Charles & Ray Eames’ A Communications Primer Explains the Key to Clear Communication in the Modern Age (1953)

You might think that a movie about infor­ma­tion from 1953 couldn’t pos­si­bly be rel­e­vant in the age of iPhone apps and the Inter­net but you’d be wrong. A Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Primer, direct­ed by that pow­er cou­ple of design Charles and Ray Eames, might refer to some hope­less­ly quaint tech­nol­o­gy – com­put­er punch cards, for instance – but the under­ly­ing ideas are as cur­rent as any­thing you’re like­ly to see at a TED talk. You can watch it above.

In fact, the film made for IBM was the result of the first ever mul­ti-media pre­sen­ta­tions that Charles Eames devel­oped for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and UCLA. Using slides, music, nar­ra­tion and film, Eames broke down some ele­men­tal aspects of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the audi­ence. Cen­tral to the film is an input/output dia­gram that was laid out by Claude Shan­non, the father of infor­ma­tion the­o­ry, in his 1949 book, The Math­e­mat­i­cal The­o­ry of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. As the per­haps over­ly sooth­ing nar­ra­tor intones, any mes­sage is trans­mit­ted by a sig­nal through a chan­nel to its receiv­er. While in the chan­nel, the sig­nal is altered and degrad­ed by noise. The key to effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion is to reduce “noise” (con­strued broad­ly) that inter­feres with the mes­sage and to gen­er­al­ly sim­pli­fy things.

The issue of sig­nal vs noise is prob­a­bly more rel­e­vant now in this age of per­pet­u­al dis­trac­tion than it was dur­ing the Eisen­how­er admin­is­tra­tion. Every email, text mes­sage or Buz­zfeed arti­cle seen indi­vid­u­al­ly is clear­ly a sig­nal. Yet for some­one try­ing to work, say on an arti­cle about a short film by Charles and Ray Eames, they are def­i­nite­ly noise.

The Eames use the terms “sig­nal,” “noise,” and “com­mu­ni­ca­tion” quite broad­ly. Not only do they use these terms to describe, say, a radio broad­cast or a mes­sage being relayed by Morse code but also the cre­ation of archi­tec­ture, design and even visu­al art.

The source of a paint­ing is the mind and expe­ri­ence of the painter. Mes­sage? His con­cept of a par­tic­u­lar paint­ing. Trans­mit­ter? His tal­ent and tech­nique. Sig­nal? The paint­ing itself. Receiv­er? All the eyes and ner­vous sys­tems and pre­vi­ous con­di­tion­ing of those who see the paint­ing. Des­ti­na­tion? Their minds, their emo­tions, their expe­ri­ence. Now in this case, the noise that tends to dis­rupt the sig­nal can take many forms. It can be the qual­i­ty of the light. The col­or of the light. The prej­u­dices of the view­er. The idio­syn­crasies of the painter.

Of course, a paint­ing — or a poem, or a film by Andrei Tarkovsky — is a dif­fer­ent kind of sig­nal than an email. It’s mes­sage is mul­ti­lay­ered and mul­ti­va­lent. And while a gen­er­a­tion of cul­tur­al the­o­rists would no doubt chafe at Eames’s reduc­tive, Mod­ernist view of art, it is still inter­est­ing to think of a paint­ing in the same man­ner as smoke sig­nals.

The film’s nar­ra­tor con­tin­ues:

But besides noise, there are oth­er fac­tors that can keep infor­ma­tion from reach­ing its des­ti­na­tion in tact. The back­ground and con­di­tion­ing of the receiv­ing appa­ra­tus may so dif­fer from that of the trans­mit­ter that it may be impos­si­ble for the receiv­er to pick up the sig­nal with­out dis­tor­tion.

That’s about as good a descrip­tion of cable new pun­dits as I’ve ever seen.

A Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Primer will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Design­ers Charles & Ray Eames Cre­ate a Pro­mo­tion­al Film for the Ground­break­ing Polaroid SX-70 Instant Cam­era (1972)

Charles & Ray Eames’ Icon­ic Film Pow­ers of Ten (1977) and the Less­er-Known Pro­to­type from 1968

Charles and Ray Eames’ Pow­ers of Ten: The Clas­sic Film Re-Imag­ined By 40 Artists

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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