Noise in the age of digital media

Remember how we used to fiddle with the dial on the vintage radio, trying to tune in a station? When we found the signal: Voila! Music! And in between? Hiiissssss…Noise. Unlike today, times were simpler, choices were fewer and it was easier to distinguish between noise and signal.


Credits: Google

The Internet has ensured that every information is available at our fingertips and we are constantly updated in real time, be it happenings around the world or the lives of family and friends. However, it increasingly seems that the availability of too much web content is a lot like the static you hear between stations. A whole lot of noise which is distracting to say the least. Unfortunately, we end up spending excessive time on browsing, reading and analysing content which might be out of context and irrelevant to what we are looking for in the first place. Your “signal” could be someone else’s “noise” and vice versa. Or what you needed yesterday might be noise today.

In his book “The Signal and the Noise”, related to the art and science of predictions, Nate Silver points out that increased access to information can do more harm than good. This is because the more information is available, the easier it is for people to cherry-pick data that supports their pre-existing positions, or to perceive patterns where there are none.

Cisco predicts that annual global IP traffic will surpass the zettabyte (1000 exabytes) threshold in 2016, and the two zettabyte threshold in 2019. Global IP traffic will reach 1.1 zettabytes per year or 88.4 exabytes (one billion gigabytes) per month in 2016. By 2019, global IP traffic will pass a new milestone figure of 2.0 zettabytes per year, or 168.0 exabytes per month! These are numbers which one can’t even begin to fathom.

No wonder, we take in a lot of information at once, without really processing and understanding it for ourselves and thus have a superfluous knowledge of most subjects. Case in point, “news in short”, “10 things you need to know about so and so” or apps like Blinkist which give you the key insights to a book so that you don’t need to read one to be able to talk about it! Therein lies the difference between information and knowledge. And a big question is how do we trust the creators of the information that’s floating around and it requires a separate discussion altogether.

But today, whether it is through distracted driving, erosion of quality time with our children, the lack of a spare moment in the day just to relax or take time out to exercise or walk, infobesity (consumption of too much information) is becoming increasingly dangerous to our bodies and even more so to our spirits.

In an insightful and fascinating Ted Talk by Baba Shiv, he discusses how having too much choice makes us less happy. It not only confuses the mind but also makes us less confident in our decisions. He suggests that ceding control and being in the passenger’s seat instead of driver’s seat might be best thing for us in certain cases.

But isn’t how we distinguish signal from noise is among the biggest challenges of the digital age? So big in fact, that Christophe Aguiton goes so far as to say “The search for content and experience has become the meaning of life for many.”

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