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Sense in Communication



October 16, 2003





The demand for text messaging relative to telephony, the amount of time spent participating in virtual worlds or digital games relative to television viewing, and the value of camera phone services all depend on how persons make sense in communication.  Three models for communication are information transfer, storytelling, and presence.  While analysis of communication has tended to employ the first two models, the third model provides a better orientation for recognizing and organizing useful knowledge about sensuous choices in communication.  Making sense of presence of another like oneself is a good that drives demand for a wide range of communication services.  From study of living organisms, artistic masterpieces, and media history, this work documents knowledge about this good.  Providing means for persons to make sense of presence encompasses competition among communication services with different sensory qualities.  Competition to support this good offers enduring opportunities to create high industry value.  



Note:  The most recent version of this paper is freely and publicly available at  When viewed on a color monitor or printed on a color printer, this paper contains color images.
























Douglas A. Galbi

Senior Economist

Federal Communications Commission[1]


Table of Contents



I. Making Sense of Presence

            A. Computational Theory

            B. Inputs and Algorithms

                C. Properties of a Living Body


II. A Masterpiece of Sensuous Communication: The Hamzanama of Akbar

            A. Akbar and his Culture

            B. The Adventures of Hamza

            C. Multi-sensory Stimulation

            D. Freedom of Sense from Narrative

E. Making Sense of Presence


III. A Masterpiece of Sensuous Communication: The Morgan Bible of Louis IX

A. Sense of Scripture

B. Louis and his Acts

C. Sensuous Choices in the Morgan Bible

D.  Reception of Texts

E. Making Sense of Presence


IV. Mundane Limits of Will in Making Sense

A. Battles over Common Sense

B. What’s in a Name?

C. Epiphany, or What You Will


V. Sense in Media Evolution

            A. Sensuous Values Have Economic Value

            B. Photographs and Telephone Calls are Complements

            C. Bringing New Media to Life


VI. The Good for Communications Growth


Image Credits


Table Notes




Appendix A. Historical Popularity of the Name Mary


Appendix B. Adjusting Name Popularity Statistics for Family Size


Appendix C. Photographers and Authors





A specter is haunting perceptive persons concerned about communication.  After a recent university lecture on new communication technologies, a listener walked up to the learned lecturer and asked:

As an apprentice information designer, I regularly have to decide whether to communicate information in words, images, or sounds.  How do I decide this?  And what guidance am I getting from my teachers, or people like you, about how to do so?[2]

This is no sharing of an impersonal fantasy.  It’s real communication.  Such a practical, personal question!  What an awkward situation!  A scene sure to be played out around the world over and over again in meetings, personal encounters, and minds!

      In 1969, just one word seemed to sum up the future of sense in communication.  An executive vice president of one the most prestigious research and development organizations in the U.S. declared:

Rarely does an individual or an organization have an opportunity to create something of broad utility that will enrich the daily lives of everybody.  Alexander Graham Bell with his invention of the telephone in 1876, and the various people who subsequently developed it for general use, perceived such an opportunity and exploited it for the great benefit of society.  Today there stands before us an opportunity of equal magnitude – PICTUREPHONE® service.[3]

PICTUREPHONE® was designed to allow persons to see each other during a telephone conversation so as to “convey much important information over and above that carried by the voice alone.”[4]  To a conventional telephone, PICTUREPHONE® added a desktop display unit (weighing about 11.4 kilograms) with a 12.7 cm by 14 cm screen and a camera fixed above the screen.[5]  Total research and development expenditure for this system amounted to about $2.6 billion in year 2001 comparable dollars, a magnitude about equal to research and development expenditure on the Boeing 747 jumbo jet.[6]  But PICTUREPHONE® never got off the ground with users.  While plastics have had great significance for daily life, PICTUREPHONE® today means nothing to most persons.[7]

      Better understanding of sensuous choices in communication can contribute to better understanding of likely communications industry developments.  Over the next few years, hundreds of millions of camera phones are expected to be purchased.  What will be the relative value of pictures and voice in real-time personal communication?  Choice between text and voice communication is already integrated and offered conveniently in mobile communications devices.  The relative demand for these sensory forms has major implications for pricing, revenue structure, and competitive dynamics.  More generally, sounds, sights, and words can all be encoded in bits.  However, recorded music, radio, and telephony; photography, cinema entertainment, and video broadcasting; and e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, and journalism all have much different economics, industrial structures, and regulatory frameworks.  The evolving use of sounds, sights, and words, and the distribution of creation and reception of these forms among persons and organizations, will drive over-all communications industry evolution.

