Claude Shannon’s Transportation Theory of Communication Versus Marshall McLuhan’s Transformation Theory

27Jun17

Claude Shannon (1916-2001)

A classic film on communication finds renewed meaning in the age of memes and emojis

From personal email and texts to Facebook, Twitter and the like, the last several decades have seen an unprecedented influx of new means of human-to-human communication. So it’s a testament to the work of the US mathematician and ‘father of information theory’ Claude Shannon (1916-2001) that his model of communication, laid out in his landmark book A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949), is still so broadly applicable.

Working from Shannon’s book, in 1953 the iconic husband-and-wife design team Ray and Charles Eames created the short film A Communications Primer for IBM, intending to ‘interpret and present current ideas on communications theory to architects and planners in an understandable way, and encourage their use as tools in planning and design’. Released at the dawn of the personal computer age, the film’s exploration of symbols, signals and ‘noise’ remains thoroughly – almost stunningly – relevant when viewed some 64 years later.

Director: Ray & Charles  Eames   –   Composer: Elmer Bernstein

Marshall McLuhan differentiated his own theory of communication from that of Shannon and others as a Transformational theory as opposed to a merely Transportation theory: 

“My kind of study of communication is really a study of transformation, whereas Information Theory and all the existing theories of communication I know of are theories of transportation… Information Theory … has nothing to do with the effects these forms have on you… So mine is a transformation theory: how people are changed by the instruments they employ.” — Marshall McLuhan  –  In McLuhan, M., Wolfe, T., McLuhan, S., & McLuhan Productions. (1996). The Video McLuhan. [Toronto, Ont.]: McLuhan Productions.

Shannon’s diagram of a general communications system, which shows the process that produces a message.

Here is how Eric McLuhan explains the differences:

McLuhan often pointed out that the West has no theory of communication. We are denied one by our visual bias. That is to say, we have no theory of change. Communication means change. If something is communicated the recipient has changed in some manner or degree. Our “common sense” idea of communication is merely one of transporting messages from point to point. Shannon and Weaver laid the foundation of all Western “theories of communication” with their model:

— Noise —
Source >>> Message >>> Channel >>> Recipient
— Noise —

But this only is a transportation theory, not a theory of communication. They are concerned merely with getting a bundle of goodies from one place to another, while keeping dreaded Noise to a minimum. Their “theory” contains no provision for change—except perhaps in Noise (which they shun as debilitating). 

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