Making Cents of Communication

How do we communicate?

Albert Mehrabian, in 1971, conducted a study and famously procured the following statistics: “words (the literal meaning) account for 7% of the overall message, tone of voice accounts for 38% of the overall message, [and] body language accounts for 55% of the overall message” (http://www.bodylanguageexpert.co.uk/communication-what-percentage-body-language.html). But is that all? Can a neat and orderly application of mathematics truly express the complexities of human communication?

I don’t believe so.

There is something else, not accounted for in Mehrabian’s equation, that governs human communication: the zeitgeist. The sociological, political, religious, and overall the “general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/zeitgeist).

If I may call upon the economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, and his ideas presented in Capital, I’d like to redefine our quotidian notions of a value and currency in terms of communication. Marx says, “the utility of a thing makes it a use value”. He is the first to put into words the concept that an object can have a use value irrespective of the effort it took to make it or any value the object had before. As he puts it: “this property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities”. Therefore, this introduces another party into the equation: someone to determine the value. Marx states that “use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf). Simply put, an object’s value is determined by the other buyers and sellers within the market.

Additionally, Marx speaks of currency as a numerical or tradeable reflection of the value of commodities. Marx explains, “Now if, in consequence of such a rise or fall in the value of gold, the sum of the prices of commodities fall or rise, the quantity of money in currency must fall or rise to the same extent. The change in the quantity of the circulating medium [will then be reflected in] … its function as a measure of value”. Whether it be gold, silver, green paper, coins, or a check, currency is a fluid, transferrable placeholder for value.

So, if we may translate these Marxist ideas to communication: what is the use value of our communication? What is the currency? This is where the zeitgeist comes into play.

Communication currency has changed, just as economic currency has changed. The use value of communication commodities has come and gone.

Before we had words or body language, we had food. Food was our currency and its use value was astronomically high. It was the difference between life and death. We traded and communicated in food.

Next, we developed gestures, words, and rudimentary forms of writing and pictograms and used these to formulate more efficient means of gathering food. These basic communications were indeed important, but food still reigned as governing currency.

Then with fewer nomadic people and the stabilization of agriculture, came the more elevated idea of religion. We discovered advanced and consistent sources of food, but these methods depended upon such great forces as weather and the earth’s ecological phenomena. In an effort to understand, we attempted to rationalize the unexplainable with concepts of luck, blessings, curses, and deities that oversaw the earth’s movements. The dim beginnings of formalized languages were beginning to settle in, but hardly any groups of people were writing. Therefore, with only words to communicate to each other and to the gods, who would then oversee our acquisition of food, words became the currency, with which to ‘purchase’ food from the gods or each other.

In this way, the use value of words was extremely concentrated. If it reached the ears of the gods, be it blessing, oath, or curse, it would come true. Scholars state that an oath “[implied] a belief, not only in the existence of the being so called upon, but also in his power and inclination to punish the false swearer; and the force of an oath is founded on this belief” (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Jusjurandum.html). It is given value by the communal, shared belief in this system of justice; just as Marx states, the use value of an oath is determined by the other buyers of belief. Where you put your words is where you put your faith.

This currency in the form of words holds true, even beyond the disappearance of polytheism, on through the rise of monotheism, in the form of prayers, confessions, or curses; what does shift, however, is the use value. We no longer depend on the currency of words for mortal sustenance, but for immortal sustenance. The lord’s name used in vain or a curse word would be heard and could threaten our immortal souls. Once again, we have a shared market that provides the currency its value.

Sometime later, however, just as Marx himself is growing up, humans experience a shift in reality unlike any they had seen before. Something stronger and larger came about that immediately diminished the use value of words. The Industrial Revolution reared Marx to manhood and with him came a new governing set of rules and principles. Capitalism chased out monotheism. The use value of food plummeted-it had become nearly commonplace. With the developments of vast, intercontinental markets came a new belief system, a new market, and a new currency: money. Where you put your money is where you put your faith.

You want Microsoft to succeed, so you invest your money. You want America’s economy to improve, so you buy American. You tell your daughter you love her, but just saying it isn’t enough, so you buy her a new car. You want to share with your children the magic of Christmas, so you buy them toys. You want to obtain an education to pursue the American Dream, so you buy it.

In the first century, exchanging food is communicating.

In the eleventh century, exchanging words is communicating.

In the 21st century, exchanging money is communicating.

 

But now, we have technology and social media-a resource which, by its very name, suggests communication, yet eliminates all but the least significant variable in Mehrabian’s equation. There is a notable lack of communication because words lost their meaning long ago.

But now, we have income inequality where, as of 2014,  the top 0.1% has as much wealth as the bottom 90% (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90). Money hasn’t lost its value, but we no longer communicate in money because there isn’t enough to spare. There can be no market if there are no buyers or sellers to determine use value. 

So, how do we communicate? What is our present communication currency? Or what happens when we lose our currency?

What happens when we stop trading altogether?