An aspect of “manipulation” that not all communication has

by Hazard

All communication is manipulation” (ACiM) is a catch-phrase that Suspended coined to try and characterize some of the TIS approach to understanding communication. We’ve had almost as much debate about this particular wording as we’ve had about the underlying idea that it points to. I’m not a fan of the phrase, since it requires immediate backpedaling” to explain the particular sense of manipulation” that is meant. But until I can make something catchier and clearer that can memetically out-compete ACiM within the crew, the phrase shall persist.

Suspended very early on clarified that he’s trying to tap into a value-neutral sense of manipulation as causing effects”, like in manipulating a data-structure” or manipulating the sails of a ship to steer it”, as opposed to the common way the word is used in a sentence like why do you keep dating manipulative assholes?” Hence his later corrective All communication is manipulation, some manipulation is mutually advantageous”. His idea is not that all communication is adversarial and zero sum attempts to control each other, but simply that all communication is motivated. People say things for reasons, to try and do things, through each other. You could see it as the claim that all communication is more complicated versions of pass the salt”.

Today I realized another aspect of manipulation” that I think breaks the catch-phrase, and it’s about the level of reliable control. When one talks about manipulating some object towards some end, there’s a level of fluidity, predictability, and repeatability that is conveyed. You might say that Tony Hawk manipulates a skateboard, or that a blacksmith manipulates his hammer, but it doesn’t quite fit to say that a novice that falls over every time they put both feet on the board is also manipulating” the skateboard.

Plenty of instances of effecting the behavior of others via communication” have this quality of reliability. A conductor manipulates the orchestra with their wand. The head of a military field unit manipulates their team via hand signals. In both of these scenarios the person communicating has a clear sense of the outcomes they’re trying to produce and fluidly communicates in a way that predictably and reliably cues the desired behavior.

It’s also clear to me that plenty of instances of communication don’t have this quality. Imagine two mathematicians working on a novel problem together. Hey wait, the output is always prime!” This communication is still motivated by the desire of enlisting the other in solving the problem, but neither has a clear sense of a robust, predictable, repeatable way that the communication produces the desired outcome. The logic is more like tell the other anything I’ve figured out about the problem, and maybe one of us will have a eureka moment at some point.” It’s lacking the reliable control aspect of manipulation” that we teased out earlier.

You could say that the degree to which a given interaction has the potential to surprise you is the degree to which it lacks this quality of manipulation.

All that to say, this another way manipulation” doesn’t quite fit the bill. Maybe All communication is motivated”? We wouldn’t even have to change the acronym :)