Friday, October 22, 2010

PopTech2010: Noise v Signal

Amid a monster data glut that is expanding exponentially -- by about 1 billion gigabytes every three days, says Google -- it's no wonder it's getting harder to distinguish signal from noise. "So much of innovation relies on our ability to listen, to separate out signal from noise," PopTech curator Andrew Zolli said today at the innovation network's annual conference in Maine. "But it's not just that noise is bad and signals are good. Sometimes the relationship between them can be much more sophisticated." Indeed. "Noise in the System," one of this year's most popular PopTech segments, presented a study of noise and its role in politics, culture, consumerism and nature.

Among the highlights:

* Jad Abumrad, the host of RadioLab on WNYC, says noise is good. He began his presentation by sharing sounds of familiar objects failing -- the heavy bump-and-grind of an Epson printer in failure mode and a CD that starts to hiccup violently mid-Mozart. ["If you've heard Radio Lab," Abumrad says, "you know that I'm obsessed with things breaking down and sliding off the rails. I love the aesthetics of failure."] But when sound is fused with science, he says, noise can be signal. Abumrad likened the sound of our genes making proteins to "the random static of a police radio between transmissions"; he then described how crayfish produce a type of white noise to amplify the barely perceptible sounds of advancing predators who would devour them otherwise. Next, Abumrad played the sound of a monkey's neurons firing while it was playing rock-paper-scissors. At the precise moment the monkey had to make a choice, his neurons made a popping noise that sounded like the rapid-fire beats of a drum -- another example of how biology triggers sounds to guide behavior.

*Amishi Jha, a brain scientist, equates noise to distraction; she teaches "mindfulness" to members of the military, training them how to pay attention to the present moment without judgment or emotion, cultivating a "present moment experience." Her work to improve attention spans, which includes teaching meditation practices to soldiers, is funded by the Department of Defense but also is being used by nurses and physicians and other people in high-stress work situations. "Attention is an amplifier, making sure that what is relevant is high signal and everything else is dulled down," she says. Jha says rising levels of information overload has made "mindfulness" research critical -- and we, as humans, are just starting to grapple with the physical and psychological impacts of the information systems we've created. "There's too much stuff in the world for the brain to be able to process it fully and we're constrained by having only two arms, two eyes, two hands," she said. Today's information explosion will require us to develop new behaviors, she says, simply to overcome the distractions we're creating daily at new speeds.

* Humorist/musician Reggie Watts calls himself a "disinformationist." The Seattle performance artist uses noise to satirize politicians, artists, and intellectuals. At PopTech this year, he mimicked people who use noise to distort the message [or who have their messages involuntarily distorted by invasive technology]. The Brooklyn-based Watts is known for his improvised sets, in which he uses only his voice and a looping machine. "I love to disorient my audiences," Watts says of his off-kilter comedy. Click here for excerpts of his gig at PopTech. Here's another bit from a recent set at LA's UCB comedy club:

* Lisa Gansky, author of the book, The Mesh: Why The Future of Business is Sharing, says household clutter and most other stuff we own is noise. ( See earlier post on CauseGlobal, "The End of Stuff?"] "Because we now have Web tracking tools to locate what we need, when we need them, we no longer have to own things just to have access to them," she said. Tracking takes the friction out of sharing what we used to own with others. Access is 'the new ownership,' Gansky says. "There's a fundamental shift in the relationship we have to the stuff in our lives and we are actually starting to see products and services designed to be shared and experienced rather than owned." Think Zipcar, for starters. Or pop-up stores. Or co-location office spaces. "I started feeling that all the physical stuff in my world started to be noise," Gansky said. "I wanted to give up stuff for experiences. I wanted to get rid of the noise. And now I feel like I'm not alone, like whole generations of people and cultures may well skip over ownership altogether."

* TreeHugger Founder Graham Hill also thinks stuff is mostly noise. He used the PopTech stage to officially launch Life Edited, a new project that -- over the next year -- will turn his own 420-square-foot New York apartment into a crowd-sourced experiment on how to live smarter with less. "It's about maximizing our enjoyment of small spaces" and reducing our "stuff footprint," he said. It's about having less space, less stuff, less waste, less money -- but with more design. To that end, Hill's project features a design contest for "a transformable space furnished only with essentials and digitized media." Think access to stuff versus ownership of stuff. Designers are being urged to create transformable space that can accommodate, for example, a sit-down dinner for 12; private guest spaces; a work area and hideable kitchen. Hill said he was inspired during a recent move, when he discovered how much of what he had was useless. The design competition, cosponsored by Green Depot, Cisco Systems, Resource Furniture and others, will pay $10,000 for the winning design. Other cash prizes also are being offered. For more details, click here.

* An example of noise that IS signal, ok_go delivered at PopTech. Blogger Michelle Riggen-Ransom captured a segment of the group's PopTech performance on her iPhone. Below, see ok_go's latest commercial video:

What's your noise-to-signal ratio? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, Noise Pollution, by Tavik Morgenstern)

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