The message plays such a central role in communication processes that “the Theory of Communication is largely a theory of messages” (Ferrater Mora 1994). However, the common direct association between message and information arises from a confusion –even a conceptual void- which source can be found in Shannon’s communication model. For the sake of improving our understanding of both message and information, a clarification is needed in order to address the involved phenomena better.
If communication requires at least a sender, receiver, a medium and a message, but regarding McLuhan famous dictum “the medium is the message”, what is then a message? Bringing here some clarity, restoring its importance, is perhaps a way to circumvent the “disangelium of current times” referred by Sloterdijk (1997) or the “phantasmagorical” character of new media evoked by Zizek (1997).
2. Message and information, from Shannon’s confusion towards a systematic distinction
Claude Shannon's theory of communication (Shannon 1948) is not a theory about information transmission but about message transmission. Shannon uses the term 'message' instead of 'information' in its usual meaning as 'knowledge communicated'. The concept of information within this theory refers to the number of binary choices in order to create or codify – a message. In reality – as it was conceived and applied – the theory is about signal transmission and the ways in which to make it more reliable. Shannon correlates information and uncertainty, as opposed to the everyday meaning of information. The semantic and pragmatic aspects are excluded from this engineering perspective of communication. Warren Weaver found Shannon's definition of information as counterintuitive (Shannon & Weaver 1972). But Shannon had indeed substituted the everyday meaning by using the word message.
Message and information are related but not identical concepts:
Thus, we observe they are interrelated concepts but clearly not coincident. How might they be distinguished? The theory of social systems provides us here some insights. Following Luhmann, a communication process within a social system is a three dimensional juncture of a meaning offer, selection of meaning and understanding (Luhmann 1987, 196, ®Autopoiesis). Considering message as meaning offer, and information as its selection, we already have a distinction: message ("Mitteilung") is the action of offering something (potentially) meaningful to a social system ("Sinnangebot"); information ("Information") is the process of selecting meaning from different possibilities offered by a message; and understanding ("Verstehen") is the integration of the selected meaning within the system. Communication melts these differences towards a unity.
Message, as meaning offer is sender dependent, therefore heteronomous. We receive messages, but we look for information, which we can only do if a meaning offer exists. A message brings to the recipient something new or surprising, causing uncertainty. It can be through different means codified and transmitted, arriving to recipients somehow distorted. Finally, the selection of meanings offered by the message always takes place over the background of a pre-understanding. Recipients understand messages distinguishing between the meanings offered and selected. The Recipient can doubt about the message, interpreting either way or even neglecting it. The heteronomy of the message stands therefore against the autonomy of interpreting.
3. Analysis of Messages
Messages admit an Aristotelian analysis in terms of form, goal, content, producers (and recipients).
Regarding its form, messages can be primarily distinguished between: imperatives, indicatives and optionals. However, from the point of view of the message directivity, two extreme forms can also be identified: 1) a human sender, an individual or a group, may believe to have a message for everybody and for all times, and vice versa, 2) someone may think everything is a message to him/her. Between these two poles there are several possible hierarchies.
The form of the message has a basic constraint related to the effectiveness: in order to select or interpret a message the receiver must have some kind of common pre-understanding with the sender of the message, for instance a similar form or (linguistic) code.
In his theory of communication or "communicology" Vilem Flusser makes a basic distinction concerning two goals of communication:
A third goal related to the preservation of information could be added, namely conservational, embracing librarian and archivist activities.
According to Flusser the age of mass media with their hierarchical one-to-many structure of information distributors – we could call this the CNN-principle – would finally dominate all forms of information creation. In other words, the possibility for a receiver to become a sender of messages within a dialogical system remains a subordinate option. Since the rise of the Internet things started to change, at least concerning the easier and cheaper possibility for many receivers to become senders, including such hierarchical distribution options as one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many and many-to-one.
These distribution hierarchies also correspond to power constellations, which play a crucial role determining contents, producers and recipients: Who is allowed to send and preserve? What messages can be sent? Which recipients can be addressed? How can it be done (including technical conditions)? What purposes are allowed? Whereas in the antiquity the dissemination of messages was a sign of god and power, with the advent of philosophy the legitimacy of this right came into question. Historically a change from a vertical message structure to a horizontal one can be observed (Capurro 2003a, Díaz & Al Hadithi 2009). The heteronomous determination of messages gives rise to its vertical character; however, philosophical and scientific discourses are examples of how a heteronomous message can be embedded into a horizontal structure, i.e. “dialogical”.
Concerning the possibilities and constraints of digital media with respect to power constellation and the resulting verticality or horizontality of communication, there is an ongoing debate on the future structure of the Internet. The pressure of established information oligopoles (= concentration of power in few hands) will not vanish although it may decrease. At the same time new forms of domination and exclusion arise (Capurro et al 2007, ®Critical Theory of Information, Fuchs 2009).
A thorough analysis of messages (regarding production, transmission and reception) concern different aspects such as origin, purpose, and content of messages, power structures, techniques and means of diffusion, history of messages and messengers, coding and interpreting messages, as well as psychological, political, economic, aesthetic, ethical and religious aspects. Therefore an interdisciplinary stage, named ®angeletics, has been postulated where media studies, the study of signs (semiotics) and their interpretation (®hermeneutics) are specifically convened.
