Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

A question was posed, “Why not be an information sponge?”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”