How all human communication fails, except by accident,
or a commentary of Wiio's laws

Wiio's laws are humoristically formulated serious observations about how human communication usually fails except by accident. This document comments on the applicability and consequences of the laws, especially as regards to communication on the Internet.

1 Communication usually fails, except by accident.

Finnish original: Viestintä yleensä epäonnistuu, paitsi sattumalta.

This is the fundamental one among Wiio's laws; others are corollaries from it, examples of it, or vaguely related notes. It is easy to see the relationship between it and Murphy's law(s) (see also: The Complete Edition of Murphy's Laws) and it easy to see as just a humorously pessimistic expression of feelings caused by some specific failures, strengthened by pessimistic people's tendency to remember failures better than successes.

Despite being entertaining, Wiio's laws are valid observations about all human communication. For any constructive approach to communication, we need to admit their truth and build upon them, instead of comfortably exercizing illusionary communication.

Perhaps prof. Wiio did not mean quite this. That would just prove law 3. And if he did, that would provide an additional example of the very law 1, since people who have read about the laws seem to take them as sarcastic humour only.

The law is to be interpreted as relating to human communication. Communication between computers (and animals) works often quite well. Human communication uses vaguely defined symbols. It has often been said, quite appropriately, that it is the use of symbols, i.e. the ability to define symbols for permanent or casual use, that separates man from (other) animals. It is also the thing that makes human communication fail, as a rule.

One reason to that is that by being conventional by their very essence, symbols are prone to misunderstanding. You use a word thinking it has a specific meaning by a convention; but the recipient of your message applies a different convention; what's worse, you usually have no way of knowing that.

A symbol is essentially a sign to which some meaning is assigned by convention rather than by any external similarity between the sign and its denotation. Thus, for example, a word like lion is a symbol: the word does not resemble a lion. An onomatopoetic word like whizzle is not a pure symbol in the same sense. And a picture, even a very stylicized picture, of a lion is not a symbol for a lion in the sense discussed here. A symbol like the word lion may sound very simple and unambiguous. But think about the various connotations. You perhaps meant just the lion, Panthera leo, as an animal species; the recipient may have taken it as a symbol of strength, or bravery, or danger, depending on his cultural and personal background. Perhaps the recipient has read the Narnia books with great enthusiasm; or perhaps a lion has killed a friend of his.

Let us list some examples of why human communication fails:

Remember that the laws of statistics are against you: even if the probabilities of failures were small when taken individually (they aren't), for success you would need a situation where none of them happens. A single misunderstanding in any essential area destroys the message. If you know some arithmetics, you can see that the odds are really against you. Just take a simple example where communication can fail for twenty different reasons (which is a huge underestimate). Assuming that the probability of failure is just 0.1 for each of them (unrealistically optimistic), calculations show that you'll succeed with the probability (1-0.1) to the power 20, which is about 12%.

Things are actually much worse. The discussion above is based on a simplistic model of communication which is very popular, and often taken as self-evident. That model could be characterized as teaching by feeding: there's a teacher (someone who communicates) and a pupil (a recipient of communication), and communication is a process of transferring some information from the teacher's mind in the pupil's mind. At the extreme, this means making the pupil memorize what the teacher says or a text in a book. The difficulty of communication would then consist basically just of the noise in the line of communication.

In reality, communication is much more complicated and diffuse. Consider a simple case where someone (A) is explaining to someone else (B) how to find a particular place; and assume that they speak the same language and nothing in the environment disturbs the communication; and assume that A really knows the way. To communicate, A must convert his knowledge, which is something invisible and intangible in his mind, into words, drawings, gestures, or whatever means he is about to use. It is the visible and audible data that gets "transferred" (if it gets - remember that this is a simplified case). Then B tries to process that data and construct a mental model of what he has to do to reach the place. It would be very naïve to assume that this process is simply the reversal of the process that took place when A formulated the message.

This can be presented diagrammatically as follows:
idea in A's mind --> a formulated message (e.g. sentence) --> transfer mechanism (e.g. speech and hearing) --> idea in B's mind
Each transformation (depicted as "-->") brings its own contribution to the probability of a failure.

When communication takes place through a translation, serious additional complications are caused. Quite often translations are made incompetently or sloppily in a haste. But even the most competent and careful translator is an additional component of the chain and inevitably distorts the message more or less. Professional translators often demonstrate law 3 well. In fact, they might even think they should "improve" the message instead of doing that by accident or by necessity (e.g. the necessity of adding interpretation to the message due to lack of sufficiently indefinite words in the target language).

So it's not just a matter of components of a message being in great danger of getting corrupted - words misheard, gestures misinterpreted, sentence constructs misparsed and so on. In our simple example, even if B gets all components of the message correctly, he needs to merge them with the information he already has. If the instructions begin with "go to the bus station", he needs to know how to get there first. In the worst case, he thinks he knows that well but doesn't. If the message contains an instruction to drive straight ahead, B will be really puzzled when the road bifurcates in a Y-like manner. (It was always clear to A what driving straight ahead means there.) All messages are unavoidably incomplete: in order to be of finite length, they must presume some prior knowledge in the recipient's side. (In fact, even if your message told everything, it wouldn't help; the recipient forgets what has read as he reads forward.) Presuming means guessing, more or less. By accident, you might guess right.

