Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fists and irreducible complexity

Update: This post is a partial review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

cover malcolm gladwell blinkA key question in rhetoric and communication studies is how people are persuaded to act. Sometimes the act in question is overt in that it is the completion of some action; other times, the action could be implicit, in that it is the acceptance of some idea or line of reasoning as being true (or false). This latter group of actions are variously referred to as decisions or making up one’s mind. (I don’t consider these categories to be all that rigid. Consider them convenient shorthand for some temporary ideas—an argumentative place to hang your hat.) In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Malcolm Gladwell argues that many of our decisions are made without our conscious input, that they are the result of unconscious processes that occur independently of our considered, conscious thought.

Many of Galdwell’s proofs for this idea come from the ideas of complexity theory and have interesting applications to rhetoric. In the first case, Gladwell references Paul Ekman and W. V. Friesen’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS) (here is a link to a brief explanation of FACS, and a FACS chart is pictured below). Ekman and Friesen documented over 10,000 configurations of the facial muscles, of which they found about 3,000 that were meaningful. This result comes from the layering of actions in the facial muscles, actions which grow exponentially as more muscles are worked together (or in sequence). The result seems very much like a strange-attractor type problem, where out of many countless meaningless results—what Gladwell calls ‘the kind of nonsense faces that children make’ (201)—a few stable meaningful results arise.

Facial action coding system FACS
In Gladwell’s discussion of ‘thin-slicing’, his name for the ability to find emergent (my word, not his) properties of a system in very small samples of that system—say, ten seconds of a couple’s conversation is sufficient to make a highly-probably determination of that couple’s future, or a similarly small sample of Morse code is enough for a trained listener to be able to identify the operator transmitting that code. According to Galdwell, this code pattern from the second example, called a fist, ‘reveals itself in even the smallest sample of Morse code’ and ‘doesn’t change or disappear for stretches or show up only in certain words or phrases’ (29). This fact would seem to indicate that the fist is not irreducibly complex, that is, that the message is not the shortest possible way of describing the fist, for the fist shows up even in very small samples of the message.

In complexity theory, the irreducibly complex is equivalent to the random. Take the example of a random string of numbers. This string is the prototype of an irreducibly complex message because it cannot be expressed in a reduced form. The shortest method of reproducing a string of random numbers is the string itself. Language theorists like Jacques Derrida seem to argue that all symbol messages are irreducibly complex in this way, that they cannot be expressed in any shorter form than what they are, for to shorten or summarize them would be to make a different message by leaving out key information.

The fist example seems to indicate, however, that some significant portion of symbol messages, those parts that are roughly equivalent to style, are able to be reduced and maintain their identity. I’m not quite sure what the implication of this result is, but I find it interesting, especially in the context of analog and digital communication. Though Morse code is essentially a digital medium, the fist only appears as an analog aftereffect of the digital message. Similarly, Nicholson Baker’s advocation for the preservation of library card catalogs is an example of a digital message that is willing to discard analog aftereffects that are deemed unimportant.

Now, it is obvious that the digital portion of a message is also not irreducibly complex. New methods of compression might make it possible to transit the same message in a shorter form. The counterpart in communication theory, I suppose (and someone feel free to correct me if I’m getting all of these theories in a muddle), is that the iterable nature of symbol systems allows for shorthand communication of messages.

If messages are made up of both digital and analog components, neither of which are, by themselves, irreducibly complex, what then, in the Derridian sense, is the irreducible part of the message? I wonder if it is the interplay between these two elements, the connection between the analog and the digital, that is random and irreducible.

One of Gladwell’s arguments in Blink is that it is in our interest to discover where our unconscious decisions arise from as a means of determining whether or not they are to be trusted. On that note, a final thought: the analog portion of the message is much more difficult to counterfeit than the digital, though such imitation is not impossible. When all information is digitized, it is able to be copied—falsified—endlessly, much more easily than analog messages. This is because digital messages lack the global, emergent features of the reducibly complex, like the Morse code operator’s fist. As digital information is still carried via analog devices (analog telephone lines, for instance) it is possible that this portion of the signal can be analyzed for identifying features. One solution to our current concerns with digital security might be finding a way to reconnect the analog and the digital, making individual messages more difficult (perhaps impossible?) to counterfeit.

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