      Thinking about sense in communication can employ three general models of communication.  One model is information transfer.[8]  Different sensory circumstances, such as face-to-face communication, voice telephony conversation, text messaging, or new forms of web-based social software, can be evaluated for efficiency in information transfer.  Another model of communication is storytelling – offering an arrangement of representations for shared interpretation.  Sensuous values in storytelling affect storytelling style and how persons make bodily sense of a story.  The art of storytelling concerns sensuous economics different from those of information transfer.[9] 

      A third model for thinking about sense in communication concerns sense of presence.  Expert regulatory agencies dedicated to the public interest are beginning to explore the policy significance of presence in communication.  In approving the merger of America On-Line (AOL) with Time Warner, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considered at length AOL’s “Names and Presence Database” (NPD) and the provision of “NPD services.”  The FCC described names and presence thus:

The names and presence indication, as displayed on the sender’s and recipient’s buddy lists and screens, enable each to know the other’s IM [instant text messaging] name and when he or she is online or available.  The actual NPD consists, first, of a database of the users’ unique IM names and addresses and, second, of a “presence detection” function, which is the IM provider’s knowledge, and its ability to inform others, that a certain user is online and therefore available to engage in instant messaging.  The NPD is more than simply a customer list.  It is a working part of an electronic communications network for persons who have requested participation in the network and actually use it to exchange communications in real time with other users.[10]

While the NPD might look like a customer list, the FCC argued that the NPD is truly and substantially something more.  The last sentence of the above quotation struggles to describe exactly how a names and presence database differs from other databases of names and statuses.[11]  The distinction seems to concern freely chosen openness to a certain type of communication and ongoing acts of this type of communication.   Based on its analysis of NPD services and AOL’s industry position in instant (text) messaging, the FCC approved the merger under a condition constraining AOL Time Warner's provision of “advanced IM-based high-speed services,” such as video messaging.[12] 

      While the definition and significance of NPD services may seem obscure, presence provides an important concept for understanding sensuous choices in communication.[13]  Much of the economic value of media products comes from persons seeking to understand the thoughts, feelings, and actions of persons like themselves.  This sense of presence in mass media, such as television programs, popular music, and best-selling books, is the same as the sense of presence in personal communication.  What makes a letter a joy, or a voice from an object (a telephone headset) a comfort, rather than a horror, depends on the sense of another’s presence, despite that person’s physical absence.  The way this sense is activated, and at what cost, directly relates to sensuous choices in communication.  Persons serving in government and industry should be always ready to confront major challenges to advancing the public interest.  Understanding persons’ sense of presence is such a challenge. 

      Making sense of presence depends on activity throughout the living body.  For many organisms, including humans, recognizing another like oneself is a central determinate of survival, comfort, happiness, and reproductive success.  Physical proximity, which naturally integrates sensory modes, has been the primary circumstance of selective fitness for this activity.   For human beings, who typically understand themselves to be self-conscious and to have free will, recognizing another like oneself involves recognizing these qualities in the other.  Making sense of presence invokes the full sense of the living human body in continuous seeking to understand another who cannot be fixed in any particular representations.  In making sense of presence, sense is integrated and processed in mutually interacting networks of cells encompassing from the most direct physical transformation of stimuli to the most abstract cognitive processing.  While different communication technologies have different effects on sense, making sense of presence creates a similar neurological state in any circumstance of communication.

