Into The Black

Friends, subscribers, fellow humans,

We’ve reached a pause. One year. What a year.

I came up with this idea for sharing weekly content in late summer/early fall of 2019. I didn’t see anyone talking about communication as I was envisioning and I was looking for an outlet. I wanted to write for an audience even if I didn’t know who that audience was, or is. A newsletter about communication seemed like a good idea and I am very glad I tried this project. It was a challenge and I treated it as such.

Before I started Spark the Fire, I figured that after a year of writing the worst I’d be is closer to my book draft. I am certainly much closer but also think this year’s effort was a moderate success.

So, this edition marks the end of this newsletter in this current form. I will be pausing from sending you anything for some time as I have a book draft to complete. This is my main writing goal for 2021. These last 12 months taught me the challenge it is to get my own mind around these difficult ideas and package them in a way that will engage people. That has been much of the work of these last 12 months. I believe what I’m working on is going to be great.

I hope you’ll stay subscribed because you will hear from me again, just not for a little while and not in the form of a weekly article. When the book moves along, you’ll hear from me. The ideas that I’m choosing to include in my book draft will be far better served in book form than they were chopped up in a weekly newsletter.

Have a comment or some ideas of things I should write about? Any quirks about communication you’ve noticed? Feel free to send any smart observations to me at [drn [at] davidrnovak.com]. Something you’d like me to pontificate on? Or shut up about? Let me know. I might even listen to you.

I appreciate the accompaniment on this little newsletter endeavor. I hope you found it useful or thought provoking. I look forward to sharing more and am grateful for you’re interest. I think I’ve got a couple of fun tricks up my sleeve. I hope you’ll stick around.

Signing off for now,

DRN

12/29/2020

The Big Four

Good communication is built on 4 pillars: respect, authenticity, trust, and honesty. With all four of those, communication can flourish. This does not mean that all 4 of these must be present at all times for communication to work well or be decent. Or even happen. Bad communication is likely in the absence of those four. Replaced by their alternate forms.

In any relationship, if you have these things, obviously don’t let them go. If you’re relationship — your communication — doesn’t have these things, it’s probably what you should be working towards or thinking about abandoning ship.

I have not the capability or wordspace to fully address these in any sort of complete way but I do want to address them because it’s where we should be going. These things are essential to good communication. People bleat about “Just communicate!” but it’s not that simple. If you don’t have yourself a bubble of respect, “authenticity” — which is quite a problem in itself, trust, and honesty…well, I fear it may not be likely that things go well. It always depends with communication, but without the big four, surely success is less likely.

Respect

Respect comes first. There’s a reason Aretha sang that song. Without a baseline of acceptable respect for the other person’s humanity, good communication is either not possible or doomed to fail. That is, you might hang on in a decent enough relationship for a time, but if respect crumbles, your relationship is as good as dead. There’s no way around it. We show respect through how we communicate. We have to listen. We have to use language that recognizes and does not erase others. We need to allow others to talk, to say what they think, and to agree that people can interpret how they wish. Agreement itself is not a given, individual interpretation is. Showing respect usually gets respect in return. Where does respect start? How do you claim respect when none is afforded to you? These are much more challenging questions.

Authenticity

Authenticity is a tricky wicket. We know it when we see it or feel it, but extraordinarily hard to pin down. Authenticity grows from experience and comes out in people’s abilities to express and mold their experiences into creations that other people — for whatever reason or reasons — seem to identify with.

Authenticity occurs and shifts across all kinds of relationships — from our interactions with new people to artistic performances to the believability of corporate communiqués. Authenticity can also be wielded as a weapon which gives it an interesting double-edged nature. Authenticity can drive and move people, but allegations of non-authenticity can haunt. These understandings and labels can be very hard to shake or resistant to change and quite damaging when wielded falsely. Who is to say what is authentic and what is not. Yet, we seem to know and be drawn to authenticity.

What is authenticity? Hell if I know, but I know it’s important.

Trust

Everyone everywhere is talking about trust. There’s a lack of trust in institutions. Nobody seems to trust each other. Often with good reason. I can’t imagine why people can’t trust others when there seems to be selfishness around every corner.

Selfishness is the opposite of trust. Ego. Ignorance. Perceived infallibility.

This is what erodes trust.

Trust is the infrastructure on which relationships are built but strangely, a lack of trust isn’t necessarily bad, surely less than ideal but not nearly the end of things.

You can communicate without trust. But the outcomes are likely not nearly as good as they could be.

