Are we strategic?
Do we not, when hearing from others of a fortune or misfortune, begin thinking how we might secure or avoid it?
When we expect others to come upon and discover us, do we not become self-conscious about our presentation, and find it hard to act “natural” under knowledge of our outward appearance?
And ultimately—unfortunately—most of this strategy is geared to gaming appearances.
Here are examples, from the past week, of situations which felt especially opticratic.
- I’m taking a trip to California, and my landlord is watering my houseplants. I have a bunch of marshmallow leaf in a jar on the table, which I mix with cannabis to roll tobacco-free spliffs. (Other times, I use green tea, mint, lavender, or blue lotus flower.) The marshmallow leaf looks very much like ground cannabis. Even though it is not cannabis—is a perfectly legal substance-I have to hide its jar to prevent a wrong impression.
- My mother-in-not-quite-law is COVID paranoid. I recently contracted COVID and am long past the point of being either sick or contagious. However, my nose has been sniffly, perhaps from allergies, and I know that she will be concerned I am still sick and contagious, so I buy a pack of generic Claritin.
- I’m walking around downtown Palo Alto and stop to grab a rare boba. The menu’s overwhelming, so I chat with the barista about her favorite drinks, and the differences between different jelly and sweetener options. The credit card reader isn’t obviously hooked up to any sort of touch screen, so once I pay, I put a couple dollars (cash) in her glass tip jar. While I do this, she’s writing down my order, so she misses the tipping event. Then she looks up, immediately after my hand has retracted, and taps through a touch screen for a tip option. I decline. Now, not only is it not clear I have tipped, she has active grounds to believe I haven’t tipped.
- The in-laws have a specific kind of potato lentil snack I like, but I don’t want to have to ask each time I want some. So I walk out to the store, buy a bag of my own. Now, while hanging out on their patio, I’m going HAM on the snack—not pouring it into a bowl but eating directly from the bag with my fingers, eating as much as I want. I realize at some point that since the bag is identical to that tucked in their cupboard, my in-laws probably assume I’m rudely eating their food this way, without manners. The entire purpose of walking into town and buying my own bag has been defeated.
All too often and automatically, when imagining a possible undertaking from the first-person view, I end up switching to third-person appraisal, begin thinking in terms of the act’s social meaning and position—the other similar “types” of things that I’d seen done, their “feel,” whether they were reputed or heavy-handed or cringe. I’d imagine ways they might be talked about and thought about and situated in the larger culture, the possible lines of criticism leveled, the vulnerable points not in terms of which were most causally load-bearing so much as liable to actually be leveled. I want to be clear here, because I think this is common and often suppressed: it is not that I consciously asked “What would the reputation of this game move be?” Rather, I found myself speaking in the tongues of cultural legitimators, about my own project. I felt myself feeling my way around, in fuzzy barely verbal maneuvers, instances of existing moves which I judged similar to the move I was considering. This similarity was often quite superficial and limited to a single focused-upon trait (a similar topic, similar voice, similar structure), without any holistic consideration of whether, and how, a given formal technique used in a work was causally related to that work’s “feeling” in my deeply social taste. If it was “the kind of thing” a tacky artist or artifact would use, or was known for using, it was tainted—it could perhaps still be used, but only with bracketing or scare quotes or or some other signal of self-awareness and reclamation. In other words, the implicit basis for picking projects be how the project might “translate” into a set of social positionings around my self-situation in a cultural hierarchy, so as to communicate the “right message” about who I am and how I ought to be regarded. And this was entirely implicit and obfuscated in what might easily, with less suspicion, be regarded as “personal authenticity”—not in the asocial sense, but in the “individuality” sense of squatting a relatively uninhabited, yet recognizable-as-valuable, niche.
In my experience, what most separates the unproductive from productive version of this is an extreme scrupulousness around who is worth impressing, ideally an imagined composite who can never be pleased, but which approaches the limits of known perfection.
The habitus is built through mimicry; where its aspects become common knowledge, they enter social reality.
