Sample Chapter

Donna Matrix and Communication


We now turn to our final shape, the matrix, to discuss how to augment our limited human language and other communicative abilities. We open with a brief imaginary scenario where we communicate with space aliens. After that, we discuss three common uses for what I call a “communication matrix”: simultaneous information, meta-information, and indexing. We conclude by discussing two common uses of indexing and meta-information that we are all familiar with: numbers and punctuation marks (i.e., interrobangs and question marks).

This chapter asks you to use your imagination. I do not provide specific answers to the following problems, but I do think these tools are useful to think about. While we can write some ideas down, the main point is to consider these ideas in the context of our attempts at communication. 

Empathy with space aliens

On a clear summer day, a silver flying saucer hovers over the city. A thunderous voice rings out: “People of Earth… We have an urgent message for you…” We see a bright flash of light and the spaceship disappears. On the sidewalk, a small group gathers to peer at the sky, awaiting the message.

We have witnessed a rare example of alien communication. If you have ever watched the science-fiction movie Arrival, you know that aliens are presumed to speak differently than we do. In this movie’s first contact, we meet two aliens that look like giant octopi floating in a dense fog. To communicate, their tentacles spray a kind of ink that forms wispy circles in the air that slowly blow away. This is their language, and no one on Earth can decipher it. Some serious complications arise, but eventually a linguist decodes the circular language.

Aliens are highly unlikely to speak English—or look like Spock—when they contact us. In fact, not only will their language use different words, but it will be, well, totally alien.

(Spoilers for 'Arrival' follow, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to enjoy the movie.)

The circular alien language of Arrivalpresents information, but it also presents new perspectives. Most interestingly, the language of wispy ink circles is itself circular, rather than linear, with respect to time. Thus, these aliens discuss the past, present, and future as one and the same—they do not distinguish between them. The important discovery at the end of the film is that learning this alien language actually alters humans’ perception of time. Thus, by speaking “alien,” we are able to live in the past, present, and future.

This helps to give us an outsider’s perspective on the English language. What does it teach us about English, or human language in general? English—including ASL (American Sign Language)—is linear. We speak, sign, and write words that can only be understood from beginning to end. A sentence can change its grammar and put clauses in any order, but we will read the sentence from left to right—from the capital letter until the period.

In the flying saucer example at the beginning of this section, the flash of light was the full communication. Everything the aliens wished to say was delivered. Thus, their style of communication is an info- or data-dump—a form of communication that does not require much time. We humans use info-dumps quite often. This book is an example. It took time to write, and it takes time to read, but it is delivered in an instant.

Let us now meet the star of this chapter, Donna Matrix. She illustrates the concepts of nonlinear communication and meta-information. She is an alien from outer space, but luckily, she understands a bit of English. Since humans never have a fullyshared context, canon, or dictionary, our first step in communication is always to set this up. The matrix helps us with that.

What is a matrix?

A matrix is an important tool from mathematics. Drawn on paper, it looks like a box with brackets on the left and right sides. Inside are rows and columns of numbers or other types of information.




In the matrix above, we can see that the first two items are letters, the third item is a number, and the fourth item is a color. We can assign any meaning to these items. Perhaps they describe a picture or an opinion. They could also be a warning of some kind—say, if green was a cautionary signal. If the fourth item could be either green or blue, we could also construct a second matrix on top of this one that specified all potential values. The emotion communicated here is sad, but the speaker also considers it to be a factual communication.

The first crucial aspect of the matrix is that all the information contained in it occurs simultaneously. For example, a matrix typically consists of equations that describe a system. Clearly, a system where many transactions occur at one time is complex. A computer could digest complex information in an instant, but as humans, we might label the matrix an info-dump—too much for us to handle.
However, as discussed in the previous section. we often use various kinds of info-dumps. A book represents an accepted and common type. We tacitly understand that all the information in a book is handed to us in one dose. Likewise, when the boss hands us a stack of papers to be read by quitting time, that’s an info-dump. In some cases, we like the convenience of an info-dump; in other cases, we do not.

What about oral communication? When we speak too fast, even a computer might complain about information overload. Have you ever given or received an oral info-dump? Consider a mother who has not spoken with her child in several weeks. “Hello, Dearie. So, two weeks ago this and that happened…and then this morning this and that happened…” She provides her child with the play-by-play commentary of her life since they last spoke. Before Dearie can even say “hello,” she has given a page worth of information.