Honesty

Honesty is fundamental to good communication. Lies, deception, disinformation can be successful — they can achieve their purpose — but they can’t be “good.”

Repeated honesty builds trust.

Without honesty, trust deteriorates. Dishonest communication cannot be relied on for long-term success. I do not see how there will not always be room for honesty and the vulnerability that comes along with it, but we cannot assume honesty, because people are slippery and strategic. For a relationship that will last, endure, and show resilience, honesty and forthrightness likely have their place.

Some cultures or individuals may be more or less direct with others. Directness and honesty are not the same thing.

These are the big four. The pillars that underlie good communication — which is what we’re after. Aim for the good though you will not always get there.

On Communicating’s Sanctity

Communication is profoundly common and mundane. Nothing could be more ordinary. Yet connecting with others is sacred.

Paradox.

We give some of ourselves to them. They give something back. We create something new. Or maybe we reinforce something we already have. Or we grow in a new direction. Make some new meaning. Or plant a seed.

Communicating is never just one — or, necessarily all, of these things. Sometimes, for example, conversations are doomed to die and will never be more than routinized exchange. Imagine a car dealership salespitch. Or what it’s like to haggle over the price of something at a market. (This can actually be quite fun.) These are communication, but they’re only going to be how they’re going to be. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to become friends with the car dealer or have tea with the guy you were haggling with. But, you might actually. Tea is far more likely in many places than friends with your car dealer is likely to be…just about anywhere, I’d guess.


In 2011 on my first evening during a trip to Marrakech, Morocco, I headed to the Jemaa el-Fna, a wondrous cultural space of performers, storytellers, hawkers, and various travel con men by day which grows into a delectable food market at night. The night market grows alive and dissolves into the city each and every evening in a feat of production and coordination.

On this first night, I walked up and down the stalls, soaking it in but mostly calculating the best food to eat. I decided on Moroccan sausages with onions and bread. I drank raibi — a common yogurt drink. After eating, I meandered over to the performances, games, and displays to people watch. To flaneur. Men with monkeys and snakes, dancers, performance artists, scammers. I watched people play a game where you could fish for 2-liter bottles of soda. Pay a few dirham, hook a bottle, everyone wins.

As I stood there watching kids play, a man approached me and introduced himself. We talked about the game Where are you from? When did you arrive? How long are you staying?

Despite having my guard up a bit about possibly being scammed, it quickly seemed he didn’t want to sell me anything so the conversation continued. His English was excellent which was great because now I had someone to answer my questions: What do I need to eat? I ate these amazing sausages already. Where should I go see? Local perspective is always invaluable. It’s a way to learn much, very quickly.

After my questions about what to see and eat, he asked if I tried Moroccan Tea yet. I had not. He asked if I was interested in walking to a rooftop cafe terrace 50 meters for tea. You mean I can see all the square action and drink fresh tea with a local?

“Sure. Let’s go.”

So we did. We sat at the rooftop cafe for 45 minutes or so and drank our tea. Chatted. He was born in Marrakech, but had studied and worked in France. Biology, if memory serves and he had worked in healthcare in France for a while, but had returned to Morocco. At that time, he was having a difficult time finding work in his field due to a lack of healthcare jobs in his area in Morocco. We talked about mint tea and the sugar cubes. We talked about what it was like to living there, and living there compared to France.

He asked about me. American professors by way of The Netherlands don’t end up in Marrakech everyday, so I was a relatively interesting character to talk to. Why was I there? What did I teach? What was The Netherlands like (compared to France)? How are Dutch people weird? 75 minutes. “It was really nice to meet you.” Eventually, a handshake and back into the vapors of a memorable night.


Many questions come to mind. Is this a relationship? I like to think so. It was, at least for the brief time it existed. Now, the memory serves me well. It was nice communicating when it happened.

Looking back to that moment, I cannot shake the thought that there is something sacred there. Well, the possibility exists. This just happens to be one of those situations which may or may not be fairly normal. Mint tea with a stranger? Could go either way on the normalness scale. Night in Morocco? Fairly unique. Unless you’re Moroccan.

Sitting around talking and listening and exchanging symbols over tea with one another — that is, when we’re communicating — in all the ways we do, are our relationships. That’s them, being formed. They might not last long. Like uranium, relationships decay, sometimes quickly.

I don’t think a conversation has to be particularly notable for it to be sacred. Every interaction is sacred in some tiny way. Every conversation a chance to recognize and learn and appreciate from another. It’s sharing. It’s learning. It’s changing. It’s all of these things at once. Communication doesn’t always feel this way, but the best communication does. It’s when you can feel the hum, the flow, the groove, and grow the tendrils of connection with another.

