The Challenge of Communicating Complex Concepts

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The above image is a scale indicating the readability of text based on a standard calculation of the “Flesch–Kincaid readability test“. Higher scores indicate greater ease of reader comprehension. Even a casual cultural commentator or critic of human behaviour can see a pattern emerging here.

The information most easily consumed is also that which is most prevalent in our cultural and communications systems. While issues such as education level are likely to be a factor in this, the extent to which information and communications messaging is successful appears to be a consequence of topic popularity. Topic popularity is also undoubtedly influenced by ease of comprehension through text or concept simplicity.

Cultural and popular communications centrality and influence is a measure of the relative measure of simplicity of the associated communication method. This suggests a statistical correlation between what is written and the ease and speed with which that information is understood. I realise that this is something of a “no-brainer” but consider the consequences of this.

If simple messages are more popular, then political messaging finds itself lashed to the mast of aspiring to serially simple and uncomplicated representations of complex realities. The most easily understood messages are those which feature simple, repetitive sentences akin to sport and entertainment reports. Seeking and keeping audience share in political messaging then becomes a matter of the public juggling of four or five easily remembered and understood concepts.

The effect is that complex political, strategic and social issues become reduced in the popular imagination to ontological Lego, to a colourful crayon set with which to sketch pictures on the perennially blank walls of severely malnourished attention spans. The reflexive flip-side to this is that policy creation rapidly becomes a race to the bottom, a lowest-common-denominator montage of simple sentences and ideas. Powerful political incentives are set in motion in which the simplicity of a message (“build a wall”, “leave Europe”, etc.) becomes its key measure of successful propagation.

The challenge at this point becomes one of intelligent messaging and communications brevity or efficiency. If the reality of the world is that it is complex, interdependent and interconnected in fundamental ways and that this actual structural sophistication almost entirely invalidates the simplistic conceptual building blocks of an isolationist or (radical) nationalist agenda, what are the plausible methods by which popular messaging of this reality can be conducted ?

A first step might be to disassemble and disentangle the dependence of political tenure upon the cultivation of gullibility in a target audience. Beyond that, the task becomes one of negotiating an ocean of information and proliferating simplicities by introducing new narratives, myths and easily understood abstractions for popular consumption. The world is complex but the methods by which the facts of this complexity are conveyed need not be difficult to understand. This is one of the greatest challenges we currently face but it also represents an opportunity.

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