Tag Archives: conversation

Fire, Telepathy, Bandwidth

Literacy is an amazing power. But it comes at a terrible price. And no, I don't just mean memory.

Writing is Magic

Through the magic of psychometric tracery we are able to share the thoughts of fellow literates across great distances of time and space, just by reading their inscriptions. Moreover, psychometric tracery has a permanence that memory does not, so we can preserve our own thoughts more completely and precisely, for longer, by writing them down, than by remembering them. The modern bureaucratic state and firm owe their existence to writing - the world would collapse without it. This has probably been true ever since the first great cities learned the Art.

But Great Magic Comes at a Great Price

Just like meetings summon a very knowledgeable demon at the price of the temporary suspension of their participants' minds, writing comes at a price as well. The most common criticism is that literate people have worse memories. As usual, Plato said it best. I'm just going to paraphrase, if you want the original, I highly recommend reading the Phaedrus.

In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates tell a story about the invention of writing. He says that Theuth, the god-inventor, presented his inventions to the god-king Thamus, and among them was writing, which Theuth praised as an aid to both wisdom and memory. Thamus replied that Theuth was too optimistic; writing was a drug that counterfeited memory, and actively harmed wisdom. People would be able to "recite" many true opinions that they just looked up, but out of prolonged reliance on reference texts, would have less of the understanding that would have enabled them to generate these opinions in the first place.

Elsewhere in Phaedrus, Socrates says that the true practice of philosophy cannot be written down, because to teach philosophy you cannot speak in the same way to everyone. Philosophy is not a set of opinions, it is more like a fire burning in the soul of a person, which can only be transmitted by prolonged contact in which the other person's soul can catch fire. Plato says much the same, writing in his own voice, in the Seventh Letter, which I recommend less but has the virtue of being short.

Of course, everyone ignores this and goes on to assume Plato put his philosophy into writing. Well, almost everyone.

Was Plato Right?

I don't actually think the degradation of memory is a problem. If anything, it's freed up mental space for better things to remember. Instead of memorizing facts, we can keep track of a large number of ways to obtain facts. We've increased our total power to obtain true opinions.

The understanding thing is a little more problematic.

Talking to Yourself

When you think something through in your own mind, you have access to all your own thoughts. You know what you mean by all the words you use. You can communicate with yourself in any mode - visual, auditory, tactile, nonverbal.

Verbal conversation with another person is necessarily lower bandwidth - meaning that less information is communicated at a time. In exchange, you get two separate minds, with different strengths, processing the information simultaneously. A clarifying question from your interlocutor can help you notice that actually, no, you don't quite understand what you mean by that word, or the nonverbal assumptions you were making aren't ones you endorse, or the big fuzzy thing you were confused about seems clearer when you break it down into pieces small enough to talk about.

Another problem with verbal communication is error. Disagreements about definitions or word usage often derail substantive conversations. This can be (but rarely is) addressed by frequent stopping or interrupting at the first moment someone uses a term that seems unclear. The underlying disposition of curiosity that makes this possible, and the readiness to abandon or discard words to try to ascend to the things themselves, is part of the philosophical attitude Plato believed it would be impossible to convince someone of by writing down correct opinions.

Latency and Throughput

Verbal communication at all has serious problems, and writing has even more. A big one is latency.

I am borrowing the concept of latency and throughput from computing. They are two measurements of how fast you can transfer information.
Throughput measures the overall rate of information transfer over time. Latency measures how long it takes to move a small piece of information and get a response.

Written communication generally has high throughput but high latency. This is obviously true for things like physical letters in envelopes, but tends to be true electronically as well, because people tend to wander off and do something else instead of waiting for a response. So even some short conversations can extend over days, months, or even years.

One common response to this problem is to try to use higher throughput to compensate for latency. Instead of saying just one thing, people make long, structured arguments, explicitly defining terms and anticipating counterarguments or questions instead of waiting for them. In other words, they try to take the conversation as far as they can with a simulation of the other person inside their heads.

In cases where the questions or objections are easy or simple ones, this is effective - it is a convenient shortcut with a long and glorious tradition, dating back even to the days where such arguments were communicated by speechmaking and not writing at all, for example in politics and other adversarial environments where one could not trust one's interlocutor to ask fair questions and work with you to get to answers constructively. But for the hard questions, people just end up talking past each other, and have debates instead of conversations.

