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The depth and limits of words

In my opinion, words are the best “technology” for becoming aware of inner states and communicating them. Words are worth a thousand images. They can be like bridges to our inner world. The Net, for different reasons, discourages prolonged reading and introspection, directing our (scattered) attention toward external inputs only.

Words can bring us a long way toward the expansion of our awareness: however, they are slippery and can’t bring one up to the most elevated levels of consciousness. Furthermore, when words are communicated, they are heavily influenced by the interpretations we superimpose on them, by our cultural beliefs and our individual neuroticisms and conditionings.

Much of the communication industry – the Net included – is based on the rationale that more communication equals more understanding which equals a better world.  This comes from the assumption that ideas, concepts, meanings and feelings can be expressed and transferred by language. This is what has been called “the conduit metaphor” by Michael J. Reddy. According to the conduit metaphor:

Ideas are objects that you can put into words, so that language is seen as a container for ideas, and you send ideas over a conduit, a channel of communication to someone else who then extracts the ideas from the words… One entailment of the conduit metaphor is that the meaning, the ideas, can be extracted and can exist independently of people. Moreover, that in communication, when communication occurs, what happens is that somebody extracts the same object, the same idea, from the language that the speaker put into it. So the conduit metaphor suggests that meaning is a thing and that the hearer pulls out the same meaning from the words and that it can exist independently of beings who understand words (George Lakoff, interviewed by Iain A. Boal, “The Conduit Metaphor,” in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds., Resisting the Virtual Life, San Francisco: City Lights, 1995, p. 115).

The reality is that for the conduit metaphor to work we would need to share a very wide set of attributes: the same language, the same interpretation of words, a compatible level of culture, a similar background, a similar kind of sensitivity. So similar that perhaps the real point of communicating by words is actually to get closer to our self-understanding.

The conduit metaphor is what makes us write in blogs and social networks, thinking our message can be sent and “uploaded” to other human beings and will reach them in the way we intended. We don’t actually know about how this message will be interpreted, then we become surprised when there are misunderstandings and when wars get ignited.

The fathers of the digital revolution believed in the power of electronic communication and feedback as a tool for expanding participation and even consciousness. The origins of the conduit metaphor lie in the belief that we can separate information from the person who receives it. We consider “pure” information as something we can separate from the “noise” of our interpretations and feelings. It is the Cartesian dream of separating pure thoughts from the person in his wholeness, misplacing knowledge and information for the transformation of human qualities for the better.

As far as day-to-day work is concerned, language is useful, but you cannot move into the deeper realms with it, because these realms are nonverbal. Language is just a game…The meaning of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is that the moment you speak, you are divided. The story is not that people began to speak different languages but, that they began to speak at all. The moment you speak, there is confusion. The moment you utter something, you are divided. Only silence is one. (Osho, The Psychology of the Esoteric, Cologne: Rebel Publishing House, pp. 57 and 60).

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