There’s a flip side to this sacredness, of course. There’s no guarantee that you’re not being sold a tour of a model Berber home complete with actor family and 2 year old calendar on the wall. Plenty of communication is mundane, routine, and has had its soul directly sucked out. Customer-service calls are 7th level of hell. Chatbots aren’t likely to be much better. Sacredness isn’t about the outcome of communication per se, because the outcomes are often decidedly not sacred.

It’s in the moment. It’s the raw appreciation and respect for the person across from you. A recognition of their humanity. Of what they have to say and think. This is entirely communication. Conversing. Interacting — over some period of time — as much or as little as that might be.

Something about the free and easy conversation on that Marrakech night has stuck with me all these years later. I don’t recall his looks or his features. I didn’t take a photo. I only recall he was a good person to sit and share a small scrap of time and some mint tea with. If a long past night in Morocco can be thought of as this way, how can we recognize and respect the sanctity of the person across from us in the relationships that surround us every day? We can get numbed by communication’s everydayness. This blinds us. The everydayness numbs us. The capacity for recognizing the sacred in the everyday is in us.

Experimental: sPaceTIme WeIRdNeSS

Artwork: Gravitational Waves. Image: © NASA.

[[Author’s Note: This week’s article is a little out there — even in comparison to some of my other oddball ideas. I recognize this. If it’s not for you, I get it. How far can the boundaries on ideas bout communication be stretched? I love physics as well as communication though I know far more about the latter than the former. I am nonetheless curious about how the two might play together. Please keep the experimental nature of this work in mind as you read.]]

What in the world does physical spacetime and the infinity of the universe have to do with human communication?

What the hell kind of question is that?I don’t fully know, but I’m asking it.

It’s a question that hasn’t been pondered by that many people (at least not to my satisfaction). And while I’m certainly not discounting the number of social scientists out there that have incorporated either space or time into their work, I’m not talking space or time, or even space AND time.

I’m talking spacetime — as in that of the physical universe.

How out there can we get?

Messages travel through time. Imagine a lost letter. Or a voicemail that is saved beyond a person’s death. Video messages for birthday celebrations that will never be shared tucked away on the cloud somewhere. Or sometimes — in the case of surprise death — a small note someone left behind, an article of clothing, or an artifact.

Even seemingly mundane communications — tweets, emails, videos, Instagram photos — are actually both suspended in spacetime (from when and where they were created/sent) and travel through spacetime (to the person receiving them) to create meaning.

The point of arrival is different than that of origination.

Where were you when I wrote this sentence? Where are you now that you’ve received it? When and where has communication taken place? Multiple people, multiple instances, and so on.

When is communication happening again? I told you it was weird. In physics, Einstein referred to this as “spooky action at a distance.”

Communication is kind of the same thing.

Wormholes. Blackholes. Communicational waves. Ripples through our perceptions of the spacetime continuum. How might what we know about physics and spatial reality shape our understanding and appreciation of how it is that humans communicate? What are the relationships between the physical universe and humans jabbering? This is unexplored gap of conceptual territory that we grow increasingly able to ascertain and assess what with all our technological advances.

The Expanse Can’t Be Contained In One Small Dollop

I suppose my introduction to physics — beyond, you know, gravity — was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which I read in high school. I still have my original copy. I’ve since read many other books — by Carl Sagan, Katie Mack, and Chris Ferrie (click Ferrie link, get joke). I read about digestible snippets about the physical universe: quarks and strings and event horizons. I don’t understand much and I’ve remembered only a few things. The math of such endeavors is comically (cosmically?) past me.

Infiniteness, common in among both the physical universe and communication is the first place where we might imagine Hawking or Sagan might be able to sink their hooks into the realities of communication. Human communication is submissive to the laws of the physical universe. You’re email isn’t getting there faster than the speed of light. That said, the possibilities of what meaning might come out of any given interaction is — much like the expanse of space — infinite. Two people can go anywhere. They can expand in any direction. In that relationship, any meaning is possible.

Communication does not occur in any sort of one-directional or standard way and is far more like wormholes and string theory than we realize.

Human abilities to make meaning are infinite. No beginning. No end. Only on and on it goes. In all directions. A giant golden donut.

Wormholes & Multiverses

I don’t know the cutting-edge thinking from astronomy and quantum types about theories and ideas of wormholes, but I do know that when it comes to people communicating, wormholes exist. Any communication occurring via technological delivery methods or simply the passage of time (if time even exists) essentially leaps through spacetime via a worm hole.

