Every communication interaction has many layers of richness and depth. When it comes to meaning, there’s essentially always more of it.
It never stops.
If you look for meaning, you’ll find it. No instance of communication has just one meaning, there’s always many meanings. And meanings on top of meanings. There’s nearly always a depth and a richness to communicating — at least the good communication — that’s infinite.
Meaning may come out of nowhere, but it certainly doesn’t end up just anywhere, it gets layered on top of the meaning that came before it — in the context of that relationship and from broader culture. Like a river carves out a canyon, communication carves out the flow and path of your relationships.
Remember how it’s a simple given that communication always has multiple interpretations? Here, I’m talking about depth. I’m talking about how whenever new meaning is created and it gets lacquered right on top of the meaning that came before it. I’m talking about exploration beyond the superficial.
A palimpsest is a page from a scroll or a book — parchment, an object — made of lamb or calf skin. The expensive and scarce treated skin, also called pergamene, was used for writing and could be scraped or washed off and re-used.
Through modern technology, we are able to see past the top layer to see what’s underneath. In these photos, you can see the actual physical object on the left looking much like you might imagine. On the right, you can see the hidden layers, information, meaning, and recordings from previous texts buried deep in the chemicals and stains.
So it is with ink and animal skin, so it is with human interaction. There’s always more meaning down there somewhere though you may not realize it.
Palimpsests serve as an example of how communicating goes between people. Every conversation you have as a new layer directly laid on top of the old ones. This happens within relationships but we do often glean lessons from one relationship and apply them to others. In our lacquering of these new meanings on top of old, we watch new meaning grow and old meaning get covered up or even sometimes just melted away.
The depths of the richness of our communication are at some extent, incomprehensible and potentially awe-inducing. And just as how pergamene transforms into a palimpsest, it’s how our relationships become what they are. The sheer amount of interactions, and conversations that compound over the course of a day or week or year (forget about a lifetime!) to make up our innumerable relationships is enough to overwhelm. The different meanings upon meanings that make up the depths and layers of the meaning we create is a lot to take in.
While we’re exploring communication’s depth and richness, I once again feel compelled to come back to technology as it enables richness to play out directly in front of us through channels and forms of media.
To this point in human history, any technology we’ve created insofar as we use it to communicate is only able to accurately replicate or enhance very small fragments of the [human] communicative whole. Technology enhances communication in certain ways, with both good and bad consequences. And while technology-enhanced communication does not have a 1:1 correspondence with F2F communicating, technology does make it easier to see and access the depth that’s there in certain ways. You can scroll through old text messages and emails. You can listen to voicemails over and over to hear a tone of voice or to catch an exact phrasing. You could analyze, if you wanted to, the corpus of someone’s social media content. Not that many people do these things mind you, I’m just saying it’s possible.
Much of the depth of meaning exists only in our heads (and out in between us), technology just makes it easier for us to see or create richer interactions. These trends will grow in the future. Take augmented reality (AR) for example which is “embodied” quite uniquely and datafied in all sorts of crazy ways. Richer interactions with technology will continue to become possible.
There are consequences to all of this by the way. Black Mirror did an episode on it called The Entire History of You where the ability to play back old conversations did not have such rosy outcomes.
Another way to slice into this technology pie is to think about a more current and less sci-fi technology: social media. The term itself is a bit of a problem a Facebook, Twitter, Insta, or TikTok profile is no more or less ‘social’ than any other media. All media is social.
Plenty of good relationships have formed through social media, but what appears on or is shared via someone’s ‘social media’ is only a small fragment of that person’s total identity or being. For some relationships, the depth is formed through the interactions made possible through social media - friendships, reconnections, collaborations. To others, little depth is there and we only serve as bystander witnesses to conversations that aren’t worth the powder to blow them to hell.
Though I’m no one to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t say or have conversations about, social media is often chocked full of poison experiences. It’s great for some things and downright deadly and damaging for others. Remember that social media is always a fragment. People are more than what they appear on screen (Sometimes even much more!) but recall the words of Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Augmented reality, social media, someday robots. Science fiction has already taught us nearly all we need to know to imagine what human-like robots might look like. Bots are everywhere on the internet these days, someday they’ll just be everywhere. What will our interactions look like then? That remains to be seen.
We’re all just out here walking around uttering things out into the world. Sometimes they land and sometimes not. When the things we say and the ways we interact connect with others in meaningful ways, those messages ring and resonate like bells. Waves of meaning intersect and overlap with one another as they criss-cross — forming meaning in all directions — layers we feel but cannot see. Every conversation resonates to some degree. If you look close, you can see how deep things sometimes go.