ambient cybernetics of the noise floor

Sometimes you come across a term commonly used in other professions and it just strikes you as thought-provoking… or at least that happens to me, and it happened recently with “noise floor.” Maybe that’s a term you’ve heard many times before (if you’re an engineer or work with sound or maybe as an audiophile). If not, then basically the noise floor is the measurement of all the unwanted signals within a system/environment. Some of these are what we would typically call natural, ranging from background cosmic noise to wind, weather and so on. Others are human/cultural such as voices, body movements, breathing, etc. And there are artificial/technological noises including things like the hum of machines or electrical interference. Often the goal is to reduce the noise floor in engineering contexts, laboratories, and recording studies. Basically who wants more noise?

Of course we also talk about noise in cybernetic contexts in relation to signals and information. There one encounters the somewhat counter-intuitive notion that noise is an integral part of information and not simply an obstruction to communication. The first way to understand that is to think about information as relative to the receiver. If I write “George Washington was the first president of the United States,” then that’s probably not information for you. If I write that Denmark and France are currently scoreless in the eighth minute of their World Cup group stage match, then that might be news (if you were reading this in real time) but you aren’t so it probably won’t be information when you read this (of it is, then it’s because you don’t follow the World Cup and you probably don’t care). Since information is something you don’t know then it could easily be recognized as noise. Words spoken in an unfamiliar language are basically noise. Words in a familiar language but on a highly technical subject might also be noise.

But there’s another way of thinking about it which is maybe reminiscent of Heidegger (a la present-at-hand/ready-at-hand).  E.g., when you’re driving your car it’s making noise that you probably ignore, but you know when your car starts to make a funny sound. Or you can think of that cliche horror movie line, “It’s quiet around here, toooo quiet.” Or, since I’m watching soccer right now, watching sports but not being able to hear the fans. So both of these ways of thinking about noise vs. information put me in mind of Rickert’s ambient rhetoric in considering the ecological/environmental conditions of rhetoric.

As such one might think of rhetorical practices as composing with/from noise. In conventional terms this is mostly done through sensory deprivation: e.g., read a book in a quiet place. In some digital media–video games and simulations–it’s done through immersion. I suppose the same may be said of traditional cinema, but now with streaming videos on different devices it’s less true, though I’m not really aware of anyone composing with that in mind. YouTube videos are done that way though. They are part of the now familiar digital marketplace of the attention economy.

At what point do the various social media streams, smartphone notifications, email alerts and so on become part of the noise floor? The digital analog of the hum of conversations in a mall food court? Perhaps at some point–not yet I think–we can listen to it like animals around a watering hole listening to the chatter of their community, as something comforting that can be safely ignored unless there’s a sudden change. Much as with sound engineering, the rhetorical engineering of the noise floor of social media ecologies begins with making judgments about which sounds are desirable and which are not and then proceeds through technical solutions.

This starts with thinking about what machines and software can do, but much as with sound engineering, one has to put the machines and software into the context of larger designed/built environments. E.g., do you carry your phone around with you in your house or do you minimize its potential to distract by setting it down? Once one gets to that level, whether the environments are private, workplaces, or public spaces, less obviously-technological cultural processes are also clear. What laws, regulations, policies, habits, and expectations will shape these environments?

These are familiar questions. The potentially interesting thing in coming at them through the notion of the noise floor is that we don’t have to think of this simply as an on/off question. The conspicuous silence of the smartphone turned off  is “tooo quiet.” But can we design that reassuring background hum? Fundamentally technology companies want our eyeballs so they may not have much incentive in designing this way.  IDK, it may be one of those killer apps waiting to be designed and whose path to monetization will be as initially uncertain as Facebook’s a decade or so ago.

In the end though it isn’t just a design problem. It’s a human attitude problem. We keep thinking that these streams and notifications are information rather than noise, that we are missing out. Oddly, we don’t feel that way about the content of the hundreds of cable channels or millions of websites we never view. Managing to shift that perspective slightly to view social media more as background noise might help.

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