Enterprise: a project undertaken or to be undertaken, especially one that is important or difficult or that requires boldness or energy

Human: a species of bipedal mammal who, as far as humans are aware, is the only species capable of self-aware consciousness[1] and therefore intentional self-improvement

Human Enterprise: the project of all humanity to improve the well-being of one’s self in society and society as a whole by means of self-aware consciousness and initiative

Bullshitious: Bullshit, but making it sound fancy[2]or what I do on this blog.

In a way, the entire human enterprise is an experiment in communication. It was the human capacity for communication that enabled cooperation, engendering a virtuous cycle in human and social evolution. It was communication and collaboration that allowed humanity to survive despite facing faster, stronger, and fiercer predators and prey. And it was communication, particularly written communication, that laid the groundwork for civilization, a feat that had never been achieved by any other species before or since homo sapiens sapiens (at least not on Earth).

I define communication as the act of conveying information or ideas from one party to another. Good communication is communication that achieves this goal: the receiving party received and understood the information or idea as the sending party intended. This applies to both semantic communication: do you understand what I said? As well as to what I’ll call “essential” communication (as in “essence”): do you understand what I mean, how I feel about the topic, and how I want you to view me?

The human enterprise, pre-historically speaking, has two components: living in larger groups and adapting to the environment to meet our needs, rather than purely responding to the environment. Both of these uniquely human accomplishments began with the rise of agriculture. By adapting the land—by plowing, weeding, etc.—to our need to acquire food with as little effort as possible humans slowly ceased to be nomads, and settled in a set location. Farmers also specialized and allowed some people to focus their energy on things other than food acquisition and towns formed with
proto-economies.

We then come to the fabled tale of the Tower of Babel[3]. Babylonians were poised on the great accomplishment of building a stairway to heaven, so they could make a name for themselves and have direct access to God via this stairway. I can only assume that they had already booked Led Zeppelin to play for the ribbon cutting ceremony, but God confused their speech and they scattered before they could finish the project. The question of whether this actually happened like this is, like the rest of Genesis 1-11, completely beside the point[4]. Rather, we get a glimpse from this ancient story about human relationships—with each other and with God.

The problem at Babel (besides the self-proclaimed demigod status that so angered God) was that people couldn’t communicate with each other. When Enkidu told Urshanabi that he needed more bricks on the southern wall, Urshanabi didn’t get the message and didn’t bring the bricks. Then Enkidu got pissed off and left to go hang out with Gilgamesh, leaving the southern wall unfinished. There was no semantic communication happening, much less conveying the essential idea that Urshanabi had for a thing he called an “arch” to stabilize the second level.

The point is that when we don’t speak the same languages—in the case of Babel, literally, but this applies almost equally as well to the “languages” of development, project management, etc.[5]—we don’t make any progress. Second, the complexity of endeavors in the human enterprise require complex communication. Building a massive tower—or developing a successful application, building and maintaining a highway infrastructure, or mending damaged race relations in a country with a history of slavery or
apartheid—requires communicating extremely complicated sets of instructions,
goals, and sentiments. This goes far beyond the (still very impressive)
proto-language of bees to communicate how far away and in which direction a
food source is[6]. Human communication involves conveying abstract emotions and ideas, visions for the future, and perceptions of reality as interpreted by the speaker.

Following from this, all of the above endeavors also require that we communicate about the future. Again this is something that other species occasionally show signs of[7], but Humans are unique in that we display this behavior ubiquitously. The human enterprise necessitated the creation of an ever-increasing lexicon and complex grammatical and syntactical structure. It’s ultimately unknowable which came first, the extensible language or abstract thought, but at some point, humans began conceiving of and conveying beliefs about a future state of the world: “I bet if I put this little seed in the ground and pour water on it, a plant will emerge from the ground in a couple months.” Throughout the millennia, the problems facing humanity have changed, and on and off since the times of the Greeks and Romans, we struggle with vague ideas and concepts like “purpose” or “morality” and Eudaimonia. And so the complexity of our language grows in a self-reinforcing feedback loop to match the newer and “higher” needs and goals of the human enterprise. Going back to my opening statement, I want to dive into what I mean by “experiment” in this context. The entire human enterprise is an experiment in communication.  An experiment is trying something and seeing what happens, and that’s really what we’ve done as a species. I’m going to begin closing with
a series of somewhat disjointed thought experiments and case studies in communication, and then attempt, feebly, to tie it all together for an actual closing.

