Complexity of communications

Recently, I posted about probability theory, and mentioned its modern founder, Andrei Kolmogorov.  In addition to formalizing probability theory,  Kolmogorov also defined an influential approach to assessing the complexity of something.
He reasoned that a more complex object should be harder to create or to re-create than a simpler object, and so you could “measure” the degree of complexity of an object by looking at the simplest computer program needed to generate it.  Thus, in the most famous example used by complexity scientists, the 1915 painting called “Black Square” of Kazimir Malevich, is allegedly very simple, since we could recreate it with a very simply computer program:
Paint the colour black on every pixel until the surface is covered, say.

But Kolmogorov’s approach ignores entirely the context of the actions needed to create the object.   Just because an action is simple or easily described, does not make it easy to do, or even easy to decide to do.   Art objects, like most human artefacts, are created with deliberate intent by specific creators, as anthropologist Alfred Gell argued in his theory of art.  To understand a work of art (or indeed any human artefact) we need to assess its effects on the audience in the light of its creator’s intended effects, which means we need to consider the intentions, explicit or implicit, of its creators.  To understand these intentions in turn requires us to consider the context of its creation, what a philosopher of language might call its felicity conditions.
Malevich’s Black Sqare can’t be understood, in any sense, without understanding why no artist before him created such a painting.  There is no physical or technical reason that Rembrandt, say, or Turner, could not have painted a canvas consisting only of one colour, black.  But they did not, and could not have, and could not even have imagined doing so. (Perhaps only the 18th-century Welsh painter Thomas Jones could have imagined doing so, with his subtle paintings of near-monochrome Neapolitan walls.)  It is not a coincidence that Malevich’s painting appeared in the historical moment when it did, and not anytime before nor anyplace else.   For instance, Malevich worked at a time when educated people were fascinated with notions of a fourth or even further dimensions, and Malevich himself actively tried to represent these other dimensions in his art.  To imagine that such a painting could be adequately described without reference to any art-historical background, or socio-political context, or the history of ideas is to confuse the syntax of the painting with its semantics and pragmatics.  We understand nothing about the painting if all we understand is that every pixel is colored black.
We have been here before.  The mathematical theory of communications of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver has been very influential in the design of the physical layers of telecommunications and computer communications networks.   But this theory explicitly ignores the semantics – the meanings – of messages. (To be fair to Shannon and Weaver they do tell us explicitly early on that they will be ignoring the semantics of messages.)    Their theory is therefore of no use to anyone interested in communications at layers above the physical transmission of signals, that is, anyone interested in understanding or using communication to communicate with other people or machines.
M. Dabrowski [1992]: “Malevich and Mondrian:  nonobjective form as the expression of the “absolute”. ” pp. 145-168, in: G. H. Roman and V. H. Marquardt (Editors): The Avant-Garde Frontier:  Russia Meets the West, 1910-1930. Gainesville, FL, USA: University Press of Florida.
Alfred Gell [1998]: Art and Agency:  An Anthropological Theory.  Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
L. D. Henderson [1983]: The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver [1963]: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Chicago, IL, USA:  University of Illinois Press.

Three men in a bar

A year ago, the UK Guardian newspapers ran a short article deconstructing a British TV advertisement for Strongbow beer. Watch the advert below, and then read the article. The BNP is the British National Party, a neo-fascist political party.

But what is interesting is the complex set of both politically correct and prejudiced rulings from which this ad, as well as the current Guinness one, evolved. Four blokes in a pub? No. Looks like a hooligan gang. Two blokes? No, no, no! Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but Strongbow’s not that sort of pint. One bloke? No. A loser. Probably got a book. Gotta be three blokes. Two blokes and a girl? Bloke and two girls? Too much implication of ménage à trois. Three girls? No. Too much implication of knickers round ankles at two in the morning in the town square, doubled over and urinating into a gutter. When it comes to women and pints, Al Murray’s glass of white wine for the ladies holds unironically true in adland. No, it has to be three blokes, blokes who like doing it with women so long as the “it” isn’t social drinking. Three white blokes? No. A bit BNP nowadays. Two white blokes and a bear in a pork pie hat? Too retro. Three black blokes? Now steady on. Two black blokes and a white bloke? Not being funny or nothing, but what would the white bloke be doing there?
So, it’s settled then – two white blokes and a black bloke, going down the pub to get completely and utterly, well and truly “refreshed”.

The future is bright, the future is sepia!

The results of a competition to produce vintage advertisement for modern products can be found here.   The best entry is an advertisement for Mr Nokia’s Patent Mobile Telephonic Communicator and Typographic Messenger with Box-Brownie J-PEG Maker and MP3 Gramophone, circa 1900, which plays on the slogan of British mobile operator, Orange, now part of France Telecom.

The network is the consumer

Economists use the term network good to refer to a product or service where one user’s utility depends, at least partly, on the utility received by other users. A fax machine is an example, since being the sole owner of fax is of little value to anyone; only when others in your business network also own fax machines does owning one provide value to you. Thus, a rational consumer would determine his or her preferences for such a good only AFTER learning the preferences of others.   This runs counter to the standard model of decisions in economic decision theory, where consumers come to a purchase decision with their preferences pre-installed; for network goods, the preferences of rational consumers are formed instead in the course of the decision process itself, not determined beforehand.   Preferences are emergent phenomena, in the jargon of complex systems.

What I find interesting as a marketer is that ALL products and services have a network-good component. Even so-called commodities, such as natural resources or telecommunications bandwidth, can be subject to fashion and peer-group pressure in their demand.  You can’t get fired for buying IBM, was the old saying.   Sellers of so-called commodities such as coal or bauxite know that the buyers make their decisions, at least in part, on the basis of what other large buyers are deciding.  Lest any mainstream economist reading this disparage such consumer behaviour, note that in an environment of great uncertainty or instability, it can be perfectly rational to follow the crowd when making purchase decisions, since a group may have access to information that any one buyer does not know.  If you are buying coal from Australia for your steel plant in Japan, and you learn that your competitors are switching to buying coal from Brazil, then there could be good reasons for this; as they are your competitors, it may be difficult for you to discover what these good reasons are, and so imitation may be your most rational strategic response.

For any product and service with a network component, even the humblest, there are deep implications for marketing strategies and tactics.  For example, advertising may not merely provide information to potential consumers about the product and its features.  It can also assist potential consumers to infer the likely preferences of other consumers, and so to determine their own preferences. If an advertisement appeals to people like me, or people to whom I aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that those other people are likely to prefer the product being advertized, and thus I can determine my own preferences for it. Similarly, if the advertisement appeals to people I don’t aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that I won’t be subject to peer pressure or fashion trends, and can determine my preferences accordingly.

For several decades, the prevailing social paradigm to describe modern, western society has been that of The Information Society, and so, for example, advertising has been seen by many people primarily as a form of information transmission.  But, in my opinion, we in the west are entering an era where a different prevailing paradigm is appropriate, perhaps best called The Joint-Action Society;  advertising then is also assisting consumers to co-ordinate their preferences and their decisions.    I’ll talk more about the Joint-Action Society in a future post.