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The Challenge of Communicating Complex Concepts

The influence of popular communications and media is an effect measured by the relative simplicity of the associated communication method.

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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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One reply on “The Challenge of Communicating Complex Concepts”

[…] Explanation of complex concepts is generally only verifiably true (or at least – factual) where and when we can reduce those concepts to the equivalent of an elementary arithmetic. What happens when we seek to perform such pseudo-mathematical concision and abbreviation in, and with, language is of course that we merely displace the implicit complexity and ambiguity of communication to another location, we incur an entropic cost of loophole and vulnerability which is nowhere as obvious (or as plausibly deniable) as when it manifests in, and as – for instance – legalistic frameworks such as constitutional or taxation law. These loopholes are always there and exist as much due to the endemic and enigmatic fallibilities and mischievously recursive curlicues of logic itself as by any irreducible uncertainty native to language, cognition and the complexities of information transmission as communication. […]

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