Everything I Was Worried About Then, I Am More Worried About Now (Part 2)
A 2022 Footnote to The New Analog
“Noise, to an electrical engineer, is whatever is not regarded as signal. Analog media always include noise, necessarily - efforts to minimize noise in analog environments adjust its ratio to signal (‘signal-to-noise ratio’), but never eliminate it. Digital media, on the other hand, are capable of separating signal from noise absolutely. Given a definition of signal, the digital environment can filter out noise completely; this is fundamental to its efficiency as a medium for communications.
“However, what I know well from working with sound and music is that noise is as communicative as signal.”
(The New Analog, p. 11)
When I wrote The New Analog in 2017, I was puzzling out the switch I had experienced in my musical life from analog to digital audio. The first two albums I recorded were all analog, necessarily. By the third, that had already changed.
But the book was intended for more than music heads. I wanted to see if I could use my experiences in sound to understand better what has changed from analog to digital in media at large. Online, in a digital world, we had all been wrestling with social media in particular, and what was happening to our sources of information in general.
What I concluded in 2017 was that the elimination of noise in digital media represents a distortion of our offline perception of information. In analog environments, we derive meaning from both signal and noise. We constantly sort one from the other, and we are very good at shifting our attention, changing what is considered signal and what is considered noise. Think of our easily and quickly shifting focus at a cocktail party, for example. Or on the street. Or while looking at the front page of a newspaper – which column is signal, which is noise? The definition is in flux, and up to you.
In the closing chapter of the book, I tried to address this wider application of the loss of noise in our media:
“The signal-to-noise ratio of analog media, no matter how finely engineered, is a relationship that each listener modulates continually. That is: the producer of analog media may determine the universe of noises and signals it contains, but ultimately it’s the listener who must sort one from the other. Both signal and noise are always present in analog and both, as we have seen, contain information.
“In digital media, signal alone is treated as information, and noise is eliminated. This represents a loss of information - the information communicated by noise. But it is also a change in who defines signal and who defines noise. In digital media, the listener receives signal only. The filtering out of noise has already been done by others.
“Filtering out noise requires a definition of signal. Whose definition that is - which signal is chosen for isolation, which noise for elimination - is not an engineering problem but a political question. The power to define signal may well be a fundamental struggle in the digital age. So too the power to control signal, once it has been isolated.”
(The New Analog, pp. 197-8)
Today, that political reading of signal and noise in digital media seems only more pertinent, if not simply obvious.
“The more Twitter improves its signal to noise ratio, the less relevant conventional news becomes,” declared Elon Musk this week (on Twitter, naturally).
Musk says a lot of things that don’t cohere – there is no political or legal consistency to a “free speech absolutist” who deplatforms an indie rock musician for making poop jokes at the free speech absolutist’s expense.
But as muddled as his thinking is on social and moral topics, when Musk talks signal-to-noise ratio, he is using a logic widely accepted by engineers. The more the digital platform Twitter can eliminate noise, that reasoning goes, the better it will perform as an information system compared to the messy, inefficient, analog-tinged platforms of conventional news.
Do we believe this? If you have regard for Musk as an engineer, you well might. But engineers are people too. And people are political. Musk, it is now screamingly clear, is highly politicized. His recent statements and actions are loudly motivated by political objectives. And those objectives are expressed through what he considers “signal,” and what he considers “noise.”
This is true for all of us. But most of us do not have control over a digital platform used by hundreds of millions for information. And those of us who do tend to be billionaires.
In 2017, I wrote about this problem in a rather abstract way. Political developments since then have made it all too concrete.
The robber barons of the digital age – many, curiously, with single-syllable names ending in a voiceless plosive like Musk, Zuck and Ek - traffic in signal, not noise. That is, they seek to define signal for hundreds of millions of the rest of us.
And what if we disagree with their idea of signal? What if, for example, they choose racist and misogynist and homophobic and transphobic ideas over others?
Then we have to make noise, friends. Lots and lots of beautiful, communicative noise.
This isn’t an abstract concern, or an aesthetic choice about LPs v. streaming. It’s a fight with fascism, which treats living human beings as noise to be eliminated.
Listening to: Natalia Lafourcade, De Todas las Flores
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