“System and Structure” – Essays by Anthony Wilden – 1972

Posted on Sep 3, 2014

“System and Structure” – Essays by Anthony Wilden – 1972

System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange, 1st and 2nd ed., Tavistock Publications, 1972 and 1980, French translation, Boreal Express, Montreal, 1983.

The story of Anthony Wilden’s System and Structure crossing my path is profound.

Back in 1982, while attending my freshman year of college, my father, Stephen G. Covello, jr., was busy doing literature research to support his theory for designing musical notation for early learners. He came upon an article which inspired him so much that he took his borrowed copy of System and Structure to the local library and photocopied Essay VIII, “Analog and Digital Communication: On Negation, Signification, and Meaning” and mailed it to me. Later, he explained to me, in typically Italian broad gestures, face alight, how analog and digital communication works in complementary ways to form meaning.

I was fascinated but didn’t think much more of it until seven years later when I returned to undergraduate studies for Communications and found it as a useful model for a paper in a Philosophy class. I referred to the same photocopied pages from 1982 in writing that essay. But the article was subsequently lost.

Dissolve to the year 2009 when I returned to graduate studies and I discovered an additional opportunity to use Wilden’s theory in forming a basis of my instructional design approach. The problem was that I could not locate the article and could not recall the book nor the author. I did, however, still have the Philosophy essay from 1989. As fortune would have it, my needs intersected with the Internet Age, and I tried a Google search using some of the words and phrases I referred to in the Philosophy essay. Lo and behold, it was located among Google Books.

I soon ordered the book from AbeBooks for $20 or so, and have kept it as my “Big Bang” into intellectual inquiry.

As for what makes Essay VIII so essential: The challenges in online teaching and learning, as I have often stated, are fundamentally communications challenges. The present day frame of reference in online teaching and learning is in comparison to traditional F2F delivery, which naturally draws comparisons to the ways in which asynchronous communication affects the formation meaning. Wilden clarifies how analog information is strong in conveying information about a relationship, but poor in conveying how the relationship is to be taken as to form meaning. Digital information, with its precise syntax and discrete code, is strong in its organization, but poor in conveying a relationship.

Further explanation is found in the Semantic ISD Model paper found in the Archive:

Bateson, Watzlawick and Wilden wrote extensively about “communication pathology”, or, the circumstances by which meaning in a message is distorted or lost. In short, they argue that all communication contains the following: (a) analog representation (relationships) coded into an abstract measurement, interval, state, or icon to produce “information” (Wilden, 1972); and (b) content and command, to help classify the meaning of a given message, e.g. “what is the content of a message” (information) and “what is the message supposed to be taken as” (relationship) (Watzlawick, 1967). These principles help to describe the context of Distance Learning as a communication system, and help serve as a diagnostic framework for gauging clear message and interface design.

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