Critique of Wiener’s Communication and Control Theory
The University of Colorado at Boulder
COMM 3210 – 100
The study of communication is relatively new to humanity. Even though we, as humans, have been communicating with the world around us since the dawn of time, it has only been in the recent decades and centuries that we have started to group theories, ideas, and traditions under the title of Communication. If we break down this broad topic, we find that several traditions of communication have been defined. One of these is the Cybernetic Tradition of Communication. Cybernetic Tradition sees communication as being a linear method of transferring information from one communicator to another. This tradition defines communication problems as interference or glitches in the communication system. Norbert Weiner’s theory regarding communication and control further explains how the qualities of communication allow us to maintain control in society and decrease the amount of entropy that we encounter using a linear system of sensory receptors and feedback.
Explanation of the Theory
Weiner (1954) theorizes that communication is used as a tool to control machinery and society and that when we communicate, we are not essentially different than machines. As humans, we have a tendency to want to maintain organization in society. Using information in order to control and counteract entropy does this: the randomness or disorganization within a system that has a natural way of increasing over time. Weiner (1954) states that we do this in order to maintain the balance of patterns that messages create for us. Humans and machinery detect these patterns through sensory organs and receptors respectively. When these sensory receptors detect a disturbance in the pattern, feedback is applied to the situation in order to return to homeostasis. Karl Weick (2005) explains the process of using feedback with the term “sense making.” Weick states that in order for people to make sense of a disruption in the pattern, they seek ways to react that will allow them to resume the pattern that was interrupted and maintain their current course of action. Weiner argues that feedback does not occur as a result of the expected performance of a machine or person, but as the result of the actual performance. He gives us an example involving the manner in which people operate motor vehicles: When people drive, they do not do so by a memory of what the road looks like and the turns that they need to take in order to reach their destination. Instead, while people are driving they react to the actual turns, lights, traffic signs, and other obstacles in the road. Weiner views human communication to be essentially the same as the communication process used by machines. It is with this lens and framework that we can view communication problems as linear and can use his theory of communication and control in order to analyze and solve them. Application
The communication problem that I would like to apply Wiener’s theory to is a situation where a young man is at a bar and decides to engage a girl in a flirtatious conversation. However, the young man is drunk and his communication with the girl is less than successful. The young man is slurring his words, smells of booze, and is swaying back and forth. She denies his conversation after a few moments and walks away from the young man leaving him defeated. According to Wiener, when both individuals are engaging in the conversation, they are receiving input to their sensory receptors such as their ears’, eyes’, noses’, brains’, etc., and outputting feedback based on what those receptors have decided to be the most correct way of communicating. The system is straightforward and linear. However, there is an obvious communication problem here because the girl has refused to participate in the conversation.
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References: Pierce, C.S. (1998). What is a sign? In Pierce Editions Project (Ed.), The Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893-1913)(pp. 4-10). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
Weick, K.E., Sutcliffe, K.M., Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4): 409-421. Retrieved on April 4, 2014 from dubsonline.informs.org.
Wiener, N.(1954). Cybernetics in history. The Human Use of Human Beings, Cybernetics and Society (pp.15-27). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
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