Good Conversation Takes Practice

This is especially problematic because it increases the opportunity cost of difficult conversations. Easy conversations get cheaper with writing (where the potential throughput is basically unlimited), so we have more of them - but the hard conversations are almost no cheaper at all by comparison. So we have very few. After all, the difficulties you have with a novel concept may be very different from the difficulties I have with it, requiring conversations that go in totally different directions, or at different speeds, or examining different parts of our vocabulary. Because of this, even if you do manage to make the points I need to hear, it doesn't necessarily scale up well - republishing the original won't reliably communicate the same thing again.

But wait - it gets worse. Good conversation about difficult things takes practice. Most people are never properly trained, because proper training is expensive and the benefits are unobvious, so they don't know what to do when the opportunity arises to learn something difficult - and instead just try to have a debate, linking to articles, citing research, making long structured arguments and explicit definitions, and trying to anticipate counterarguments before they come up. If they've started out on the wrong track, it's exhausting for even a skilled conversational partner to apply the brakes, especially because someone trained in the art of good philosophical conversation is specifically acculturated not to try to exert a disproportionate influence over the conversation.

My hope is that simply making more people aware of this failure mode will help them avoid it, but I'm not very confident this will help.

Wait vs Interrupt Culture

At this past weekend's CFAR Workshop (about which, by the way, I plan to have another post soon with less whining and more serious discussion), someone mentioned that they were uncomfortable with pauses in conversation, and that got me thinking about different conversational styles.

Growing up with friends who were disproportionately male and disproportionately nerdy, I learned that it was a normal thing to interrupt people. If someone said something you had to respond to, you'd just start responding. Didn't matter if it "interrupted" further words - if they thought you needed to hear those words before responding, they'd interrupt right back.

Occasionally some weird person would be offended when I interrupted, but I figured this was some bizarre fancypants rule from before people had places to go and people to see. Or just something for people with especially thin skins or delicate temperaments, looking for offense and aggression in every action.

Then I went to St. John's College - the talking school (among other things). In Seminar (and sometimes in Tutorials) there was a totally different conversational norm. People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn't get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.

But then a few interesting things happened:

1) The tutors were able to moderate the discussions, gently. They wouldn't actually scold anyone for interrupting, but they would say something like, "That's interesting, but I think Jane was still talking," subtly pointing out a violation of the norm.

2) People started saying less at a time.

#1 is pretty obvious - with no enforcement of the social norm, a no-interruptions norm collapses pretty quickly. But #2 is actually really interesting. If talking at all is an implied claim that what you're saying is the most important thing that can be said, then polite people keep it short.

With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that no one could try to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you're done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven't said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you'll say more.

When people are interrupting each other - when they're constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions - then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before - at least, until there's a very long pause - then you start to see genuine collaboration.

And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn't just interrupt and say it - then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.

By the time I graduated, I'd internalized this norm, and the rest of the world seemed rude to me for a few months. Not just because of the interrupting - but more because I'd say one thing, politely pause, and then people would assume I was done and start explaining why I was wrong - without asking any questions! Eventually, I realized that I'd been perfectly comfortable with these sorts of interactions before college. I just needed to code-switch! Some people are more comfortable with a culture of interrupting when you want to, and accepting interruptions. Others are more comfortable with a culture of waiting their turn, and courteously saying only one thing at a time, not trying to cram in a whole bunch of arguments for their thesis.

Now, I've praised the virtues of wait culture because I think it's undervalued, but there's plenty to say for interrupt culture as well. For one, it's more robust in "unwalled" circumstances. If there's no one around to enforce wait culture norms, then a few jerks can dominate the discussion, silencing everyone else. But someone who doesn't follow "interrupt" norms only silences themselves.

Second, it's faster and easier to calibrate how much someone else feels the need to talk, when they're willing to interrupt you. It takes willpower to stop talking when you're not sure you were perfectly clear, and to trust others to pick up the slack. It's much easier to keep going until they stop you.

So if you're only used to one style, see if you can try out the other somewhere. Or at least pay attention and see whether you're talking to someone who follows the other norm. And don't assume that you know which norm is the "right" one; try it the "wrong" way and maybe you'll learn something.

 

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.