Thus, Donna Matrix reminds us that sometimes info-dumps are agreeable, and sometimes they are too much. To avoid overloading someone else, we bring awareness to what the end goal of our communication is. A conversation should be like passing a ball back and forth, while a speech is like juggling solo. Be cautious if you tend to confuse conversations with speeches. In our daily interactions, we usually need to slow down and refrain from info-dumping. For example, be authentic with your barista when you order your morning latte. Connect with your parents when you talk on the phone. Remember that good conversation is like improvisation—not scripted. When you are well-paced and authentic, chances are good you will get the same consideration in return.

While we are on the subject of info-dumping, you might have encountered the term “truth-dumping.” This phrase has a negative connotation, even though it may sound like a good idea to be truthful. Radical Honesty is a movement that enjoins us to always be truthful in our communications. However, we still maintain a lot of freedom and judgment with how we speak our truth. If the truth we dump is solely meant to hurt somebody, we might reconsider our motives. In my opinion, we can stay both tactful and honest. Of course, the best truths for us to tell are the ones that set us free.

Donna Matrix proposes that we now turn our attention to her second ability: communicating meta-information.

What is meta-information?

In-person communication usually conveys a combination of sensory and verbal information. In fact, studies suggest that only 30 percent of our social communication is verbal. We can think of meta-information as the embodied supplement to our spoken words. Thus, in addition to transmitting words when we speak, we use ancillary and body language to convey things like our current mood and our attitude toward what we are saying. We could consider everything other than the actual information we communicate to be meta-information—or information aboutinformation. This stuff is under our control, but it is usually somewhat unconscious—often backgrounded. In this section, we foreground it and learn to harness its power.

“Meta” means outside or a level above or below something. In computer programming, metadata gives information aboutthe program, but is not part of the program’s actual functioning. Metadata provides details like authorship, date of creation, date of last update, etc. In research, a meta-analysis is an analysis that does not use raw data from its own study—it uses the results of multiple other studies.

Footnotes to a text are another type of meta-information. Hashtags in Twitter are meta. In digital music libraries, we use fields for things like genre, rating, and mood. In blogs, we use tags for subject matter. These are both meta. The concept of categorizationoften underlies meta-information—meaning meta-information exists so that we can categorize the actual information. Meta is thus abstract and conceptual. Certain other animals can also categorize things in this way, including primates, dogs, bears, and pigeons.

For a clear example of meta-information, let us turn to photography. (Since we all take selfies, this context is also practical.) Every time we snap a picture on our phones, a photograph is saved as a file. But additional information aboutthe photo is also saved in this file. This information includes the image size—the number of megapixels, quality, or canvas size—as well as the GPS tag where the photo was taken, focal point, frame-rate, lens diameter, lighting, camera device, and time of creation. These are all meta because they are not part of the photo itself.

How can we use meta-information to communicate better?

Do you ever get dismayed that you cannot add certain caveats to the things you say? For example, sometimes I want to tell someone, “I say this out of tough love. I know you don’t want to hear it, but it is only for your sake that I say it.” Or: “Take this particular advice I am giving you with a grain of salt. I am not completely sure of your situation, but this is something that was useful to me.” Or: “What I am asserting is my opinion. I do not regard it as fact. I only read it the other day as an idea.” Or: “I have a 40 percent certainty that this opinion is correct.” Or: “Don’t listen to the words I’m saying. I am merely making conversation with you because I love you.” Of course, adding such warnings or supplements to every sentence can get old fast. We cannot preface every statement in real life, but wouldn’t it be useful?

Transactional psychology has waned in popularity, but it presents a simple and clear framework to consider how we think and how we talk to other people. According to this framework, we act out three primary roles in life: child, parent, and adult. We were all once children. In general terms, children believe in fairy tales and imaginary worlds, and they do not understand responsibility because they are cared for by a provider. Parents guide children, telling them what they should do and not do. They are particularly nosy, because children need rather complete guidance. Adults, on the other hand, take responsibility for themselves and expect others to do likewise. Throughout our lives we switch the roles we play with people through the aging and maturation processes. But we can also switch roles consciously. Often, we can play all three roles in the course of a single day.

This framework becomes insightful when we discover that we are playing the wrong roles in certain situations—we play outdated roles or simply inappropriate ones. The child must eventually grow up and take responsibility. The parent must eventually let the child become an adult. The adult must have empathy yet stay true to him or herself. In short, the child takes orders, the parent gives orders, and the adult self-orders. Thus, an adult who justifies their behavior by blaming other people is playing the role of child.

