Information Overload ?

Our challenge is to separate what is important from what is just noise.

January 28, 2001|By Crispin Sartwell

IN THE WORLD of information theory, "information" is defined as a reduction in uncertainty. Here's what that means. Let's say that you ask someone whether she wants pickled pigs' feet for dinner. A "yes" or "no" answer is informative because it eliminates the other possibilities and hence reduces your uncertainty.

Information is opposed to four things: silence, redundancy, noise, and stalling. If she doesn't respond, that's no help. If she says "yes, yes, yes," the second and third yeses don't convey any new info: they're redundant. If she responds with a series of inarticulate grunts while running the blender, that's noise. And if she keeps saying "maybe" right up until dinner time, that's stalling and no better than the other three.

We have all heard it said continually that we live in the Age of Information. But that very sentence is a demonstration of its own falsity. After the first, say, six hundred times you heard it, I daresay you found it redundant. It's just something that a politician or corporate leader says when there's no other convenient way to make sounds.

During the presidential debates, the candidates strove to create a perfectly information-sterile environment in which neither said anything, but rather simply murmured for the nth time their little catchphrases, which for Gore included "information age." I wondered what Arizona Sen. John McCain's phrase "reformer with results" meant when he first uttered it, not to speak of what it meant after the first week or two of saturation as he sought the Republican presidential nomination. It was pure stall, intended to defer the fulfillment of the obligation to say something.

This isn't the age of information. It's the age of redundancy, noise, and stalling. When I was following the Elian Gonzalez case, for example, I'd read the stories at, then see the same story on MSNBC and CNN. People were glued to their sets as the same facts were recited and the same bits of tape played over and over. I watch the Ravens beat the Titans. The Ravens return a blocked field goal for a touchdown. I watch the replay three times. Then twice again at halftime. Then twice again on SportsCenter.

My son Hayes likes to go to sleep with the television on (no volume), the stereo playing R&B and his little fan going. He's completely surrounded by noise and obtaining no information whatever.

In fact, our whole house is an environment approaching pure noise. The kids are trying to do their math while they watch episode 119 of the Rugrats for the 37th time on the big-screen television. Meanwhile, I've got the stereo on African reggae (I don't really get the words, plus I'm listening through the Rugrats) while the clothes dryer and dishwasher are going.

Conversation consists of meaningless Catch phrases - Vincie likes to say: "Yo. You talking to me?"

Hayes for some reason has taken to saying "Martin Grammatica" over and over, and the fact that this is the name of the place-kicker for the Tampa Bay Bucs does not seem to give any keys to his motivation or intent. Meanwhile we all tell baby Jane (who can't understand) for the eightieth time that day: "you're so *cute,*" or just make googly noises at her. She responds, "Babababababa."

The rest of our day is devoted to acting out scenes from "Dude, Where's my Car?"

Here's an Instant Message conversation between my daughter Emma and a friend, verbatim.

Girl#one: hey

Dog*star: hey WAZ

Girl#one: nmh u

Dog*star: nm

Girl#one: on sunday im 13

Girl#one: :-)

Dog*star: awesome

Girl#one: yea

Girl#one: lol

Girl#one: y is ur sn dog*star?

Girl#one: g2g

Girl#one: bye

Dog*star: bye have a kewl bday

Dog*star signed off at 9:35:06 PM.

Dog*star signed on at 9:46:30 PM.

Dog*star signed off at 9:52:27 PM.

Maybe they would have said something if not for the "pos" (parent over shoulder) problem. But I doubt it.

Now comes the part where we deplore the abominable state of our noisy culture, yes? No. Instead, I offer what I believe to be an entirely new theory of communication, perhaps the first to make any sense of our mass addiction to nonsense. It is embodied in Sartwell's Law: Communication is inversely proportional to information. Thus, while we have entered an era of unprecedented redundancy, noise, and stalling, we have also entered the golden era of communication.

Communication has always essentially been noise, redundancy, and stalling. Think about the most ordinary and the most intense experiences of communication that you've had. The ritual greetings of our culture are of course completely uninformative. "Hey! How ya doin?" "Can't complain. You?" That has nothing at all to do with messages, but rather with establishing a kind of mutual presence.

Or think of lovemaking. It can be one of the most intense forms of human communion, and it's true that some actual messages can be sent back and forth. But that is not the point: The point is really just to be there with one another in a merger of sound, gesture, touch, movement.

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