The “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” (SNR) is an engineering term that has come to be applied more broadly to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant information in communications (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signal-to-noise_ratio). As long as I have been aware of the phrase, it has been a favorite of mine. If we were to attempt to construct a comprehensive and maximally useful paradigm of public discourse, this phrase would have to be a cornerstone. SNR refers to the density of meaning in what is being said, the quantity and quality of relevant information that is being communicated, in proportion to the quantity and quality of everything else that obscures and displaces it.
Most political discourse is characterized by an extremely low SNR. Traditional unidirectional mass media (television, radio, newspapers) used to be tempered by trying to appeal to broad markets, which led to a reduction in SNR in order to offend no one. More recently, the balkanization of traditional mass media, appealing more to ideologically targeted markets (particularly on the right), has led to a different kind of reduction of the SNR, an ideologically intense but analytically poor set of insulated messages, reinforcing the creation of ideological islands of selective information reverberating among the faithful. Even the best mass media programming today tends to focus too much on politics as competition among existing ideologies, and not enough on politics as the on-going search for the best policies by which to govern ourselves. Programs that address head-on the questions underwriting the ideological differences are few and far between.
If you visit message boards and political blogs, you find mostly angry tantrums, flame wars, ridicule, arbitrary assertions and opinions, and even, often, an open hostility to analysis. Many of the most active participants in public discourse not only indulge in a low SNR, but privilege it as preferable and superior. In some places, such as on SquareState, the signal-to-noise ratio suffers from adamant ideological insularity, reinforcing a somewhat informed but assiduously narrow and stagnant ideology.
In other places, such as Colorado Pols, the SNR is particularly low, nuggets of information buried in avalanches of chatter. The combination of comradery among accepted insiders and antagonism toward rejected outsiders (placed within and shifted between these categories according to how well they reinforce the ritual of empty discourse that defines the blog) creates a strong group identity. Shared pride is taken in accommodating ”everyone” while accomplishing nothing. Virtual friendships are forged among ideological opposites, and arguments resolved, on the basis of the shared ideology that all political orientations are arbitrary and equal. And a strong sense of community is maintained by means of an ethnocentricity of political ritualism, in which saying nothing knowledgeably is perceived to be the height of discourse.
Obviously, the highest SNRs are found in the most inaccessible forums: Professional journals, symposia, and other venues in which highly distilled information is presented and exchanged. Due to the fortress of jargon, and the assumption of a shared expert foundation on which to build, these “ivory tower” forums exist in a world apart, with too few bridges to the realm which most of us occupy.
The challenge to those who want to improve political discourse is to combine the virtues and avoid the vices of each of these various forums. The most important virtues to be combined are the comradery and accommodation of diverse views that characterizes Colorado Pols with the information intensity of academe. The most important vices to be avoided are the ideological insularity of SquareState, the reduction of political discourse to mere arbitrary opinion of Colorado Pols, and the inaccessibility of state of the art information and analysis characteristic of academe.
What we need to work on creating is an all-inclusive, information-intensive, friendly but robust national, state, and local discussion. What we don’t need is to keep reproducing and investing in the clubhouses that currently exist, the clubhouses of ideological insularity, of superficiality, and of esoteria. We need, as individual information consumers, to exercise the discipline to switch the channel from “Reality TV” (including the blogosphere versions) to “National Geographic,” and as individual information producers to be more informative and less offensive. But no one needs to be an expert to contribute to an improved SNR (and few if any are in all things): Asking cogent questions is as important as providing cogent answers, and learning is as essential as teaching.
Premature false certainties are the bane of high SNRs, because they stagnate individual understandings, and balkanize ideological camps. We all need to consider what aspects of opposing views might be valuable to consider. (For instance, our growing national debt, and our undisciplined spending as a nation, major Tea Party issues, are legitimate concerns, and merit our attention.) We need to avoid the meme that compromise is bad, and embrace the meme that pursuing the best and most informed policies is good. We need each to fight against our own pettiness, and discourage it in one another. We need to recognize that we have a civic responsibility not just to be engaged, but also to become ever better informed, and to develop ever deeper and broader understandings of the issues that confront us. And we have to, all of us, exercise that civic responsibility publicly, together, helping one another to develop those deeper and broader understandings, and seeking from one another our own on-going education, for responsible self-governance benefits first and foremost from an increasingly better and more richly informed electorate.
(This theme is continued in Un-Jamming the Signal.)