FlatnessPosted: October 5, 2014
“Two extremes of redundancy in English prose are represented by Basic English and James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake. The Basic English vocabulary is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is able to achieve a compression of semantic content.”
Bandwidth is a late machine age term that helps illuminate the millennia of technology and culture that preceded its coinage. The definitions of bandwidth vary, but its most basic meaning is a channel’s capacity to carry information. Smoke signals and telegraphs are low-bandwidth media, transmitting one bit at a time in slow succession, while human vision transmits information to the brain at a much faster rate. The past century has yielded tools for measuring bandwidth and quantifying information (see Claude Shannon) as the channels for carrying that information have advanced rapidly.
In any era, but never more so than now, the landscape of existing technology is a palimpsest in which the cutting-edge, the obsolete, and the old-but-durable all coexist as layers of varying intensity and visibility. New, unprecedented means of information exchange and communication are invented constantly, while their older equivalents live on long after they’ve stopped being state of the art. Information reaches each of us—and often assaults us—through a multitude of high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth channels, some of which we permit to speak to us, and some of which do so uninvited. Sitting down to watch TV, checking one’s iPhone during dinner with a friend, or finding a quiet place to read a book all represent conscious choices to block certain channels and pay attention to others. Marshall McLuhan recognized that technologies in our environment have a rebalancing effect on our senses, writing that each medium is an “intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.”
Human attention, then, is a finite resource. A variety of criteria inform everyone’s small, constant choices about which media to focus on and which to tune out, and those choices often have little to do with their bandwidth, but today one thing is certain: Our own brains, not anything manmade, are the bottlenecks that limit how much information we can receive at once. The contemporary world offers as much space for storing information as we’ll ever need, and we can instantly send any amount of it to the other side of the planet. Well before either were the case, however, humans learned to ignore the features of our environments that we deemed irrelevant—the noise surrounding the valuable signals we actually wanted or needed to receive.
Claude Shannon’s quote above, from his Mathematical Theory of Communication, introduces a qualitative layer to the question of human bandwidth and the environments we seek: People move continuously through information-rich and information-poor environments and are affected differently by each. Basic English is “redundant,” meaning it’s a language that requires many words to convey even simple messages—and is therefore a language that few would choose to use for anything but utilitarian purposes. Finnegans Wake, at the opposite extreme, could not be richer in information or content, to the point that it can barely be compressed or summarized. In Shannon’s example, the rich, information-dense content of Joyce’s novel represents a higher quality of communication, and Basic English a lower quality, although the latter fulfills plenty of functional roles.
Low-information, redundant content has a flatness to it. It’s less interesting. The Residents expressed this a different way on their Commercial Album, which comprises 40 one-minute-long pop songs. The liner notes explain:
“Point one: Pop music is mostly a repetition of two types of musical and lyrical phrases, the verse and the chorus. Point two: These elements usually repeat three times in a three-minute song, the type usually found on top-40 radio. Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only one minute long.”
Plenty of pop music, in other words, is redundant and can be compressed without losing anything. This might be too harsh and cynical a judgment, but it’s valuable as a polemic. Modern environments, from top-40 radio to architecture to fiction, are full of redundancy and thus thin on information. The ease of digital information storage and transmission help explain why we can afford to be less economical with information than we were in the past, but getting used to redundancy, like getting used to a diet full of salt and sugar, reinforces our appetite for it and actually influences the types of information we produce. If the manmade world seems like a flatter place in the Information Age (not in the Thomas Friedman sense), this might be part of the reason.
As communication technology improves, the argument periodically surfaces that face-to-face interaction and cities in general will become obsolete. Joel Garreau rebutted this argument a few years ago in his article “Santa Fe-ing of the World,” in which he praises the high bandwidth that physical proximity and direct experience afford. He writes, “Humans always default to the highest available bandwidth that does the job, and face-to-face is the gold standard. Some tasks require maximum connection to all senses. When you’re trying to build trust, or engage in high-stress, high-value negotiation, or determine intent, or fall in love, or even have fun, face-to-face is hard to beat.” Even the most advanced digital media, in other words, are limited compared to full sensory engagement with one’s environment—the digital, closer to Basic English than Finnegans Wake, is still a utilitarian solution to problems like distance more than it’s an ideal theater for the highest levels of human contact. As our reality becomes more automated and algorithmic, our truly complex, nuanced, information-rich activities will continue to justify their existence, while the flat and redundant will increasingly disappear into the digital. By recognizing this condition, we can learn to preserve the depth of the former instead of simplifying our reality for easier absorption into lower-bandwidth channels.