The Internet was set up to help us pass information -- which, in this case means unambiguously coded messages. More recently, however, the focus has shifted from passing coded messages to chat, as housed on sites like YouTube Inc. , Facebook (Nasdaq: FB), and MySpace -- as well as chat lines, texting, and the insistent questioning "Where are you?" on mobile phones. This shift has significantly revised the understanding of communication we have worked with since before the beginnings of the Internet.
Over the past 60 years, our understanding of what communication means and what it is for has been profoundly shaped (I would say distorted) by the "Mathematical Theory of Communication" first published by Claude E. Shannon in 1948. Shannon brought to communication the approach of an engineer concerned with the flow of signals down lines, which he treated according to the metaphor of (physical) energy. We owe to Shannon and his theory (commonly referred to as "Information Theory") a great deal of what has allowed the development of the technology of computing (used in its most general sense). But we also owe to Shannon's work the now-dated notion that communication is only about passing unambiguously coded messages.
Etymologically, the word "communication" contains, within it, notions of communion and community, which were forgotten in the enthusiasm surrounding Shannon's work. These are now being recognized as important by those for whom communication is about sharing and about community: Those who say to their friends "I text, therefore I am" and who ask "Do you hear me, are you there?"
Shannon's theory derived to a large extent from the work of Norbert Wiener, whose own spin on this work was presented slightly earlier in 1948, in "Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine." Although Wiener didn't actually write all that much about communication in his book, it is always implicitly present, for there can be no control without communication (of the control intention).
Cyberneticians quickly came to understand that Shannon's model was particularly limited. Two British cyberneticians (Donald MacKay and Gordon Pask), in particular, developed what we may think of as richer models than Shannon's. Pask's model, for example, was called "Conversation Theory" and, having been developed since the early 1950s, was formalized in 1975. Rather than rely on coded communication, Pask centered his theory on the idea that humans each build their own understanding of meaning behind communicational gestures, such as speech. In a Paskian conversation, the key notion is that each of us builds our own understanding, and this is how we share. So Pask's argument in favor of conversation (rather than coding) as a model for communication brings with it the enrichment that is centrally concerned with sharing: that is, with communion and community.
Where Information Theory may help us pass coded messages more effectively, Pask's Conversation Theory insists on the richer understanding of communication currently growing on the Internet and with mobile phones. This communication is without purpose in terms of sending information. Rather, its purpose is to be together -- in other words, to share.
What cybernetics predicted, and then brought to modern communications, was not only the basis on which we can efficiently transmit coded messages; it also brought the sense of community and of sharing that we now see on the edge of taking over. In this respect, cybernetics offers us much more than just mechanical communication. As Wiener's subtitle for his book claims, it also brings us those human qualities that are so important to us as we ask, "Are you there, are we together?"
— Ranulph Glanville, President Elect of the American Society for Cybernetics; Professor of Architecture and Cybernetics in the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London