      Studying important artifacts and historical periods of communication helps bring to life the mechanisms of sense of presence.   The Hamzanama of Akbar, an extraordinary artifact produced in a highly developed, diverse sixteenth-century south Asian empire, supports a sensuous performance in which many subjects could sense many different persons' presence.  The Morgan Bible of Louis IX shows a specific sense of presence resisting attempts to be confined to a particular sensory mode.  In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, sensuous choices in communication were a matter of intense, wide-ranging controversy.  Purifying sense proved to be impossible in practice.  Anxiety and uncertainty about sensuousness prompted new linkages between media and personal presence – both in little-discussed popular behavior and in well-recognized, sublime literature and performance. 

      To create new value for persons, media products and communication services should reduce the cost of making sense of presence within circumstances of desired communication.[14]  That persons have favored color images over black-and-white images, and spending time watching television over spending time listening to the radio or reading, indicates that a greater sensory scope reduces the bodily work required to make sense of presence.  Photographs taken relative to minutes of telephone conversations has been remarkable stable in the U.S. over the past century, despite a large reduction in the difference between the marginal cost of photographs and telephony (the data indicate that a photograph is worth about twelve thousand words spoken on the telephone).  Telephony and photography, or more generally, different sensory modes, can be understood as complementary components of a composite good, sense of presence.  The value of new media and communication services, such as virtual worlds and camera phones, is likely to depend more on their comparative advantages in making sense of presence than on their comparative advantages in information transfer or storytelling. 


[1] The opinions and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the author.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Communications Commission, its Commissioners, or any staff other than the author.  I am grateful for numerous FCC colleagues who have helped me and encouraged me over the past eight years of my career at the FCC.  Author’s address:; FCC, 445 12’th St. SW, Washington, DC 20554, USA.

[2] Lantham (2001), p. 2.  The above quote is what Lantham remembers a student asking him after one on his lectures.

[3] Molnar (1969) p. 134.  Molnar was Executive Vice President of Bell Telephone Laboratories.

[4] Id. p. 135.

[5] Dickson (1974) p. 28.

[6] Id. p. 190 estimates, c. 1972, cumulative total research and development spending on Picturephone at $500 million.  This figure is scaled to 2001 dollars using the Consumer Price Index.

[7] On the great importance of plastics in daily life, see Meikle (1995).  Industry analysts in the mid-1960s, e.g. McGuire (1967), correctly recognized the future importance of plastics. 

[8] For example, the Dead Media Project’s definition of media draws on the model of communication as information transfer:

In the Dead Media Project we define media as a device that transfers a message between human beings.  So a dance is not a “medium,” because there is no device involved; but a bouquet of flowers can be a media.

See Bruce Sterling, quoted in Bak (1999).  Dancers and choreographers, in contrast, tend to regard dance as a medium.  The information transfer model abstracts away from the functioning of living bodies in communication.

[9] Benjamin (1936b), p. 89, noted, “by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”  The situation is much different in the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Much of academic scholarship now aspires to storytelling.   Business and political leaders have also widely employed this approach to communication.   For an example of resistance against the dominance of storytelling, see Eskelinen (2003).  But as Frasca (2003) points out, game scholars do not totally reject narrative as an aspect of games.

[10] FCC (2001) p. 60, para. 138.

[11] Names in general are an important part of the information economy.  For exploration of some issues related to names, see Galbi (2001b) and Mueller (2002).

[12] Id., § IV.B.  Michael Powell, then a Commissioner, now Chairman of the FCC, issued a detailed dissent from this finding.  Chairman Powell did not dissent from the importance of presence in mediated, interpersonal communication; he put forward a difference assessment of benefits to the public and competitive risks.  In light of actual industry developments, on July 31, 2003, the FCC lifted the condition.  See FCC (2003). 

[13] Some scholars have directed their efforts toward understanding presence.  For a review, see Lombard and Ditton (1997) and the website for the International Society for Presence Research, Heeter (1992) p. 271 summaries a key issue:  “…how do I convince participants that they and the world exist?”   This has also emerged as a major challenge in humanities disciplines. 

[14] Privacy and time to be alone are also highly valued goods.  Person acting individually have some effective means to realize these goods without purchasing communication services.  More generally, the management of presence is an important source of value in communication services.  This paper primarily concerns the production of presence in communication, not its management.