For a while, when you searched “when was running invented” in Google, you got this result in a box above all your searches:
Running was invented in 1748 by Thomas Running when he tried to walk twice at the same time. If you need to remember this for a test just think of the saying “eat some bread, eat some rice, Thomas Running tried to walk twice.”
It was a Quora submission playfully abusing Google’s “featured snippets” for a question that really didn’t make sense to have one. What does it even mean to “invent” running? Since there’s no “real” answer, there was nothing stopping this answer from being the top result. It’s a pretty good joke, and people began to find it and circulate it as internet folklore. This presumably was too much for someone at Google, because nowadays the featured snippet points to Wikipedia, which says:
about 2.6 million years ago
It is assumed that the ancestors of humankind developed the ability to run for long distances about 2.6 million years ago, probably in order to hunt animals. Competitive running grew out of religious festivals in various areas.
I’m not here for a wistful “no one’s allowed to have fun anymore” rant. It’s useful to have relevant information show itself first, and Thomas Running is just a cute little joke, not something that needs to be protected like a national park. But I can’t help but see this little interaction as a parable about modern rationality. You have a question, “When was X invented?”, that has definitive, bright-line, useful answers for many X. The seductive flexibility of language encourages you to try to place more and more things into your framework, making you want to create a general function that returns something for every X. When it breaks down, the first instinct is often to patch — what is the right answer for “when was running invented?” — instead of simply finding a way to limit the kinds of things we ask that question about — what things should we say are invented?
Thomas Running lived in a liminal space built for a question without an answer. Google evicted him in favor of an inoffensive related factoid. But “2.6 million years ago” isn’t an answer for “when was running invented”, either. So what is it, exactly? An attempt to restore a veneer of credibility to this idea of generally having “the objective answer” for a question. And while I don’t begrudge Google for getting rid of the joke, I’m not about to take their answer seriously.
A number of interesting possibilities have been arising recently out of the interaction between self-driving cars and the police.
In principle, it seems simple: self-driving cars should just be made to follow the law. In practice, of course, this is laughably reductive, both because the cars are imperfect, and also because laws are vague. There are also questions that arise from the mechanisms that are currently in place to enforce the law.
To take a simple case, consider the question of how fast cars should drive. In principle, there are posted speed limits everywhere, and driving faster than that is technically illegal. In practice, however, on many streets, the majority of cars regularly drive faster than the posted speed limits, and police will almost never stop a car solely because of going slightly faster than that (though it could perhaps be used as a pretense). If you go fast enough for long enough, you are extremely likely to eventually have your car pulled over, and possibly impounded, but there is little that anyone can currently do to directly prevent people from driving above a certain speed limit. Rather, behavior is shaped by the threat of enforcement and collective norms.
Forbes sees this as a case where there is a clear law, and it should simply be broken: “There are cases where robocars could and should violate the law, because the law is wrong. For example, they should move at the speed of traffic, even if that’s above the speed limit”.1 This is extremely vague as to how much the speed limit should be violated, and seems to depend on many human operators collectively determining the appropriate speed.
A more comprehensive fix might be to just set an actual speed limit (presumably higher than current speed limits), and enforce that programmatically in self-driving cars, such that all companies know what the actual legal limit is, and cars will be programmed not to exceed it. With enough self-driving cars, they might begin to play the pace-setter role, such that humans would naturally have to adapt to the speed of their traffic. On the other hand, it’s plausible that self-driving cars might at some point be able to drive safely at a higher speed than typical humans, which might eventually ratchet things up to the point that humans are unable to safely keep up.
As things currently stand, it’s not impossible to imagine a self-driving car exceeding what is seen as a practically safe speed (perhaps through a bug, or the car being hacked), such that police would want to stop it. The logical way to do this might be to try to get the company to shut it down remotely or override the automation, but perhaps this would be impossible in the case of a hack. The question then becomes, what powers do police actually have to stop such a car?
Presumably at some point they could shoot the tires out, or otherwise use the violence of the law to bring about the desired effect, but would this require a series of escalating steps? Would they first have to attempt to pull the car over? And if the car did then pull over without explicit violence, what powers do the police have? Police in many places do seem to have broad discretionary power to stop cars as they choose, but impounding a vehicle might require a certain level of violation.