Military conquest

The entire concept of war—two leaders disagree about economic matters so they use high-minded rhetoric to send the socio-economically disadvantaged from each side to go kill each other until one side gives up—has always confused me[8]. Nevertheless, war and conflict have been pervasive throughout human history. I’ve always found it fascinating how many factors beyond just skill of the troops affect who “wins” a battle or a war: logistics and supply lines; disease, both for the armies and for the home front populations[9]; terrain and weather; and, of course, lines of communication.

There is a probably apocryphal story about Prince Rupert, a cavalry general in the first English Civil War, who received ambiguous orders from the king via a letter that had been written, presumably, a week or more before. Based on the orders in the letter, Rupert attacked the Parliamentarians at Marston Moor, where he suffered a total defeat[10]. Allegedly, Rupert carried the orders from the king in his pocket until the day he died as a challenge to anyone who accused him of making a mistake by attacking at
Marston Moor[11]. His instructions from the king were ambiguous at best, and arguably worse than useless given the turns of events taking place between the writing and reading of the letter.

Military leaders have succeeded and been defeated based on good or bad intelligence—whether due to luck, dereliction of duty, or outright betrayal—and each campaign is a data point in the “what works in communication” experiment. Different generals with their different styles and temperaments use different modes of communication, and learn over time what works and what doesn’t. What encryption and codes successfully obfuscate meaning from the enemy while still being accessible to your allies? How much lag time should I assume and build into my orders? How should I balance flexibility with
structure in my orders to a part of the war I know little about? What is the quickest way to reliably get orders from one side of a battlefield to the other? If we accept (as almost everyone does) that military leaders have shaped history, then we must appreciate the role experimenting with different styles and modes of communication has played in world history.

Marketing.

Marketing and it’s close friend advertising are where the line between semantic and essential communication becomes at once a critical distinction and a pair of double-Dutch ropes. Beyond telling you what the product is, a good advertisement subtly convinces you that the product is a good one and the producer is reliable and trustworthy. Bad advertisements, like the recent Pepsi Super Bowl commercial that sparked a backlash[12], are bad not because the fail to convey what the product is (semantic communication), but because they fail to paint the producer in a positive light—like Pepsi being tone deaf and really not giving a shit about social justice.

And then we come to the more insidious parts of advertising: you will be complete if you buy this. For this message, subtlety is critical as marketers balance making the message easily inferrable without being so blatant as to turn people off. Much as I generally hate this messaging, I can’t deny that when it’s well done it’s brilliant. Every advertisement is an experiment in what motivates humans. That’s not to say that advertising is all there is. On the contrary, vaporware always crashes and burns. Nor is it to say that advertising is the whole of marketing or that all marketing is insidious. It is to say, though, that the firms that grow and last do so because they’ve experimented and found a communication strategy and brand image that works for them. When they gain market share beyond a small critical mass, it’s as much about communication as it is about having a high quality product.

Conclusion

Throughout history, territory has transferred hands, fortunes have been made and lost, and the expansion of the human enterprise have occurred through competing messages, competing media, and novel ideas put into language. The evolution of language—from the present to the future to the abstract—was inseparably linked with the expansion of philosophy and human intellectual pursuits. The human enterprise, that never-ending attempt to improve the quality of life and epistemological enlightenment for the human population, is only advanced when we interact by sharing ideas. When we communicate with one another. It’s not always advancing, but that’s where the experiment comes in, and when it works, we need to capitalize on that positive outcome and remember the methodology used to create it. And expand eudaimonia. 

 


[1]  By “self-aware consciousness” I mean awareness of one’s own consciousness, and
the act of “second order thought” that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, sets
us apart from other creatures. See Summa Theologica.

[3] Genesis 11

[7] For example, crows using traffic to crack nuts or monkeys storing stones to
throw at zoo goers. Both of these are real examples that are really exceptions
that prove the rule. Animals may be capable of adapting to the environment and
doing short term strategic planning, but most of what they do, including
migration, appears to be instinctual rather than based on long term planning.

[8] And also the genius that is Bill Waterson, https://boscobae.blogspot.com/2012/11/calvin-and-hobbes-on-war.html

[9] E.g. the “Germs” part of Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared
Diamond. https://www.amazon.com/Guns-Germs-Steel-Fates-Societies/dp/0393317552

[12] AKA the “attractive lives matter movement” http://www.businessinsider.com/stephen-colbert-kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad-controversy-2017-4
Or, my personal favorite play on this ad from SNL: https://youtu.be/Pn8pwoNWseM

 

 

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