Typically, as children, we relate to our parents as children. After about eighteen years, we begin to treat them like other adults. Finally they reach old age, and in a role reversal, we become their parents. We can consider what role we play in every conversation. This role becomes a part of the meta-information we communicate, but we do not necessarily want to say it out loud to the other people. It is for our own understanding.

When we expand this framework, we can imagine that life itself is like a theatrical play with additional roles for each of us to play. When do we play the student? When do we play the prude? When do we play the butler? As long as we are aware of what role we are trying to play, we’re rolling. If you play some creative characters, please let me know. You are not bound to anyone else’s system. Play as an adult, or create a unique role for your life! In all of these cases, you simply add entries to the matrix that explain what role you’re playing and when.

Now that we understand some general types of communication, we can get more specific. We’ll examine other ways to use Donna Matrix by adding meta-information and further backgrounding to our communications. We will start with some simple binary options.

Tagging sentences

The metadata that we put into the matrix helps us to sort and categorize our communication. It helps us predefine words (sometimes words have generational differences) and add caveats to our communications—making the things we say more precise. We do this to meet people in their own language, in their own context—to “bridge the gap,” as it were. Common language gaps include regional, cultural, generational, and educational gaps.

At its heart, the matrix is a thinking tool. It helps us determine our target audience and specify what we are really trying to say. Binary meta-information can help us communicate better. For example, is your sentence concrete or abstract? Is it an opinion or a fact? Are you conveying information or just bullshitting? In addition to these binary options, we can add certain qualifiers to our sentences. What if we are uncertain about something we say? We might begin with actually saying we are 25 to 50 percent certain. Have you ever heard anyone specify this in a speech? Recent research suggests that even dolphins can rate their certainty levels to some extent.

Language only accounts for 30 percent of our communication, but even so it is rarely clear. The words we use are never quite correct and never convey the full picture. Yet creating awareness of this problem is half the battle. There are philosophers who study semantics, but even they are still in the early stages of analyzing our semantic cues.

Emotions and sense perceptions

It is often appropriate to express or communicate your emotions to someone. But you can also put your emotions into a matrix to help you sort them out before discussing them. Indeed, we possess various abilities that psychologists often study regarding emotions, but we almost never learn these formally: emotional management, emotional differentiation (the ability to specify multiple emotions), and reading the emotions of others. We do not have often have classes on thinking or parsing emotion, but such classes would be very useful.

In lieu of coursework, think about the emotions you feel and add emotional language to your communications. In general, the more emotions you can name, the better. Complex emotions like nostalgia—where there are good and bad feelings—are particularly interesting to consider.

Finally, we can also add sensory perceptions to our communication needs. A human being can be thought of as a huge simultaneous system—just like a matrix. Our body language and tone of voice account for 70 percent of our communication with other people. Think about how you might communicate sensory information to other people.


Indexing is one particular way of categorizing information. Consider numbers with two or more digits. We will examine the number 423. These numbers are indexed, but we do not usually remember this fact from childhood. In this case, the index is invisible, but it tells us that the order of these numbers is important. This number could not be written 234. That is a different number, even though it contains the same digits. The index is based on the decimal system, starting with the right side of the number, rather than with words, where we always start on the left side. The rightmost digit is in the 1s place, the next digit is in the 10s place, and the third digit is in the 100s place.

Now that we see how this works with numbers, you can imagine how we might use it to add indexing information to a matrix.

Punctuation as meta-information

Our last example of meta-information is punctuation. We all know how this works: a sentence ends at a period, and a question ends with a question mark. The interrobang is a question mark on top of an exclamation point, and there are certainly times we would want to use that. In the past, every written word was separated by a dot, but we gradually decided that was superfluous, so the [space] became yet another type of meta information for the reader.

Giving feedback

We end this chapter with a note on giving feedback to someone. Giving and receiving feedback are both underdeveloped skills. What is the proper way to give feedback? First, we need to label the advice as feedback. This prevents us from giving unwanted advice and prepares the recipient for what is coming.

What is most important in receiving feedback? We must recognize the intention of the feedback. We usually take it personally, but this is not often a useful tactic to employ.

Key Ideas

  • Our language is linear.
  • Meta-information is an invisible layer above or below the information we communicate.
  • We should examine our emotions and learn how to communicate them well.
  • We can index things inside a matrix. This creates a second layer of meta-information.
  • We use meta-information all the time when we use punctuation marks.

Discussion Questions

  • How can I explain “indexing” better?
  • What other types of meta information do we use on a daily basis?
  • Does meta-information have to be invisible?
  • How can we use the idea of a matrix to express emotions better?