Obviously without a human operator, certain enforcement mechanisms are simply irrelevant. The law is not likely to be written to allow police to give a company a ticket in the same way that one could be given to a human, nor would we expect that to be effective.
In other words, unless we see a major surge in DIY self-driving car hobbyists (which will presumably be illegal without some sort of extreme licensing requirements), the future of driving seems likely to evolve into a highly cooperative dynamic, in which laws are written to accommodate self-driving cars, cars are programmed to accommodate these laws, and major car companies will increasingly become more like arms of the state.
There is more to be explored here, but I’ll leave it for a future post.
Pete Holmes has a bit where he talks disparagingly about people going to magic shows trying to disprove them. “Yeah, you did it. You proved what none of us were trying to prove: the boy on stage is not actually a wizard”. He’s not making fun of people who know exactly what the trick is, but instead the midwit who has to chime in like “something something mirror” or “something something magnets”. Because yeah, it’s definitely something something [word you understand] and not something something [brand new word] or it’d be on the news and not in the show, but that specific knowledge of what something something boils down to is the whole point. There’s no prize for knowing the vague neighborhood of the trick.
But a bad way to watch a magic show is a good way to watch the world. Why are earthquakes more common in California than Minnesota? Something something plate tectonics. It definitely involves density somehow, and the word “subduction”, and I’m supposed to do a little hand sign where my left hand slides over my right hand. If I really needed to know exactly what’s going on, I could figure it out, but my vague halo of knowledge is enough for now. There’s a prize for knowing the general neighborhood of the trick.
Why’s this spirit of vague understanding suddenly gauche at a magic show? The world is infinitely detailed and you always have the chance to pull up a new pattern. Even the wispiest of mental containers to pour the pattern into might be enough to let you catch it. But a magic show is like a game, a thing of hard edges and guarantees. There’s a point to knowing exactly what’s happening, but not much point to knowing that it could be made legible, because duh, of course it can be made legible, the wizard knows what they’re doing. It’s fun to know exactly what’s happening, but just loudly insisting “I think there’s a trick to it” makes you a tiresome bore as an audience member. And yet: that same sentence, said thoughtfully while looking at a quirk of nature, is how every discovery gets started.
Last night at The Scratcher, Rip Dcb suggests that, even as our running games metaphor pays perpetual lip service to cooperation and positive-sum payouts, it still implies, to most people, an adversarial dynamic at its core. And within human societies, competition is almost always marginal on top of a fat baseline of cooperation: driving on the right side of the street, dressing and speaker in shared ways.
So what are some alternative metaphors?
We could talk about coordination problems, and language as a coordination problem that solves coordination problem. (First coordination: Readers must interpret writing in roughly the way a writer intends it to be interpeted. Second coordination: We use language to decide where to go for dinner; to enter implicit contracts—where and when to meet up; to express our preferences and agendas so as to shape future equilibria.) This still reads as pretty game-theoretic and jargony.
Maybe we can talk about organization: language is an organization problems; humans are constantly self-organizing. They use surrogates and selection games in order to properly organize, and prevent their organizational equilibria being disrupted.
And then there’s ecology as a possible frame metaphor. Ecology doesn’t imply cooperation the way “organization” does, but it at least feels more neutral, and comes with a feel-good connotation for the hippy moms out there, myself included.
Whichever metaphor we go with, strategy to me remains essential. To be strategic is completely independent of the ends you’re being strategic towards—selfish or selfless, cooperative or adversarial. Strategic is just “not being a dumbass, and thinking things through.”
“Stigmergy” is a term from entymology and complexity studies to describe behavior such as termites building colony mounds. It is the idea that each (e.g.) termite’s decision about where and how to contribute to the mound is founded entirely in the existing information encoded in the existing structure-to-date. Since this structure is the product of other termite actions, stigmergy is a general principle whereby agents’ actions leave cues behind which inform other agents’ actions.
