In Tor Nørretranders book, The User Illusion, he coins the term exformation, which represents information that is explicitly discarded when a message is transferred from one place to another. When I think of discarded information, I think about mp3 audio, a format which intentionally deletes data at many places including highest and lowest frequencies. You probably don’t hear the difference, but with that data removed the file size is smaller, which means more space on your device.
You and I don’t compress music. We compress thought. Our ideas are purest when they are in our heads, where they exist as a combination of experience, knowledge, feeling, and emotion. But as we try to express that thought, we cannot transfer experience, or knowledge, or emotion. All we have are words. And words are a blunt tool.
As I am writing these posts, the topics are meaningful to me and the drafts in my head are detailed and rich. But then I have to condense these concepts into consonants, vowels, and punctuation, which become taps on a keyboard, then finally, patterns of light and dark pixels.
You see these pixels and reconstruct the idea in your own head, and if I am lucky, you clothe it with your knowledge and experience and come up with a thought that is similar to mine. That’s the only purpose of language, after all… to communicate. And English, with all of it’s faults (like how the word dough has more silent letters than audible ones), has such a rich vocabulary that it can be incredibly expressive when used to its capacity.
But despite how expressive a language is, we continue to intentionally strip out information when talking to each other. Young people are like exformation hackers in they way they text. What does it mean when she says “ok” without a period at the end? What about “OK” or “mmm k” or just “k”
You see that single character and you attach all sorts of meaning and emotion to it. You play out several scenarios in your heads and jump to conclusions. And she KNOWS that you do that. In games like these, exformation is just as important as information, and ambiguity is an asset. Go ahead and take that letter “k” and fill it with all sorts of unintended meaning. It’s just another technique she can use to discover what you are thinking when both parties are guarding their feelings.
Exformation can be perfectly transmitted when two parties have common interests and shared experiences. Like the look of reassurance from a friend or the long silence that follows when you share a difficult piece of news with your spouse. Much can be said without saying anything at all. Those who have been married for a while are familiar with this language.
But despite our best attempts to communicate with each other we are ultimately alone in our thoughts. We reach out desperately through the few bridges we have: language, touch, music, art, facial expressions, status updates, or sequential animated GIF. We seek for understanding and empathy but so much is lost in transmission. We can never really know how somebody else feels, nor can we accurately judge their intentions.
So we may be alone, but at least we can understand why. And if Tor Nørretranders could get this concept out of his head and over to Ze Frank, who remixed it and gave it to me, who tried in these words to give it to you, then maybe we can get enough information across to not feel so alone after all.