has become distorted or ousted. From time to time we hear of "communication overkill" by which is meant "information overkill". The various media publics seldom if ever suffer communication overkill because they do not have communication at all; they do suffer from the constant and repetitive one-way flow of information, particulary advertising. The word "information" is also treated in two ways: first, in the popular sense of "items of knowledge" and secondly in the technical meaning of "binary" digits or electronic "bits". Sometimes a difference is drawn between the word "communication" and its plural "communications". The singular is used to mean the software, message or content; the plural is confined to the meaning of "hardware" -that is, system or technology. This, at least, distinguishes communication from information and data, ( but unfortunately it assigns to the letter "s" the impossible task of radically altering the meaning of the other thirteen letters. Pluralization of most words retains the original meaning of that word, not just the sound, even though the plural may not be the letter "s" as in the case of "bureaux" for bureaus. A large semantic space is covered by thirteen letters of the alphabet, dominating the tiny single-letter space of the plural '3". There is confusion in the field because many do not know that such distinction is being drawn by some scholars; it is seldom drawn by laymen. The term "mass communication" is, of course, a contradiction in terms as the media are now structured, because there is no media communication with the mass, no matter how the mass or the public is perceived. Should media be re-constructed to include feedback of more than a token kind, the term would be quite tenable. This is not mere quibble or word-play of no consequence to the real world where communication may be disappearing while noncommunicative authoritative messages increase along with their corolloraries, estrangement and violence. Monologuist mass media have forestalled the development of interactive community media by laying false claims to a communication role even while their development has mitigated against any analysis of information-provision in society. The vehicles of mass media -print or electronic -are not carriers of "communication" but one-way delivery systems for messages. The often heard phrase used by organization secretaries who pretentiously announce that several people "have communicated with us by mail," is not only pedantry but an incorrect use of the word. "Several people have written to us," yes, or "sent us a letter." Communicated by telephone, yes, for here in the two-way channels of copper wire pairs is an exchange of messages by voice, albeit not face-to-face until picturephone can make its second coming. Although both Oxford and Webster dictionaries trace the Latin root of "communication" to the concept of sharing, holding intercourse, holding in common and having a common passageway, they also provide the popular meanings: to impart, transmit, give information and convey. If these words in the communication and media fields represented the same thing for the receiver as they d o for the sender, all might be well, but the difficulty lies in the fact they d o not. They are ambiguous, imprecise, lacking in validity and somewhat subjective. The word stems from the Latin roots "communico" and "communicare". It produces such words as "commune", "community", "communion", "communism", "commonwealth" and "company." All of these words carry the meaning of "more than one." The prefix "cow is present in each case, being a synonym for "with" (it takes at least two to use "with"). The first morpheme or cognate in most of the words is "commune", where common possession is a basis of human relations. This may be a physical sharing as in communal land or symbolic sharing as in the church's sacrament of "holy communion" where the mystical body of Christ is said to be shared when Christians unite in a ritual partaking of the "host". A thin wafer taken on the tongue is the medium that carries the holy spirit inside the supplicant, or so he believes. In roughly the same way, Hitler symbolized his anti-Christ dogma of Aryan superiority with the symbol of a crooked cross, the Swastika, and achieved a near-total communion of German people united in idolatry. They congregated in the black mass of the infamous Nuremberg Rally and, from all ackounts, their communication was viscera! and emphatic. It was like a spark running through the audience, leaping from person t o to fuse separate identities in a vast homogeneity. Their feedbqck to ~i~l~~ tocsin was the tumultuous roaring repetition "Seig Heil!-with arms raised in the hubristic Nazi salute like one mammath member in deification of Der Fueher. The object of their worship s~o o d u n d e r the huge cross and the Imperial Eagle in that vast amphitbeatre as lights swept over the upraised faces and trumpets blared. The Rally could be called communication personified dramatized. Perhaps if this version of communicatpon were cited more often, not as something always good, but as a negative version with hypnotic overtonesmass persuasion throhgh perceived blood affinities and stage-managed dramacornmuhication would take on deeper (and darker) meaning. For Karl Jaspee" the catholic existentialist, it takes on the meaning of cerebration, t h e opposite of this meaning of celebration. Jaspers held that: Reason demands boundless communication. It is itself the total will to communicate ... existence comes into its own only with other existence ... the individual cannot become human by himself ... companions in f a t e lovingly find the road to truth.' Like-minded Nazis, binding themselves together, q i d not find the road to truth in the short run. But the journey into truth, Jaspers says, is to be found only "in time" through commy,icability: T r u t h therefore cannot be s e p a r a t e d from communicability. It only appears in time as wealityt h r o u g h c o m m u n i c a t i o n . A b s t r a c t e d f r o m communication truth hardens into reality. The movement of communication is at one and the same time, the preservation of the search for truth.' When worshippers are denied this process of sharing by ecclesiastical authority, the severance is called ex-co~municationa serious punishment in medieval days that cut people offfrom social contacts, rendered them social lepers, and reduce^ them in their isolation to non-persons. Next to death itself, and sometimes more than death, this ostracism has been experienced i b all times and places as a cruel remedy. Man is a political animal, Aristotle remarked, meaning he is a gregarious animal; to curtail, or deny him contact with fellow humans is the penultimate gunishment. modern times, this ex-communication takes the form of alienation which results from subtle social segregation. The mass media as oneway message-makers, failing in communication, may be important elements in that alienation. In short, the mass media do not communicate. Theg inform. ~h~i~ role, to date, has been informationand not c,mmunication~ small step for man, one great leap for mankind" became two-way only when Mission Control radioed back to him. Talking back and forth to each other, they were then in communication; the masses of viewers and listeners in these nations remained voiceless. (Information like this, of course, can in turn stimulate communication in groups.) How do Canadian scholars use the key words in this field? Harold Innis in l%e Bias of Communication asserts, "A medium of communication has an important influence on the dissemination of knowledge over space and time.