I have found most definitions of stigmergy incoherent and difficult to apply, and will try to make it more amenable to TIS frameworks. Its original formulation by Pierre-Paul Grassé (1959) defined it as “stimulation of the workers by the performance they have achieved.” This, unfortunately, is synonymous with a definition of cooperative communication, and Grassé’s implicit distinction between the information encoded in the performance that is the termite mound, and linguistic performances, is nowhere made explicit.
Holland and Melhuish (1999) double-down on this confused definition: “All that is necessary for stigmergy to occur is for the outcome of the behavior of the relevant agent to be appropriately affected by previous environmental changes.” And yet what is communication except the alteration of other agents’ behaviors via environmental change (in which all “information” must necessarily be encoded). Doyle and Marsh (2012) attempt a refactor of stigmergy which exacerbates the problem, emphasizing stigmergy as any use of the environment as a memory or communication medium. I would invite the authors to provide an example of communication between any organisms, agents, or machines that is not, in this factoring, stigmergic.
In the generalized reading framework, all actions produce (“write”) information, whether or not they are performed for the purpose (solely or partially, consciously or unconsciously) of writing. Other agents use this information in their own decision-making as part of normal ecological intelligence and optimization. In this sense “stigmergy” seems like normal communication, albeit one scoped to “coordinative” (positive-sum) behaviors. It is difficult to see how this might be a usable or coherent concept in its own right.
My proposed amendment or refactoring is to define stigmergy as a quality or spectrum, with its ideal or limit case, as a cooperative relationship in which all the information used in decision-making is a byproduct of actions geared toward intrinsic ends. There is no communicative “surplus” in the sense of cooperator actions whose sole or primary purpose is the alteration of other cooperator’s actions (all language being such surplus). Thus human activities may be more or less stigmergic with respect to how much surplus information (be it verbal or non-verbal) is produced by cooperating agents in the achievement of some project.
Taking Grassé’s intension seriously, a traffic light is stigmergic, since its existence is the result of a performance by government workers (members of the larger population) which alters the behavior of other workers (those driving, walking, etc). But ameliorating this intension to our own—which I believe better captures Grassé’s intended extension—the traffic light has been erected solely for the purpose of communicating information, and for no other purpose. This is a wholly different sort of situation than pheromone trails in ants, where as a byproduct of normal movement, ants leave behind a traceable set of decentralized trails for other workers. All the information necessary or provided to cooperators is encoded in “normal,” extrinsic, “non-communicative” action.
Among the most impressive openings I’ve encountered in a while is the first paragraph of When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, which I will quote here in full:
In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day. William Burroughs described it as similar to heroin, twice as strong as codeine, but with a wired coke-like edge, so the North American doctors felt obliged to cure Göring of his dependency before allowing him to stand before the court. This was not easy. When the Allied forces caught him, the Nazi leader was dragging a suitcase with more than twenty thousand doses, practically all that remained of Germany’s production of the drug at the end of the Second World War. His addiction was far from exceptional, for virtually everyone in the Wehrmacht received Pervitin as part of their rations, methamphetamine tablets that the troopers used to stay awake for weeks on end, fighting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor, with overexertion leading many to suffer attacks of irrepressible euphoria. “An absolute silence reigns. Everything becomes alien and insignificant. I feel completely weightless, as if I were floating above my own airplane,” a Luftwaffe pilot wrote years later, as though he were recollecting the silent raptures of a beatific vision rather than the dog days of war. The German writer Heinrich Böll wrote letters to his family from the front asking them to send him additional doses: “It’s hard here,” he wrote to his parents on November 9, 1939, “and I hope you understand if I can only write you every two or three days. Today I’m doing so chiefly to ask for more Pervitin . . . I love you, Hein.” On May 20, 1940, he wrote them a long, impassioned letter that ended with the same request: “Can you get hold of a bit more Pervitin for me, so I can have some in reserve?” Two months later, his parents received a single scraggly line: “If at all possible, please mail me more Pervitin.” Amphetamines fuelled the unrelenting German Blitzkrieg and many soldiers suffered psychotic attacks as they felt the bitter tablets dissolve on their tongues. The Reich leadership, however, tasted something very different when the lighting war was extinguished by the firestorms of the Allied bombers, when the Russian winter froze the caterpillar tracks of their tanks and the Führer ordered everything of value within the Reich destroyed to leave nothing but scorched earth for the invading troops. Faced with utter defeat, staggered by the new horror that had called down upon the world, they chose a quick escape, biting down on cyanide capsules and choking to death on the sweet scent of almonds that the poison gives off.