But it's not just the "teacher" that guesses wrong and omits indispensable details. Quite often, and very regularly e.g. in people's cries for help on Usenet, the person who needs information formulates his question so that no meaningful answer is possible. "Please help me, my computer is broken!" And the questioner often implies a specific approach to solving his ultimate problem and asks how to solve a technical problem; it usually happens that the technical problem is unsolvable (the approach leads to a dead end), but how can anyone help when the real question hasn't even been asked?

1.1 If communication can fail, it will

Finnish original: Jos viestintä voi epäonnistua, niin se epäonnistuu.

The factors that can make human communication fail might not be very serious, when each of them is taken in isolation. However, there are so many risks and they can interact in so many ways that it is statistically almost certain that communication fails.

1.2 If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails

Finnish original: Jos viestintä ei voi epäonnistua, niin se kuitenkin tavallisimmin epäonnistuu.

Even if you pay great attention to make your communication unambiguous, effective, and understandable, there will still be too many risks you haven't taken care of. Moreover, your measures are at best functional most of the time, which means that the combined probability for your communication to fail in at least one one of the ways in which it could fail is higher than you dare to imagine.

1.3 If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there's a misunderstanding

Finnish original: Jos viestintä näyttää onnistuvan toivotulla tavalla, niin kyseessä on väärinkäsitys.

When communication seems to be simple, easy and successful, it's probably a total failure. The recipient looks happy and thankful, because he understood your message his way, which is what he likes, and very different from what you were actually saying.

An old Usenet saying tells us that to every complex question, there is an answer which is simple, understandable, and pleasant, and plain wrong. People love to accept simple answers; only later do they realize they were wrong. More harmfully, many wrong answers have the nasty feature of "working" at first sight. It's much more harmful to get such an answer than to get an answer which turns out to be bogus the first time you try it.

1.4 If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails

Finnish original: Jos itse olet sanomaasi tyytyväinen, niin viestintä varmasti epäonnistuu.

Being content with the formulation of your message is a sure sign of having formulated it for yourself.

2 If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage

Finnish original: Jos sanoma voidaan tulkita eri tavoin, niin se tulkitaan tavalla, josta on eniten vahinkoa.

This Murphyistic remark is a warning about the very real possibility that ambiguities will be resolved in just the way you did not mean. Notice that this does not mean the worst misunderstanding you can imagine; rather, something worse - an interpretation you could not have imagined when you formulated your message.

3 There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message

Finnish original: On olemassa aina joku, joka tietää sinua itseäsi paremmin, mitä olet sanomallasi tarkoittanut.

People who understand you can be a real nuisance. It might take some time before you see that they completely failed to see what you meant, but that does not prevent them for propagating their ideas as yours.

4 The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds

Finnish original: Mitä enemmän viestitään, sitä huonommin viestintä onnistuu.

There's a widespread superstition that the more you communicate the better. In reality, increasing the amount of communication most probably just causes more misunderstandings.

There are people who keep repeating that there can't be too much information. Whether that's literally true is debatable. What what they mean (cf. to law 3) is just plain wrong. There can be, and there is, too large a volume of messaging. Data does not equal information.

4.1 The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate

Finnish original: Mitä enemmän viestitään, sitä nopeammin väärinkäsitykset lisääntyvät.

In addition to reformulating law 4, this refers to the fact that repetition strengthens false ideas. When people see the same message repeated over and over again, they usually start believing it. Even if your message happened to be true, they misunderstood it, so what they actually believe is not what you meant. And since the message has been presented so strongly, they tell it to their friends, who propagate it further, etc. Naturally, in that process, it gets distorted more and more.

5 In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be

Finnish original: Joukkoviestinnässä ei ole tärkeätä se, miten asiat ovat, vaan miten asiat näyttävät olevan.

This law is just remotely related to the basic law. It is however more and more important: mass communication creates a world of its own, and people orient themselves in that virtual world rather than the real one. After all, reality is boring.

6 The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance

Finnish original: Uutisen tärkeys on kääntäen verrannollinen etäisyyden neliöön.

Even more remote to our main topic, this simply states that events close to us look much more important to us than remote events. When there is an aircraft accident, its importance in Finnish newspapers basically depends on whether there were any Finns on board, not on the number of people that died.

It is however relevant to law 1 in the sense that it illustrates one of the reasons why communication fails. No matter what you say, people who receive your message will interpret and emphasize in their own reference framework.

7 The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago

Finnish original: Mitä tärkeämmästä tilanteesta on kysymys, sitä todennäköisemmin unohdat olennaisen asian, jonka muistit hetki sitten.

Similarly to law 6, this illustrates one of the causes of failures in communication. It applies both to senders and recipients. The recipient tends to forget relevant things, such as items which have been emphatically presented in the message as necessary requirements for understanding the rest of it. And the sender, upon receiving a request for clarification, such as a question during a lecture, will certainly be able to formulate an adequate, easy to understand answer - afterwards, when the situation is over.

