Signal, Noise & the VOLUME of it All

ellen rhymes
May 5 · 4 min read

This is a meditation on the Farnam Street (fs.blog) tagline, “A collection of signal in a world full of noise.”

No doubt, we live in a world full of noise: The total volume of available information is staggering. Invariably, though, there’s also a high volume of signal. Even if you could isolate the top 0.0001% of content on the Web, you’d never be able to consume it all.

Perceiving the sheer volume of signal-quality content makes me wonder, “Can signal come full circle and become noise?”

At least in a personal sense, I think it can. Although people’s ‘volume thresholds’ vary, all of us have some limit to the amount of information we can absorb while still being able to hear ourselves think. So, if the overall volume is too high, the purity/fidelity of the signal is immaterial — the volume itself is deafening.

It seems to me that remaining lucid, thoughtful, and efficient in this high-volume world is not a trivial pursuit. Really, I see it as one of the primary challenges of our time.

The first and most important step, I think, is realizing your ability to separate signal from noise is more important than any pre-packaged signal obtained from Farnam Street or anywhere else. The reason is that the most important signals aren’t spelled out on Farnam Street or anywhere else. The most important signals, the ones that yield creative discoveries, are the signals within your own real-life conscious experience — and your conscious experience is a lot, lot, lot, lot QUIETER than the Internet.

A few years ago, I began to view the sum total of content available to me as a sandbox environment where I could learn to separate signal from noise. Today, my end goal in locating (and consuming) signal-grade content is NOT to consume signal-grade content, but to develop a keen “ear” for signal. I then attempt to apply that ear for signal not only to pre-articulated ideas, but to yet-unarticulated ideas within my cognitive landscape.

The results have been positive. When I began to consume less content, my experience of each piece of content became much, much richer. I also started being more creative and productive. Most surprisingly (to me), I have found that reducing the volume of information I consume has made me a better person — someone who’s more in tune with the quiet, subtle signals coming from friends and loved ones.

For an illustration of how soft signals can lead to great revelations, consider Charles Darwin:

During his five years aboard the Beagle (1831–1836), Darwin spent most of his time inside the ship’s then-impressive library of about 400 volumes (mostly voyage logs, natural history texts, and other references). For five years, those 400 books were Darwin’s microscopic Internet.

I think about this and wonder: Would Darwin have discovered evolution more quickly if he’d lived in the Information Age, with the Internet as we know it?

I can’t say for sure, but I doubt it.

The reason is that fundamentally, Darwin’s discovery was a solution to a signal-and-noise problem. The idea of evolution occurred to him only after he picked up on some very subtle signals, most famously the small variations in the the beaks of Galapagos finches.

Darwin’s “ear” for those subtle signals wasn’t a magic power: It was a skill developed through experience. In particular, Darwin had practiced solving signal-and-noise problems in low-volume settings like the Beagle’s library, where it was feasible for him to check his work. Then, after learning to separate signal from noise in a sandbox environment, Darwin was able to separate signal from noise among yet-unformed thoughts in his mind. In other words, Darwin could formulate the full-fledged, groundbreaking theory of evolution only because he had a highly sensitive, skilled and trained “ear” for signal. But if Darwin had spent his “practice time” not in the Beagle’ s library, but instead ingurgitating content on the Internet, I really doubt he could have developed such a sensitive ear for signal.

So, basically, I view the sum total of content available to me as something like what the Beagle’s library was to Darwin. I don’t consume content indiscriminately. Instead, I seek out specific resources relevant to problems I’m working on. Those may be work-related problems, life/relationship problems, or problems presented by my creative work. Some resources prove more useful than others. Those are “signal.” I make a mental (and sometimes physical) note whenever I find a signal-grade piece of content, and I try to find commonalities and patterns between the signal-grade pieces of content. This in turn allows me to build up an understanding of the general qualities of “signal” and allows me to recognize more complex and subtle ones.

ellen rhymes

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Writer, editor, writing coach, optimist. My home base is ellenrhymes.com.