Much like the opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita, there is a palpable poetry here. Beginning almost like a fable (“In a … on the eve of …”) we are quickly discomfited by the technical terminology (“dihydrocodeine”, “analgesic”), and the obvious horror of the setting. There is an escalating intensity, a breathless pace, and strategic deployment of the unexpected. Other than “Nuremberg”, the most surprising word in the first sentence is “nails”, a word which itself has a harshness that hangs in the air. The nails of course belong to Göring, and all within the same sentence we are taken on a tour of Göring’s body, told about his meth addiction, and learn of the extent of his dependency. Already this feels close to madness, even before we come to Burroughs.
Throughout the paragraph, adjectives are applied generously, and clauses are strung together beyond what we would typically expect (“… for weeks on end, fighting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor, with overexertion leading many to suffer attacks of irrepressible euphoria.”) Alliterations draw the reader on (“a single scraggly line”), with only a single short sentence early on in which to catch our breath (“This was not easy.”). Tangled contrasts create a sustained tension (“the lightning war was extinshuished by the firestorms of the Allied bombers”). Very quickly, we are addicted to the language, gulp it down, more than we can bear, until we are finally given a brief reprieve at the end of the paragraph in a cloud of poison gas.
And then, we are on the move again with the start of the next paragarph: “A wave of suicides swept through Germany in the final months of the war. …”
The conduit metaphor for communication is one of the many examples set out in Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.
- Ideas (or meanings) are objects,
- Linguistic expressions are containers, and
- Communication is sending.
The authors give ordinary language examples in which the metaphor’s structuring of our thoughts become explicit, making a compelling case for its dominance.
I want to critique this specific metaphor, as it is particularly insiduous among mathematically-inclined dilettantes in semiotics (one of which I should be considered). The conduit metaphor deceptively buttresses desires for shared knowledge graphs, the hope that precisely defined words with formally derived argumentation can resolve disagreements, the aesthetics of minimalist writing, and the impression of sentience in large language models.
At its core, it imagines language as a puzzle, with precisely defined rules and operations through which one can find the answer. A sequence of words becomes an analytic unit which can then be formally manipulated akin to algebra. The meaning, contained in these units, is transformed by these operations precisely. Communication, then, is just means of giving another person the correct sequence of transformations. In reality, language turns out to be a riddle that, only with the appropriate experience, snaps into clarity and becomes self-evident.
In Penser/Classer, Georges Perec introduces a game his OuLiPo companion, Marcel Benabou, would play. Through it we’ll notice just how much the conduit leaves out. First, we define a series of grammars, e.g. A is the continuation of B by other means. A little A carries us away from B, a lot brings us closer. Happiness is in A, not B. A is a malady for which B is the cure. &c. These clichés are then filled in with a vocabulary, e.g. “remebering” and “forgetting.”
- Remebering is a malady for which forgetting is the cure.
- Remebering wouldn’t be remembering if it weren’t for forgetting.
- What comes by remembering goes by forgetting.
- Small forgettings make big rememberings.
- Remebering adds to our pains, forgetting to our pleasures.
- Remembering delivers us from forgetting, but who will deliver us from remembering.
- Happiness is in forgetting, not in remembering.
- Happiness is in remembering, not in forgetting.
- A little forgetting carries us away from remembering, a lot brings us closer.
- Forgetting unites men, remembering divides them.
These generated aphorisms seem to hold some measure of truth, depsite being mere combinatorial artifact. A theory of meaning must account for this. Perec asks the critical question: where is the thinking? Is it in the formula, the vocabulary, or the algorithm?
I’d like to suggest, perhaps obviously, that the thinking occurs inside the reader. In other words, the meaning is not at all contained in the analytic framework provided, but rather in a kind of resonance between reader and syntagm. The conduit metaphor then fails primarily for assuming that communication is independent of the people on each side. The meaning is not in the container, and the words have no meaning on their own.
