Friday, 20 November 2009

Signals lost in all the noise

SHERLOCK HOLMES once told Watson he didn’t know, or care, whether the earth went round the sun or vice-versa.
His argument was, essentially, that on a need-to-know basis, he didn’t. And he didn’t want the finite capacity of his memory taken up with things that could never be of any use to him as a detective.
There a few things to be said about this.
One is that I am quite sure Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes, was perfectly well aware of the nature of earth’s orbit. And, no doubt, happy to know it.
More importantly, the capacity of our brains is greater than almost anyone makes use of. The more you use it, the more space is there.
Presumably there is eventually a limit to this, but I doubt if many – or any – people have reached the limit. Most of us operate at only a tiny fraction of our potential.
Sadly, most of us also clog up the little we use with information far less useful – or interesting – than the motions of the solar system.
What good does it do me, or anyone, to know of the existence of Simon Cowell? Of Jordan (the silicon-packed and unpacked "celebrity", not the country or the river)? Of Jedward (whoever he, they or it may be)?
We live in the supposed Age of Information. But how well informed are we?
We have more telly than ever. And nothing demonstrates so well that "more" doesn’t equal "better".
Then there is the internet. The greatest and most accessible source of information there has ever been (within history as we know it). Cluttered up with more trivia, more ephemera, more toenail-clippings of juvenile minds than anyone in the pre-Facebook world could have imagined.
More photographs have been taken in the digital age than ever before. There have probably been more photos taken this week than in the whole 20th century. And probably more taken by phones than have ever been committed to film.
It’s hard to believe that not many generations ago the only images our ancestors would have seen were in the windows and on the walls of their local church.
There are more mobile phones in Britain than there are people. I tremble to imagine how many calls are made and texts sent each day. Most of them pointless.
As a columnist and blogger myself, I’m about to tread on what I know is shaky ground. But how many columns or blogs do you read that are actually worth reading?
I do try at least to discuss matters more vital than the trivial details of my own mundane daily life. I hope I’m not just adding to the noise.
And there, finally, I’ve got to the point.
There’s certainly more communication going on now than ever before. Far, far more.
But how much actual information – useful, interesting, life-enhancing information – gets through?
I fear that the signal-to-noise ratio is desperately low.
And that the things that matter – of which there are plenty – just get buried in the endless gush of mindless "entertainment".


THE pictures from China were certainly eye-catching. The Great Wall and the gates of the Forbidden City are photogenic enough even when not covered in snow.
But were the snowstorms that have disrupted transport and agriculture all across northern China man-made? Was China’s heaviest snowfall for nearly 50 years the result of a massive experiment to alleviate the country’s recent drought?
Having first said yes, the Chinese authorities now say no.
I’m inclined to believe the denial. That the heavy weather was simply more than the experimenters could have created.
But I can’t be certain and I think we should be told.
As if we could expect the Chinese authorities to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Or, indeed, any authorities.

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