Signal Vs. Noise
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One of the best and worst things about the internet is the amount of freely available information. It’s obviously a good thing, just look at Wikipedia. We can access almost any important information and get a pretty good summary. This is a golden age for progress. The creation of the internet is a bigger revolution than the printing press. It’s like the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy made real, only without the large comforting ‘Don’t Panic’ sign on the cover.
The downside is this information can be an overwhelming flood. We haven’t yet learnt how to live in a world where every answer is at the click of a button. There’s too much out there, too many competing headlines, too many - opinion pieces, too many slapped together galleries and too many arguments over nothing. The accurate and true information has been lost in the tsunami of nonsense. The signal has been lost in all the noise.
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There was always too much information out there. Before the internet became so embedded in our lives, there were lies and false accusations, inaccurate reporting and nonsense abounding. It was harder to debunk fantasy. But the difference we face now is one of access. We are connected to everything at the click of a button with a device we carry around with us all the time. The inaccurate stories circulate because they are easy to sum up in an image and easy to share. Meme culture ensures ideas spread like wildfire. Whereas before you got your news from a paper or the televison, now there are a million options to get a hot take on the latest developments. Then as now, the truth is often harder to find out and less glamorous when you do find it. It takes research and dedication. Memes take no time at all to process.
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On every forum, there’s a moment where clear and balanced discussion descends into name calling, trolling and tribes. I was on a digital camera forum for a while. There’s nothing controversial there, right? Wrong. People split in two depending on whether you shot with Canon or Nikon. Vicious attacks started. Depending on which side you chose, you could draw on endless research to prove your points. Canon clearly had the better image quality according to this study or Nikon was the choice of professionals surveyed or something along those lines.
At times, it feels like the whole internet is like this, with people not willing to listen to each other, entrenched in their own positions. Often they will use different facts to support their argument and not listen to others. The signal of reasonable, balanced discussion discussion gets lost. The basic courtsey of listening to the other argument is gone. The infinite noise of information allows you to support any position you like. Even that the earth is flat, or Finland doesn’t exist.
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People with these opinions aren’t necessarily stupid. Many are educated and articulate. They’ve just been misled by one story or a cherry picked set of facts. We live in a strange time where dezinformatsiya has taken over. It’s hard to keep focus, let alone figure out what’s true and what’s false. Noise has completely overwhelmed us as a species and no-one was prepared for it. We need to figure out how to live and thrive in this strange environment we have created. It’s wider than Fake news, it’s more than flame wars on Twitter. It’s the balance of truth that is in the balance. It has real-world implications as well. Look at Pizzagate or Jo Cox.
As hard as it is, we need to employ critical thinking skills as much as possible. Is that story about a politician you dislike really true? Or does it just back up pre-conceived notions you have? We need to try to have consistent and rigorous fact checking on articles that get published. We need to somehow dampen the noise of those articles that are inaccurate or downright dangerous. We need to find a way to strengthen the signal of truth.
If there’s too much noise you can’t hear yourself think. The same goes for information.