The Necker Cube, oscillating between stable points.
As an alternative metaphor, consider the Necker cube. It is a bi-stable drawing, perceptually obvious to the viewer until it flips into its other stable point. A slight bit of priming, in this case the hiding of lines through a faux-occlusion, can force the viewer into either position. With this image in mind, a bit simplistically, though in my eyes much more productively, I’d like to suggest:
- Linguistic expressions are Necker cubes,
- Ideas (or meanings) are stable points, and
- Communication is priming.
Note that we begin with the concrete artifact, the linguistic expression, as an inherently unstable foundation. In this framing, priming becomes a dance between the parties attempting to communicate, grasping at the nebulous Necker cube they are constructing and attempting to arrive, together, at the same stable point. Curiously, writing is a kind of self-reflexive Necker cube, where the means of priming are themselves unstable. Perhaps this begins to point to the complexity of fiction, but also its power. The aphorism is a place to begin this analysis.
Despite their triteness, aphorism can hold special places in our philosophical constellations, becoming north stars. However, very much because of their triteness, communicating why they are meaningful to yourself is often a helpless task. There is a whole experiential corpus, an internal narrative at work, which is priming that phrase into coherence. The thinking is in the reader and the meaning is just one of the possible stable points. Explaining this to other feels like a helpless task.
This perhaps points to a communicative function of art: the expression of just one of these stable points, independently of the baggage of the viewer. The process of art-making becomes the construction of an apparatus which somehow compresses what is needed to prime you to its intended meaning. This is power of the novel or film that just hits. It manages to show you, despite all your past experience, that the dress is not just black and blue, but also white and gold.
Indeterminacy and ambiguity are ways of staying empowered. By not committing to one single, advanced, common-knowledge-creating self-interpretation in public, I retain the option of later explaining away (offering a strategically useful self-interpretation, or “conceptualization”) when the moment comes. By keeping commitments more open-ended, generic, or underspecified, I increases my degrees of freedom (wriggle room) to act later. By keeping my self-interpretation of desire more relaxed, I leaves open future possibilities.
I found this article on the psychodynamics and repeated dramas / cliches of communities in ‘multi user dungeons’, which was some kind of transitional social culture between modern gamers and traditional tabletop gamers.
(Mud = “Multi-user dungeon”; Gods = “Dungeon/Game Masters”; Wimping = making players impotent, i.e. nerfing, blunting)
Player Wimping: A Critical Examination
Generally done under the rationalization of “mud balancing”… one of the most insidious acts one can undertake. Wimping results in more hurt players, and more shattered morale for a mud than anything any player could ever accomplish.
Almost without fail, when a mud starts, it starts because a player decides the gaming world needs something “friendly and unique” and finds himself in a situation where he is not satisfied with how the mud he is on is run.
As the mud opens, the [Game Masters] are visible and helpful, they give freely of their time to players with little grudging.”
“At first, [GMs] do their best to keep people happy… It is likely that they will give in against their own gut feelings when they do some of these things. In their rightly motivated effort to please they sometimes go further than they should thus setting themselves up to fail.”
Somewhere along the way the gods begin to feel pressured and they begin to withdraw. Slightly at first, simply going invisible, but they still talk regularly with players. But it does not stop, …. Soon the [GMs] find themselves only talking to their peers.”
It is at the point where the players become secondary to the creation that the danger exists… [GMs] talk to people who will by their nature agree, asking little if any input from the players that will be most affected by their choices.”
This feels like the kind of problem where there’s heterogenous actors with different perceptions of the world but also some kind of interesting group psychopathology.
Like, I can’t imagine the cyclic dramas of the flourishing & then decaying internet-dungeons-and-dragons campaign playing out so predictably if there weren’t psychodynamics forcing all of the actors to play the same roles each time
I would love to bash out some transactional analysis of the roles and types at play here. For now, I’d recommend reading Tenarius’s original thesis in full.
