Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Signals in the Channel: Communication Theory and The Cabal

Welcome back to Funding the Kryptonite, a blog that will take a look at comic book super villains and discuss them from a business perspective.

Looking at a relatively new series called The Unwritten, from the DC Comics imprint Vertigo, I’m going to be discussing the villainous group known as The Cabal and their use of communication theory in how they deal with the series protagonist, Tom Taylor.


Not much is known about the Cabal, save that they appear to be a group based on the premise of harnessing the power of stories to fuel their own goals (whatever they may be). One of their members, Wilson Taylor, the father of Tom Taylor, broke from the group and published a series of books about a boy-wizard (styled after the Harry Potter novels) named Tommy Taylor. These similarities to his own son made Tom into a celebrity in his own right. A series of events leads Tom to be increasingly viewed as the literal incarnation of Tommy in the real world, and the Cabal seeks to control or eliminate Tom as his power increases as the belief in him grows. After a series of adventures in gathering allies, magical equipment, and learning more about his past, Tom goes to confront the Cabal one-on-one.

Ruining the Signal:

The Cabal are no strangers to the power of stories, and it is about to come down on them hard in the form of Tom Taylor. As a member of their group specifies, the collective power of belief in the story is consensual, cumulative, and spatially bound. In essence, this means that the strength of the message is linked to how clear it is (in terms of agreement), how many people believe in it, and how close the sources and destinations are.

The Who and What?:

This is where communication theory kicks in. Let’s look over this basic model of how communication works.

The Information Sources are the ones sending out the message, in this case being the millions of fans who believe that Tom Taylor is Tommy the boy-wizard. The Transmitter is the mechanism by which it is encoded, both in terms of physical object and by the methods used to send that signal (analogy, examples, etc…). It then gets sent out into the Channel (not directly illustrated, but it’s the gap between the transmitter and the receiver) that is chosen for how to send the message (voice, internet, letter, etc…). The Receiver picks up the signal from the channel and decodes it. Once decoded, it is finally absorbed by the Destination which is the intended recipient of the message by the Source.

There are lots of things that can go wrong here. One of the biggest problems comes from the encoding and decoding of the signal by the transmitter and the receiver because they are largely based on personal experience. Slang, personal context, and cultural differences can all contribute to problems in signal transmission and receipt. The other big problem is Noise.

Technical Difficulties:

Noise is the term used for everything in the channel that can interfere with, or distort, the signal sent out. These things, as the Cabal notes, includes how the signal meshes with other signals in the channel (does it run along with, or contrary to, the general pattern), the volume or size of the signal (is it easily lost in the void, or too big to ignore), and space (does the message come from far away to be lost in higher strength local signals, or is it nearby and impactful).

The Cabal, using this understanding of communication theory, wrecks the signal of power to Tom by having a staff of thousands start writing and believing in different types of Tommy Taylor stories. Ones where, instead of being a boy wizard, he could be a drug dealer or a murderer or a psychopath or insane or anything where he would not have the power needed to stand against the Cabal. This is especially effective because, as he invades their sanctum, the signal distance from his power base comes under attack from the much closer noise inducing signals of the Cabal’s minions. The strength of consensus also comes into play, as the signal saying Tom is actually a wizard with magic powers runs contrary to the generally held world view against such things.

Closing comments:

Businesses usually use communication theory differently, trying instead to minimize signal erosion by ensuring their transmissions are easily understood by the intended destinations and by trying to use as clear a channel as possible to prevent other signals from encroaching. Some failures along those lines include one by Pepsi where their Chinese translation of their slogan was received as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead” instead of the intended “Come alive with Pepsi” slogan.

If you manipulate what people believe about the world, the world actually shifts. It falls in with people’s expectations.” –Ovette (The Unwritten, #33)

Final Rating: Good business!
Thank you for reading and please hit me up with your comments.

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