Korpela's First Corollary: If nobody barks at you, your message did not get through

Lack of negative feedback is often presented as indicating that communication was successful. Au contraire, it really means you failed miserably.

Since communication always fails, anyone who does understand part of your message will miss the other parts. If he is motivated enough, and understood well enough the part he understood, he'll write back to you. Whether he barks at you or politely asks for clarification is up to his education and character; for you, there should be little difference.

Human communication works through dialogues. If something that looks like one-directional communication, such as a book or a Web page or a newspaper article, miraculously works, it's because the author participated in dialogues elsewhere. He had discussed the topic with numerous people before he wrote the "one-directional" message.

So feedback is not just getting some nice comments "keep up the good work". Rather, feedback as a genuinely interactive process is a necessary part of human communication. Feedback has emotional effects, too; just getting any feedback is usually nice; but the content matters too.

By statistical certainty, if you get sufficient feedback, there will be negative feedback too. Even if your message is perfect, some people will tell you it's crap. In fact, especially if it is perfect, some people will say - often with harsh words - it's no good, because there are clueless people who envy you.

Thus, lack of negative feedback indicates that few if any people really cared about your message.

Korpela's Second Corollary: Search for information fails, except by accident

The Web used to contain a large amount of unorganized and unclassified data. Now it contains a huge amount of unorganized and unclassified data and a jungle of "search engines", "catalogues" or "virtual libraries", and "portals".

The various searching tools have an immense impact. At best, they are very clever and useful. Ask Jeeves, and you might get an immediate answer to your question which you wrote in plain English. Occasionally, it might even be a correct and utilizable answer.

It still remains a fact that when you are looking for information on the Web, you'll find either nothing (when your search criteria are tight) or a useless list of zillions of addresses (when your search criteria are generic). Except by accident, that is.

The practical implication is that when searching for information, you need to be flexible and flighty. Learn to use a few searching tools well - that means knowing well the search language of one or two search engines and using some well-maintained catalogues - but keep your eyes open. Sometimes you need to learn to use new tools, and frequently you find crucial information just by accident. Searching for information on X, you stumble across an essential resource on Y, which is among your central interests too, but not the one you're thinking about now. It might take some time to study it with some care - perhaps it's just a resource to be added to your link list, but it might be much more important, something that needs top priority in your dealing with Y. Switch the context! At the very minimum, store a pointer to information you've found, even if that means doing something related to your hobbies during your working hours, or, gasp, the opposite. Remember that in searching for information, which is a peculiar form of human communication, accidents are your friends, and perhaps the only friends you've got.

The Pedagogic Corollary: Give the student a chance to realize he misunderstood it all

Teaching is far more difficult than people think. At worst, teaching is regarded as an one-directional transfer of information to a recipient, much like feeding an animal or sending data to a computer for storing. By the Laws, it will fail. Even if the recipient receives something, it will be misunderstood.

At best, there's a continuous feedback cycle between the teacher and the student. The latter sends back information that shows how he actually understood the content. Although this communication generally fails, too, it has sufficiently many odds of accidentally working. Moreover, it can be a self-repairing process. When the student shows the teacher what he has done, this will often indicate some fundamental misunderstandings. Ideally, the teacher should try and help the user see what went wrong.

In non-interactive teaching, the situation is far more difficult. The best the instructor can do is to provide guidance to self-testing, via exercises and quizzes, or via material that indirectly induces self-testing. In some cases, the student will immediately see whether his exercise succeeds. Sometimes answers to test questions need to be provided. And sometimes it is sufficient to give the student just some ideas on how to try what he thinks he has learned.

What should happen, then, is that when the student notices that he does not pass a self-test, he gets back to the instructional material, and tries to see what went wrong. At this phase, additional material might prove out to be useful. Mostly any "extra reading" is just ignored. But when the student realizes that he fundamentally misunderstood something, he might be willing to take extra trouble to read "secondary" material, which has now become potentially primary to him. After all, if the main material was not successful, it's probably time to study a presentation of the same topic in some other format and style.

The important thing is to realize that even the best explanations and illustrations will be misunderstood. The student needs a way of testing his understanding against some criteria. At best, this means doing something and seeing whether it works.

As a constructive summary, we can just state that you cannot communicate successfully. You can only increase the odds of accidental success by paying serious attention to the problems discussed here.

Professor Osmo A. Wiio (born 1928) is a famous Finnish researcher of human communication. He has studied, among other things, readability of texts, organizations and communication within them, and the general theory of communication. In addition to his academic career, he has authored books, articles, and radio and TV programs on technology, the future, society, and politics. He formulated "Wiio's laws" when he was a member of parliament (1975--79) and published them in Wiion lait - ja vähän muidenkin (Wiio's laws - and some others'; in Finnish). (Weilin+Göös, 1978, Espoo; ISBN 951-35-1657-1).

Related documents by other people:

See also the Dilbert comics, which often illustrate strikingly the ways in which human communication fails, especially when related to hi tech. In particular, communication between Dilbert and his boss is guaranteed to fail, since the boss has no idea of the content of the activities he "manages".