Asynchronous information transfer as a constraint on the emergence of graphic codes
James Winters & Thomas Müller (MPI Jena)
Tuesday 4 July 2017, 11:00–12:30
1.17 Dugald Stewart Building
Humans commit information to graphic symbols for three basic reasons: as a memory aid, as a recording device, and as a means of communication. Yet, despite the benefits afforded by transmitting information graphically, writing stands out as a unique and compelling mystery: it emerged relatively late in human evolution, and it is the only graphic code which matches the power, precision, and versatility of signed and spoken languages. We argue in this talk that the difficulty of arriving at a graphic code like writing is because asynchronous communication imposes hard constraints on information transfer: access to shared contextual information is circumscribed and recourse to conversational repair mechanisms is removed. To investigate this claim, we present two referential communication experiments. The first experiment shows that graphic codes only reach a stable, accurate and optimal state when used for synchronous communication. By contrast, codes fail to emerge for asynchronous communication, with the systems becoming stuck in a unstable, inaccurate, and sub-optimal configuration.The second experiment singles out the aspect of shared perceptual context from the general characteristics of synchronous communication, and demonstrates its importance for accurate graphic codes. Taken together, these results suggest that the paucity and late-arrival of stable, powerful, and accurate graphic codes in human history is (partly) due to strong constraints on information transfer.