Rule #19 Layers of Communication

I was pondering the 7 layers of computer communications, known as the OSI Model, and realized their was a near direct correlation to polite and proper human conversation. So I had to tell someone about it. I'll try to keep the tech talk to a minimum but it's going to be nerdy.

OSI Model defines 7 layers of communication. In order of establishment

  1. Physical
  2. Data Link
  3. Network
  4. Transport
  5. Session
  6. Presentation
  7. Application

Each of these layers must be defined and negotiated in order for communication to succeed between two computers or computer components. Interesting enough humans have a near equivalent need for each of these to be established in ascending order to succeed at communicating. Let's take them in order.

1. Physical - The physical layer in computers refers to the medium used. Computers can communicate via satellite, Cable, Radio waves, Light (fiber optics), etc. Humans also have multiple methods of communicating. Simply put the 5 senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all used to communicate. Most often the choice is sound, speaking. But sight is also very common especially when communicating more abstract ideas like beauty or color. The first step in any successful communication is choose the correct medium. For an aircraft carrier ground crew they use flags to visually communicate in a loud and chaotic environments. A deaf person must use visual communications. To reach masses a book is sometimes the best medium. A phone call can be much faster than these other methods. An in person or video synced chat session can provide multiple simultaneous methods adding redundancy and alternatives mediums for complicated ideas. All this concerns the physical medium.

2. Data Links - The data link is divided into two ideas. Initiation, and synchronization. First a computer must express it's desire to communicate. This is often done with something called a handshake. A human may tap someone on a shoulder or simply say hello. Once the intention is understood they must negotiate a speed and a protocol as well as a frame lock. Think of this as language and culture. If I speak English and my friend speaks English and Spanish we must first negotiate which language to speak. He may start in Spanish and get a confused look from me. Then switch to English. This is how computers establish communication as well. Bug language isn't good enough. In a famous episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, Picard is sent to negotiate a peace with a strange culture that speaks English but no one understands them. Their words are the same but their syntax and meaning were very different. This culture spoke of everything in metaphors. Metaphors that were lost to the humans. British and American English can produce mass confusion if their is not a continuous feedback and error correction. 

3. Network - Also known as a packet layer, the network layer is responsible for addressing, routing, and ordering packets of information. Imagine a party with a hundred people. How do you know who is talking to you. You initiate the conversation now you need to set up a means to continue this conversation. You may have to pull someone aside (virtual circuit) or simply maintain eye contact or place a hand on the shoulder or elbow. Additionally information is not always transferred in order. Consider the sentence: "I was at this burger place, I love burgers, when this friend punched me in the face." The appositive phrase is breaking up the main point. In a conversation we would pull that statement out and treat it as a separate statement in order to understand the surrounding idea. Once a conversation is established the network layer makes sure it continues and maintains whole ideas.

4. Transport - Transport is concerned with the big idea. In writing network would be a sentence and transport would be a paragraph. At the end of the idea the details are checked for understanding. This is the first point in the communication where content matters. "Did you say friend or freak?" "Does your love of burgers tie into this or did I miss something?" The transport layer is also concerned with acknowledging the message. "So your friend punched you in the face...", "I understand", "No way!", "He didn't?".

5. Session - A session represents the act of conversing. When you initiate a conversation both parties will take terns talking, telling stories, asking question, correcting misunderstandings, stating assumptions, making points, making requests. A session is about managing this conversation. Deciding who's turn it is to talk, pulling others into the conversation, and of course actually ending the conversation cleanly when necessary. For human communication we may pause after making a point or finishing a story to allow someone else to jump in. We may gesture at someone who's turn it is to speak. We may ask a question to indicate it's the other persons turn to weight in or to invite them into the conversation "What are your thoughts on fights in burger joints?". It is also important to end a conversation well. Maybe with a climax in the story or a laugh to indicate the end of a joke. Perhaps with establishing a future contact. And in a rush a simple "I got to go." I actually had an acquaintance that would randomly walk away from me in the middle of a conversation, often. This of course eliminated him from my friend list until I could capture his attention long enough to discuss the mater.

