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Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Challenge of Communication, David Slater's Macaque

For some time I have been fascinated by the regular inability of people to communicate effectively and the sometimes disastrous results that this can produce. And I am talking about people who share the same mother tongues and the same cultures, that is to say people who have the fewest communications barriers between them. Clearly when you start to complicate with different languages and cultures, mis-understandings are unsurprising. But my point is that if two individuals who have similar backgrounds and cultures can often fail to understand each other, it means that the level of mis-comprehension between strangers and between people of different backgrounds is likely to be high.

My favourite example that illustrates the point is a true story by Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) of a real event that took place. The story demonstrates my point very well and shows how circumstances coupled with mis-understanding could lead to unexpected or even disastrous outcomes, although thankfully this has an okay ending:

Douglas Adams


'Cookies' by Douglas Adams from a speech to Embedded Systems in 2001

This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, UK. I was a bit early for the train. I had gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It's very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here's the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There's a guy sitting opposite me, perfect ordinary looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn't look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There's nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would have happened if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know... But in the end I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought, Nothing for it, I'll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him.  But it hadn't because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice..." I mean it doesn't really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who's had the same exact story, only he doesn't have the punchline. 


David Slater, a photographer, created an environment in which a group of macaques that he befriended in Indonesia in 2008 took some selfies. A legal dispute followed as Wikipedia and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) used the pictures and refused to pay Slater fees, claiming that the monkey owned the copyright since it took the pictures. It had cost Slater a great deal of money to take the pictures and then to fight his legal battle and earlier this year he said he was ruined and was giving up wildlife photography. Earlier this month, a settlement was reached in which Slater agreed to donate 25% of his earnings to from the image to protecting Naruto, the Indonesian macaque who took it.

Macaque selfie organised by David Slater

My thought for the Month

"It's some strange sort of democracy that lets the old people determine the future of the country when they sod off and die and let the young people deal with the mountain of shit they leave behind. The UK voting system was designed by older people for older people: go to a specific polling station, complete a paper form and put it in a box; or complete some paperwork, put it in an envelope and take it to a post box. Imagine how different the results would be if the process was to vote instantly online using your mobile, tablet or computer..."

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