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The Counselor - From Seat 9F - Summer, 2011

Signal and Noise

Signal to Noise Ratio was a big deal in the early days of Hi Fi, and basically went away with CDs. It measures how much of what’s coming out of a speaker is actually music, and how much is hiss, buzz, and other adjuncts from the equipment itself. Remember tape hiss? Dolby noise reduction?

For a long time, the battle was about getting this ratio as high as possible. Manufacturers focused on accurate sound reproduction, and used it to sell and differentiate their products. “High Fidelity” was what we thought we wanted. But we also learned to want something quite the opposite. In 1951, Ike Turner’s amp fell off the back of his car and punctured a speaker. With no time to fix it, he recorded “Rocket 88,” buzzing speaker and all. Since then, noise has been welcome to the party.

The same goes for electronic communication. Google conquered the search industry with a nearly blank screen that promised a very high S/N, because that’s what we said we wanted. But what do we want now? Context. When we look online for data, we start with a targeted search, but there is often more information on the edges of the screen than in the center. The opportunists who shout from the margins are sometimes much closer to the mark than center, which holds only the honest results of a rigorously crafted query.

Noise, in the form of advertisers clamoring for attention, can be full of useful information, precisely because it is crafted by advertisers. The industry rags in a potential client’s lobby can tell a lot about what keeps him up at night. Look at the ads in Auto Rental News and you’ll know that the folks on the other side of the waiting room wall are thinking about insurance costs, retired inventory, and loss recovery. Read the articles and all you’ll learn about is the Car Rental Show and customer satisfaction.

I had lunch today with a longtime real estate researcher. “I like getting lost” he confessed over Vindaloo and Sag Gosht. And for the same reason – the unexpected market insight that comes from trying to find his way to a property through the neighborhood surrounding it. The noise is part of his signal. (Search for Sag Gosht online and see what else you learn on the way.)

This comes at a price. Noise threatens to drown signal. I recently surrendered a very old phone number because solicitation calls and texts overwhelmed its utility. My spam folder grows by hundreds of messages daily. Noisy opportunists do battle with defenders of The Signal at every advance in communication, and there is real risk that e-mail and telephones may collapse under the weight of spam.

But another risk exists. Spam blockers, ad blockers, and focus on intentional content mean that many never see anything beyond what they’re looking for. More than ever, people can select of news sources that won’t tell them anything disagreeable or seemingly irrelevant. Carried far enough, this can bring progress to a halt, and leave us in early 1951, before an amplifier fell off the back of a car, a speaker buzzed, and Rock and Roll was born.

(Noah Shlaes, CRE works in Chicago and has been reading Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, and the January/February 2011 issue of Auto Rental News.)

Copyright 2011 - Noah Shlaes