6. Presentation - A bit of a miss-leading name this is where security and data abstraction happen. In computers it concerns the type of file being transferred or the type of standardized protocol being used. Netflix may store their videos in whatever format they want as long as it's MP4 by the time my browser gets to it. It also concerns security. Information may be transferred encrypted or as plain data depending on it's sensitivity. In human conversation this looks like the big picture of the conversation. Understanding motivation, purpose, and thesis of the conversation. Is this person talking to me to confide or vent as a friend. Are they correcting me as a peer or as a superior. Is this conversation just to get to know each other, spend quality time together, or a potential romantic interest. Is this person pestering themselves or trying to intimidate or manipulate. Am I being asked to do something and if so what? Is this a private conversation that should take place away from other people or a public conversation that should pull in as many people as possible. All of this is the concern of the presentation layer.

7. Application - In computers this represent the actual program that is performing the communications or the protocols being used. A web browser will use http to request a web page. both the http protocol and the browser live in the application layer. For human communication this is the actual person talking and the role they have in your life. A boss application will talk to you differently then a friend application. Not in different language or culture but familiarity and content. You don't say "Hey bro" to your boss or your parents. You would say it to your friend.

Take away.

First recognize the hierarchy of communications. Don't try to analyze the content of a conversation, layer 6, before establishing a language and cultural paradigm, layer 2. Countless arguments can and could have been prevented by simply enforcing the hierarchy. WW1 could have been prevented if world leaders were patient enough to wait for the transport to acknowledge the communication, layer 4, before jumping to the representation and sending their troops to war, layer 6. 

Also note that every layer of communication has some form of error checking and recovery. Communication is difficult. Check your understanding constantly at every level and fix the lowest levels quickly and often. If you can't hear because your cell phone is cutting out don't get upset that you heard "you're an idiot". It will probably turn out the speaker actually said "So I told my brother 'you're and idiot'". Stop the level 4 communication if level 3 is breaking down. Hang up and call back. Send a text message to talk later from a more reliable location. Ask question to confirm you understand what is being asked or told. Any time someone comes to me with a constructive criticism I restate the feedback to make sure I understand it and to make sure they know I understand it and appreciate it. "So you're saying my blog posts are too long and should be broken up into smaller bite size chunks in order to keep the audiences attention. Thank you for your feedback." Or "Can you elaborate on 'my face is stupid' I don't understand your feedback". I have heard from acquaintances that sometimes when their wife talks they just zone out and throw out "uh-huh" every once in a while. Movies and TV shows constantly make jokes about this practice. I refuse to do it. If I don't have the energy to pay attention I say so. Instead of turning layer 4 on auto-pilot. I make an intentional effort to communicate or I end communications if that is not possible.

Perhaps the most important take away is recognizing that layer 7 exists. I learned in my oral communications class that every person has a different language, bias, and culture. Even if brothers are raised in the same household or roommates live together for an extended period of time their language will be  subtly different. Every single person and conversation is different and must be treated differently.


So how is this a sermon. Communication is the key to the Christian faith. God sent his only son Jesus to the earth to communicate clearly that He loves us. We were not getting the message from the prophets, the kings, or the patriarchs. Every layer had a different breakdown that prevented Israel from understanding God loves us. So he established a new path. From the top. He sent a physical person of himself, learned our language and lived in our culture, established his audience, answered questions until understanding was acknowledged, Invited the world into the conversation and closed it with a climactic story, making his position as God clear, and his embodiment as Jesus indisputable. Jesus crashed through all 7 layers leaving no room for doubt in Israel that he was the Messiah, confirmed by scripture, and that he loved us, confirmed through signs of healing and knowledge. Let us be like Christ and work towards communicating his story to every language, culture, medium, paradigm and role in this earth.