Information and intended meaning go in on one end and come out somewhere else. You can pick up a 200 year old book and communicate with the dead. A message might not land until well after it is sent. You can slip into a digital play third space and co-occupy multiple meaning-making spaces at once.

Any distributed message goes into a wormhole of sorts. A message can goes in at one place and come out at many others, meeting separate individuals where they are, each in a moment of spacetime all their own — with its own conditions, circumstances, and features that make communication more or less likely successful.

Meaning doesn’t necessarily follow immediately after something is said. Sometimes, the meaning from a message might resonate multiple times, over time — even long stretches of time. Sometimes, the ring of the bell doesn’t strike you until years later.

So, when is communication taking place? Maybe the better question is where is communication taking place. The answers to either suggest the existence of wormholes.

When Two Collide

Black holes and gravitational waves. Power and energy beyond imagination.

In the physical universe when these bodies collide, the waves ripple out through and across the universe. We know because the waves can be measured by scientists. Using an unimaginably complex and precise system of lasers and mirrors, physicists can actually measure the compression and expansion of spacetime right here on earth. Absolutely mad.

It strikes me that two people communicating is a collision similar to this. A conversation happens — that conversation can look many different ways and be an infinite number of things — but it’s a collision and there are ripples. There are at least two “meaning reactions” from any given conversation. Both ripple out. Waves intersecting. The ripples take the form of our love and our hate and our compassion and our humor and our joy and our anger towards the others with whom which we happen to be interacting. There’s always a trace left behind of that wave that ripples through the relationship. Eventually every wave fades.

Like magic. Like physics. Spook action at a distance. Except communication.


What does all this monkey talk about universe and physical reality get us? I haven’t a clue. I didn’t say there was a point. I’m just here writing.

Where are you? What do you think of all this?

See?

There it is.

Channels of the Future

Perhaps more oddly than most, I am fascinated with channels of communication. Any of them. Do you imagine the methods pirates and naval captains used to pass information around their ships? I have. How did they do so efficiently (or not) during the chaos of battle? Runners? Yelling really loudly? I want to know. What was the everyday banter like on an old naval ship? What is it like today? People on ships were shitting and stinking and under a lot of stress so you know there was fkn weird shit going on.

I’m no military communications expert, but one interesting channel I know sailors used are voice pipes aka speaking tubes. As a I kid, I toured the USS Constitution. A couple of times. My dad is a fanatic of the ship and we toured it as a family multiple times. My partner and I had wedding photos taken outside it because despite not being from Boston, that’s where we were married. Dad still drinks his morning coffee out of a vintage Old Ironsides mug.

On one of those tours as a kid, my dad pointed out the voice pipes which sailors would use to yell orders and commands over distances easier especially while cannons were booming on deck. Voice pipes are still used today.

This guy does have a few additional communication channels at his disposal, however.

Channels are infrastructure and means - an actual physical (or digital) object which shapes how communication will or can go and what happens in it. Every channel has a shape. The information and messages that sent via voice pipes will look and feel one way — with very certain purposes. And what happens in a different channel will be, well, different, with other purposes.

We’re not eating candlelight dinners from opposite ends of a voice pipe.

One Foot On Either Side

Good old Generation X. Old enough to remember life before the internet, but young enough to be fascinated by all the wild technological developments of our lifetimes. I remember when cell phone service was shit and having more than zero games on your phone was a luxury. Yet I get pissed at Siri because she wont do what I want. I also wonder if that Alexa thermostat down the hall really is disabled or if I should just anticipate an settlement check — probably in the form of Bezos Bucks — at some point in my future. “Whoops, sorry we actually recorded all your data. Take this and forget it all happened. Don’t mind us, we were just building your robot overlords.”


I remember first hearing about the internet in 1993. The internet itself was kind of old by then, but just blossoming into the more public, and less DARPA-project, we know it as today. The Information Superhighway. There was a story on Channel One during homeroom class which was how I first learned about “THE INTERNET.”

There were actually quite a few stories about the internet happening in those days and it was a regular topic on Channel One that year. People were talking about it like it was this cool new thing, which it was. These weird packages and booklets from AOL with cds in them started showing up. The computers at Best Buy and Circuit City got better quickly. RAM speeds like you had never seen. 32MB. Crazy times.

The allure of this new channel and what was possible on it, pulled us in. My interest was piqued early after hearing these stories on Channel One and my first ventures onto the internet were shrouded in secrecy and subversion.