4. Fallibility and efficiency of messages
What kind of specific criteria can be postulated concerning the way a sender, a medium and a receiver of messages should act in order to be successful under finite conditions? By finite conditions we mean that neither the sender, nor the messenger, nor the receiver have any kind of certainty that their actions will fit the ideal situation in which:
In order to achieve the goals pursued in message production (mentioned above), the sender requires a strategy and planning on how messages should be generated, structured and released. The cognitive processes involved in the planning of a message addressed to a certain target may be conscious or unconscious. The main objective of the sender as he intends to send a message is to affect the conduct and/or mental architecture of the receiver. The design of the message may differ depending on which subsidiary goals are pursued (e.g., the desire to be polite), and may also vary depending on the cognitive, rhetorical, social, strategic, etc. capacities of the individuals involved. As a result, several plans are executed simultaneously when a message is produced, transmitted and interpreted.
The different theories on the production of messages generally agree on the idea that partakers are subject to the same kind of cognitive dynamics at the planning of messages.
Regarding the more or less interactive character of communication, which depends on the form and related power constellations mentioned above, the message production can be more or less cooperative. Indeed, the representations produced by the sender do not "inject" a certain meaning in a passive receptor. The simultaneous and interactive character of communication (if it is horizontal as argued above), as well as the constant exchange of roles between sender and receiver, leads to a model where the message is produced as a result of the collaboration of the partakers. The different plans at stake when transmitting and interpreting a message must adapt instantaneously to the speech situation, forcing the agents to adapt their messages to the different constraints of the communicative context.
5. Beyond human contexts: a crossroad between biology and hermeneutics
The concept of message has also been frequently used in non-human contexts, especially in biology (genetics, molecular biology). However, the communication model used above to make a distinction between message and information, as well as the analysis used to get a deeper understanding of messages has to be simplified. Considering the original twofold meaning of the term 'information' as 'moulding matter' and as 'knowledge communicated' we can say that a cell or, more generally, a living system, is in-formed on the basis of message selection in order to satisfy its constraints. Moreover, a self-organizing system can be seen as a system able to make a good behavioural selection among the offer of behaviours within the received messages and with respect to its survival (®autopoiesis). The dynamics of the selection mechanism has to be understood in a diachronic perspective.
The physicist Carl-Friedrich von Weiszäcker remarks that the modern concept of information is a new way of asking for what Plato and Aristotle called idéa or morphé (Weizsäcker 1974). But what is the main difference between Plato's concept of participation (methexis) as in-formation and today's view of communication? Answer: the inversion of the relation between time and form. According to today's evolutionary perspective forms evolve within the horizon of time not the other way round (Matsuno 1998). The process of messages interpretation also evolves in time. Understanding means originally the very fact of being able to provide a correct answer to given possibilities (or messages). This capability evolves “in time” from a very elementary way of responding to messages to a more complex way of interpreting messages (Capurro 2003b).
New entry. Before doing a new entry, please, copy this line and the following ones and paste them at the column bottom. Next fill out the fields: 'name', 'date' and 'text', and delete this upper blue paragraph.
Lydia Sánchez (01/04/2009)
The message is one of the more relevant elements of →communication. Hence, a good number of theories of communication have been focused on this concept.
Human communicative acts require a sender who decides to intentionally send a message to a recipient in order to express a certain →meaning. Messages are encrypted by the sender through concrete representations associated with certain conventional interpretations. The message is decrypted by the receiver using his knowledge of such conventions. As a consequence of the interpretation of the message, the recipient sees altered his dispositions to behaviour.
Messages are, thus, actions that pursue a goal. They, therefore, require strategy and planning by the sender on how to generate structure and release them. Cognitive processes involved in the planning of a message addressed to a certain target may be conscious or unconscious. The main objective of the sender as he intends to send a message is to affect the conduct and/or mental architecture of the receiver. The design of the message may vary depending on which sub-goals are involved (e.g., the desire to be polite), and may also vary depending on the cognitive, rhetorical, social, strategic, etc. capacities of the individuals involved. As a result, several plans are executed simultaneously when a message is produced, transmitted and interpreted.
The different theories on the production of messages generally agree on the idea that the individuals involved in the process are subject to the same kind of cognitive dynamics when it comes to planning the messages.
If we mean by "message" the information transmitted in a communicative act, it should be noted that both sender and receiver cooperate in building it. The representations produced by the sender do not "inject" a certain meaning in a receptor that remains passive. The simultaneous and interactive character of communication, as well as the constant exchange of roles between sender and receiver, lead to a model where the message is produced as a result of the collaboration between partners. The different plans at play when it comes to conveying and interpreting a message must adapt instantly to the conversational situation, forcing the agents to adapt their messages to the different needs at play in the communicative context.
Finally, note that the message, besides conveying a certain piece of information, may express other levels of meaning (concerning feelings, expectations, connotations, etc.).
Rafael Capurro y José María Díaz (20/02/2010)
[It corresponds to the article now shown in the left column. Lydia's contribution was mainly included into section IV, besides some general remarks]