I’ve been leading Suspended on a bit lately, telling him I’m going to write something about how frames and context interact with communication. My main interest writing that piece was to clearly pinpoint and differentiate the subset of implication that is insinuation, so that I can talk about fuckey dynamics around insinuation without people going down the garden path of telling me that you can never eliminate context. So, briefly, implication. And then, insinuation.
In The Literature TM, Grice is known for bringing the idea of implication/implicature into linguistics (yes, it took till the 70’s, be patient, they’re academics). The classic example, someone stops at a convenience store, tells the clerk “I’m out of gas” and the clerk responds “There’s a gas station around the corner.” That the traveler was looking for help finding gas was not explicitly communicated, but was implied via the context. Various words can be contextual to the speaking context, words like “me” and “now” and “this”. But besides resolving the referents of particular words and phrases that are ambiguous without context, there’s a broader way in which all communication is contextual to your understanding the world, your interlocutor, and what you think you’re both trying to do by saying words. The clerk understands the empty tank traveler because why else would someone say they’re out of gas if not to inquire about where to get more? The clerk knows how “being out of gas” works and is responding to The Situation. Non-sequiturs can only be a thing because people are always attending to “what is The Situation and what are we both doing here?” in a very general sense.
There’s a sort of figure-ground dynamic where the shared understanding of the pre-linguistic “Situation” is the ground that allows explicit communication to even be a figure. I love Crispy’s “snap-to-grid” analogy. Explicit communication provides a set of structured references that pair down possible things you could be talking about and doing via talking about them, and it’s the ground, the Situation, that allows your utterances to “snap-to-grid” and form a coherent unit of communication that another person can interact with. Without the “so what?”, no communication really makes sense. The only reason this isn’t always obvious is because the “so what?” can be so simple, general, or obvious that it barely feels worth mentioning. If I shout “Fire!” the “so what?” is so patently obvious to any person who’s flammable, the snap-to-grid happens so instantaneously, that it barely feels like a “step” in the process of understanding. If I’m just shooting the shit with my friends, the “so what?” can be so casual and general (we enjoy each others company and like saying funny things and sharing what’s been on our minds), that it doesn’t even feel “goal oriented” or “purposeful”, especially given how people tend to only use the languages of “goals” and “purpose” in stupidly narrow contexts (“babe, you haven’t even touched your OKRs this quarter”).
So Grice has claimed the terms implicature and implication for this very broad aspect of communication. Colloquially, when I hear people use the word implication they’re often talking about what’s better described as insinuation. “Oh yeah? And what exactly are you trying to imply, huh?” I’d characterize insinuation as leaving core pieces of what you want to communicate in implicit channels, and refusing to clarify or disambiguate what you mean if another party inquires. Insinuation is the commitment to keeping your communication implicit.
It’s impossible to entirely eliminate context and implication from your communication. And there’s nothing particularly admirable about unconditionally striving for more explicitness (though there are many conditional situations where it is useful and admirable). Insinuation, on the other hand, does not hold such a privileged position. The core function of insinuation is to be able to communicate without taking intersubjective responsibility for your communication.
One key weakness of insinuation as a tool is that, for the most part, you can only use it to check if someone else already understands something. You can’t really create new understandings between people with it. You can do “game recognizes game” like checks with subtle subtext, but you can’t teach someone a game with it. And that puts a serious limit on your ability to coordinate and solve hard problems with people. An example from the dark-side. There was an interview with Julian Assange where he mentioned how the manual for prison guards at Guantanamo Bay included lots of explicit instructions for fucked up shit like falsifying records for the Red Cross. Why would they do something so incriminating? Because insinuation through subtext is a very limited tool that isn’t up to the task of even something as “simple” as teaching a bunch of guards how to run a prison camp. If a guard already knows the ropes, already shares all the context, yes you can give them non-incriminating orders to do fucked up shit via insinuation. But you can’t create context.
There’s no existing context in the world that I’d be simply content to just sync up with others on. Most things I care about doing involve creating new contexts with people, learning from each other, and organizing complex shit. So I’ve got a pretty low opinion of insinuation as a tool, and an abysmal opinion of contexts and institutions where insinuation is the M.O. for communicating.