What Is Noise?

I was sitting on my front porch after lunch, about halfway through reading Alex Ross’s recent article, “What is Noise?,” when my neighbor’s hired landscaper began using a leaf-blower. He was using it to clear away bits of mulch that, while being moved and spread, had fallen on the pavement.

A simple broom could have swept clean the mess. A more careful application of the mulch could have avoided spilling any where it didn’t belong. The high-decibel noise of the gas-powered compressor exposed the wasteful carelessness of the work done.

In describing how the quality of noise has changed between analog and digital technology, wasteful carelessness is the defining characteristic of the information we’re increasingly presented with:

The irony is that the atomized buzz common to so much late-twentieth-century technology—fax machines, dial-up modems, the hiss between stations on a radio dial, the “Poltergeist” snow of a TV left on overnight—has largely faded. Such noise now resides in our minds, as we fend off notifications, updates, “Just for You” suggestions, consumer-feedback requests, obscene spam, clickbait headlines, A.I.-generated news stories, A.I.-generated news stories about A.I., and the whole silently screaming rest of it.

As the costs to publishing anything online continues its march towards absolute zero, noise becomes the marker of Silicon Valley’s brute-force attempts towards persuading, targeting, and manipulating. The electricity and water wasted by data-centers computing poorly personalized and mechanically authored information that will only annoy before it’s ignored is stupid.

Noise draws attention to the energy wasted by careless effort. Noise is a product of cheap energy, externalized costs, and an absence of professional ethics. Noise can be annoying as hell!