Essays on Technology and Culture

On Signal and Noise

I consume a lot of media. Daily, there’s something new about either technology, Apple products, creative work, culture, and/or current events that gets downloaded to my iPhone and pumped into my brain. My RSS Reader picks up dozens of articles about these same things, along with a few dozen online comics. On every page of this website there’s pictures of the books I’m reading, and every month I get a credit for an audiobook. I get a daily email newsletter with interesting, curated, articles to read. I’m often prowling for new, interesting music. My Twitter and Tumblr feeds are constantly refreshing with links, commentary, and humor from people I like. Then there’s Facebook.[1] Oh, God, there’s Facebook and its endless stream of personal updates, pictures of cats, event invitations, calls to political action, game updates, event invitations, pictures of people, friend requests, and event invitations.

It’s overwhelming, and keeping up with it all is taking a lot of time. This has me thinking about the inputs in my life, and how many of them actually something I care about. For example, as much as I love technology, do I really need to get a daily recap of the day’s technology news via podcast? So much of tech news is the same stuff over and over, and comparatively little of it is compelling. Is this actually worth the thirty to sixty minute time investment? How much of what I’m consuming in content each day is signal, and how much is noise?

So, I’ve been trying to evaluate what comes in, and if it’s worth keeping. The criteria is entirely subjective, as it should be. What I want to fall into my inboxes of consumption are things that scratch itches I have. My itches are personal and heavily dependent on the medium. Let’s just pick podcasts to start, as that’s what set me off on this rant. I like to know what’s happening in technology, but only to a point. When it’s about Apple products, cool apps, actual new technological breakthroughs, and using my gizmos and gadgets better, I can’t get enough. When a show gets to the point that I can skip an episode or three with no guilt, that’s probably a sign I should stop downloading it. I’ve found myself gravitating to shows that have a distinct editorial voice about the things I like. With technology, I’ve been listening to stuff from the 5by5 Network. Something about they way they do technology just clicks in a way that a more traditional news show doesn’t.

Thankfully, that part’s easy. With RSS feeds, I wish there was a way to see how many articles I read all the way through, or Instapapered, or clicked through on so I could prune what I read a bit better. Awareness and mindfulness can take care of that. Each individual input has is own signal-to-noise ratio. Another example: for every really cool thing on Boing Boing, there’s a bunch of stuff I don’t care about. However, when they post something cool, it’s often really cool. Cool enough, at least, to be willing to put up with the stuff that I have zero interest in. Sources with less really cool stuff, however, I have to just put aside. The time spent filtering the signal from the noise could be better spent doing something else, even if it’s just spent digesting more cool stuff.

With social networks, things get a bit thornier. On Facebook particularly, but other places too, the people you’ve friended and followed are often people you know in real life. You will see them, interact with them, shake hands with them, hug them—and dropping them
from your friends list can be seen as a personal thing. The best thing the Facebook people have ever done was offer the option to unsubscribe from people’s updates, or to just show what’s “important” I do wish I knew how Facebook determines what “important” is, but if it reduces how much noise I get, I’ll take it. I’d love it if I could keep up with the people I care about in a way that allows deeper interaction and is less of a timesink, but Facebook is, sadly, where the action is.

But, once the noise is filtered out, as best as one can, we can focus more on what’s important to us. Perhaps more importantly, we can come back to things that touched us. In the “tap essay,” Fish, Robin Sloan discusses just how rarely we go back and re-read the things that we favorite, like, love, +1, thumbs up, upvote, bookmark, etc. online. There’s just so much coming in from the information firehose that we so often can’t go back and re-read, re-watch, re-listen, because we’re caught up chasing that next thing. It’s been said that “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” I’m not sure I agree. If what you wasted your time on came at the expense of something you should have been doing, or would rather be doing, or even something you like doing better, then you did waste it. It may not feel that way from the little endorphin rush that comes from each tap and click, but it is. Every click brings us a little shot of pure, full-strength dopamine. Don’t tell me you don’t get just the tiniest little thrill when you open your Twitter client, refresh your RSS feeds, or refresh your Instagram feed.

More importantly, this extends far beyond just your RSS reader, and Twitter account. Any sort of input source can have a signal-to-noise ratio that is not helping you. As long as we have the mindfulness to stay aware of what we’re consuming, why we consume it, and what we get from it, it is possible to control that incoming flow of information. You can’t drink from a firehose. You need a way to slow, control, and filter your inputs so that what you get is truly what you’re looking for, inasmuch as possible. It’s liberating to be free from the weight of obligation to consume everything, and there’s many ways to channel that liberation. You can use it to consume more cool stuff, or go back to what you’ve loved before. You can even use that time to make something cool for someone else. All of these are fine, but you’ll never do any of them while digging through the dirt for the diamonds.

  1. Some of the long-term readers of this site might remember that I quit Facebook almost a year ago. I got suckered back in. It’s a bit more manageable now, and reading on will explain why and how.  ↩