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03 Aug Exformation vs. Subtext

Madrid RallyMany of us humans like to congregate and communicate. Much of our communication, including this blog, is intended to be shared widely and to persist beyond the moment, whether we are attempting to share the thought of the moment, or change the course of human history.  When we congregate, whether for a TED talk, a political rally, or to partake of sacraments, we come in with certain expectations. These expectations are fundamental to our very understanding of the proceedings. Our minds arrive primed with context.

The alien anthropologists who arrive after humanity’s total demise might get on You-Tube and play back videos of speeches in front of congregated people, and, lacking the context of culturally primed expectations, come to completely wild and inaccurate conclusions about human behavior. Your ability to cue up a random video on You-Tube, and understand it, is built on all your vast collection of prior experiences and learning: you already understand language, culture and humanity. Alien anthropologists and computers don’t have these a-priori advantages.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 6 #9

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Table of Context

Underneath the text of any given interaction, public or private, there may be unspoken subtext concealed in the speaker’s or writer’s mind. Exformation is typically universally shared contextual knowledge. Subtext is embedded in intent, and thus is different from exformation, most of which exists outside the speaker’s or writer’s intent.

Besides being social beings, congregating and communicating, we are capable appreciating beauty, and people often spend much energy seeking out things of beauty. Much of beauty resides at the periphery of spoken and written interaction. Opening up to subjective interpretation liberates individualism. Ambiguity and missing information are inevitable in communication, and sometimes appealing. On the other hand, spelling out the picayune details can reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation. How much must be clearly stated for communication to be effective?

We love flicks because they deliver context, body language other cues that make it easy for us to read and see into the characters’ motivations. At the end of a 90-minute flick, we can feel we have had a whole and satisfying experience.  Even though books take much longer to experience, we love them, and often agree that the book is better than the movie because a good author gives us important details, background and access to the inner workings of people’s minds.

Internal Baggage and Shared Knowledge

When I spoke to people about my recent post on subtext, some brought up a separate but essential element of communication which is exformation. While much of subtext lies beneath and can be missed in dialog because it is internal to the speaker or writer, exformation largely lies alongside, and is easier to pick up because it is embodied in shared knowledge. Subtext requires social skills such as empathy and active listening to figure out. Exformation requires intellectual skills such as breadth of knowledge and good memory to figure out.

Many of the best photographs and other visual art contain the minimal information necessary and exclude vast quantities of context that can be inferred if just enough is in the frame. These pictures are worth thousands of words. The same is true of poetry: the most evocative and timeless poetry leaves more unsaid than said, and the artful turn of a phrase exposes worlds of content and context that arises from the readers’ and hearers’ minds rather than from the words.

Could a computer ever enjoy poetry, much less understand it? Clearly, image recognition techniques have advanced to a point where the computer could identify the pistil in this picture and infer much of the exformation associated with it. Would the computer (or the human) choke on the geometric shape of Steven’s bedroom window in the background? The contextual fact that people habitually plant flowers around their homes and other structures could be enough for a computer (and a human) to infer that the obscured geometric shape in the background tells us that this flower is not growing in the wild. This might lead to other streams of conscious or unconscious associations.

The machine that communicates effectively will need vast amounts of inforation about human culture and popular culture contemporary to the original text. Then it will need to apply that knowledge effectively to supplement any text, from any period and culture with the right exformation to be able to better understand the text in context. Then it will need to apply any derivable subtext from the context to search for hidden meanings. Finally, it will need to filter out much of what it knows and deliver the nut of the answer in a way that enables the human to fill in the blanks.

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