When I met the internet, it was by figuring out how to rig up the family computer to the modem, adjusting the modem settings in Windows 3.1 so I could dial in to a computer I shouldn’t have had access to. No small task or feat if you knew nothing about how computers as I did.

Dialing into the internet. Can you hear the sound?

I became privy to the logon information of a friend’s older brother’s friend who went to Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I learned that you could call into a local Chicago number at Illinois-Chicago and get your computer online. I figured out how to dial via the modem, entered the haxored logon information, and bam! I was browsing USENET groups with Telnet commands!

I’m hoping the statute of limitations on my computer hacking has run out.

It wasn’t long before my parents had dial up internet in the house and my internet expanded beyond the USENET groups I found in those early days of unauthorized entry. My hacking days ended.

Oh, by the way, the password was “password.”


We all got email addresses and at some point, this internet really grew into all these new ways to connect with other people. AOL Instant Messenger, IRC chat, message boards, discussion forums. Only later was it social media and many of the technological whizzbangs that you all know and love and hate today. Circa 1998, my internet was Yahoo! Games, tape trading message boards, and music chatrooms.

Things have advanced some since then.

Weird things started happening. Trolling. Flaming. Spam bots. Messages informing you your Aunt had been kidnapped in Guatemala and needed money. Or that you were being contacted to facilitate a transaction for a Nigerian Prince.

Well past these early days I’ve described, there are still message boards and chat rooms, as we would expect, though they’ve certainly evolved. USENET groups were the primordial muck circa 1992-1993. Channels have evolved. The ways and forms of communication have changed and will continue to change. New tubes. And new things built on top of those tubes. What does the future hold?

Interactions Beyond Screens

The amount of human connection that has come to be mediated by screens is truly astounding. Zoomland 2020 amplified this realization, but it’s more than Zoom. Social media, smartphones, smart TVs, gaming platforms, it’s all screens everywhere you look. At my own work station — if I wanted — I could have 6 screens (2 laptops, 2 monitors, 2 phones) or 7 (if I added the iPad). Insanity!

While screens might increase our productivity or make it easier or more fun to connect and do things together, screens are rightly maligned as well. Imagine people sitting around a living room everyone sucked into their own little phone world. They’re interacting but also avoiding those around them. So, are they? There are health risks. But it’s not the screens that drive us away from one another. Quite the opposite actually, they only highlight our fundamental need to be connected. It’s not the technology we’re addicted to, it’s the human at the other end.

Assuming humans manage to eek out existence for a few more decades, we may advance beyond screen technology to more ambient forms. For example, it’s already theoretically possible to communicate interpersonally via some sort of advanced hologram technology. Holograms have already been done “at scale” (E.g. Hologram Tupac at 2012 Coachella) and will only advance or die from where they are now which is well beyond 2012 levels. Technologically-speaking, there’s very little from stopping a “virtual” interaction between two humans who are engaging entirely with immersed digital representations of the other person or other entities.

In the future, plenty of these sorts of interactions will be not with other humans, but with genie-like AI entities that will appear or present themselves — probably to encourage us to buy shit, but also hopefully in creative interactions, guided history, and public solidarity actions.

Digitally co-present, embodied conversations without screens is surely possible. And it will be weird.

Bodies, Implants, and Other Bio-Technological Strangeness

A different, but related new technological direction, involves the addition of tactile technologies and multi-sensory experiences. Wearables and other sorts of body-tactile technologies are likely to be central to the next wave of human communication experiences, but so far science fiction still outstretches reality. It appears likely, however, that the augmentation of human experience will continue. We didn’t stop at inventing eyeglasses.

Our bodies are involved in communication but at the same time our brains and perceptions are also limited in how much information they can sift through at least in their un-augmented state. Certain forms of wearables and ambient technologies are likely to shape how humans are able to sift through, use, and play with all kinds of information. These technologies make wild meaning possible. Again, communication gets weird.

A top 3 crazy episode of Black Mirror for me is the one where couples can rehash previous conversations, playback essential memories, or document evidence of relational wrongdoing via there implanted chip rewind devices. People looping themselves back through experiences, both pleasurable and of jealousy. Revisiting video transcripts wielding past words like a weapon. Obsession over how something was said, the look a person gave, or how others responded.

When you start talking wearables, implants in bodies, and chips in brains the consequences for communication are radical. Things barely imagined. Are our monkey brains capable of handling the exponential increase in weirdness that comes with these sorts of technologies?


We humans cling to the old while embracing the new. Monkeys swinging from vine to vine.

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