Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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Life

The Internet’s Role in my Conversation Aversion

I have an uncommon aversion to talking to most people I meet. It is powered by the twin engines of my disinterest in the public contents of their brain, and my inability to get the things that might interest me out of them in a way that doesn’t make either of us uncomfortable. It leads me to come up with long tirades about boringness, predictabity, and shallowness which are neither flattering to their subjects nor myself.

It was in the midst of a conversation about this basic issue that I think I may finally have arrived at a somewhat interesting and novel point: the internet has made me more averse to average conversations than I otherwise would be. I doubt that it’s true that the internet is the reason that I have this basic aversion, but I do think it’s true that nature of the internet exacerbates this tendency I have in a way that’s led to extra consternation in myself and the people who are subjected to the effects of this aversion.

It’s relevant but not crucial that I note in advance that I came of age at the same time as the internet. I’m not completely certain, but I vaguely recall that I first used the internet at age 8. It was dialup, I had little conception of how to use it, but I knew that with the help of my parents it could take me to Nintendo.com, and that’s all I wanted to see anyway. As I got older, we got faster modems and I saw broader and more interesting things on the internet. In 17 years a lot has changed on this little old network, and I’ve seen a lot of it, intently watching from the front row.

The internet represents, to my mind, nearly the whole of useful knowledge. That’s hardly to say that everything interesting that’s ever existed is on the internet, but there is at least some testimony to those things that are interesting and not on the internet which can be found on the internet. Surely in a pre-internet age I might have been making this same basic point–X is more compelling to me than most people–about TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books; but because of my age I’ll be talking primarily about the internet.

Because of the permissive access the internet allows, I believe some things that would be unfathomable to people in the past. I believe that information is something in nearly infinite supply from nearly infinite sources more reliable than any single person I’ve ever known. Knowledgeable opinions are so dime-a-dozen to me that the idea that I’d want a person’s uninformed opinion about anything strikes me as laughable. Things that make me laugh? I reliably secure that on the internet, and it’s way funnier than even the funniest comedian (it, after all, contains all comedians). These beliefs culminate in this basic issue: what do you get from talking to other people that I can’t get better on the internet?

As information gathering pursuits, conversations are deeply broken. They’re useful as bias-gathering journeys, but few people have biases interesting enough to keep me attentive. People cite a sense of camaraderie that can be engendered by conversation, but I’ve never been aroused to one by idle chit-chat about the weather, sports, news headlines, or the latest events of a person’s lfe. Surely there are other benefits people think conversations provide, but it’s not useful for me to offer one sentence rebuttals to all of them.

My basic point, though, isn’t to rehash the reasons that most conversations feel hollow. It’s to convey the idea that as information becomes more universally available (something that’s been happening since the printing press, but has accelerated in the age of the internet), the value of the knowledge held by any single person declines. And the value of the information held by an average person becomes ever less remarkable. This very reality–that few people possess any knowledge or wisdom that can’t be more reliably found elsewhere–is doubtless one of the reasons that I possess such a virulent strain of conversation aversion.

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ruminations

Infinite Information

Perhaps I’m the only one who hadn’t realized before, but there are over six billion people in the world. Those people are, at a given time, in 6 billion different places, doing 6 billion different things, and thinking six billion different thoughts. That means that each second, 18 billion potential–but very inexact–data points are being generated. The number quickly gets into the trillions if we seek data related to say, their health. Each of those people at each of those instants had different red blood cell counts, blood glucose levels, blood alcohol levels… I won’t even try to name all the possibilities.

The simple reality is that in a given instant the world’s population if full of more information than a person could know in a lifetime. If we were to include information about other animals, the planet itself, or the universe, it becomes impossible to fathom the quantity of data that we could amass and know.

Even if we limit ourselves to information that is being recorded–written and stored, by people or computers–there’s more than a single person could reasonably expect to know. Even if we further limit ourselves to information that is available to us, there’s more than a single person could reasonably hope to know. Surely the internet’s done a lot of good things, but by making so much information available so easily it’s no longer possible for someone to have “read everything” within more than 100 feet of themselves. (Yes, I’m making the indefensible assumption that you’re never more than 100 feet from an internet connection.)

It’s because of thoughts like this that people often complain about “information overload.” With more people and more computers than ever before, there’s more stored information than ever before.

The problem with information overload is that it fails to distinguish between what a person “can know” what they “want to know.” Those 18 billion or more data points available at any second offer precious little information that I actively “want to know.” Surely I’d think it was cool to know what a random person in India, Zimbabwe, France, or Paraguay was doing right now, but that’s different than those 18 billion semi-knowable data points.

Of course internet–or is it information?–skeptics maintain that people shouldn’t be able to know only those things they “want to know.” They lament that allowing that will create a world of small groupings of self-selected people who know roughly the same information and hold roughly the same biases about it.

It’s absolutely possible that a small circle between 10 and 50 people could create enough information and media that you could spend all of your free time consuming nothing but the ideas and products of that small circle of people. This is what gives way to fears of the mythical “echo chamber” that the internet is supposed to create.

Of course, such echo chambers existed before. Then, they were generally called “small towns” and the only means of escape were geographic. Today they can exist virtually, but the price of escape is much lower. A new website is a few clicks away, not a few hundred miles.

There has alway been an infinite amount of information. Now much more of it is recorded, and thus far easier to know. The fact that there is more information recorded and accessible than ever before doesn’t mean that we’re automatically more informed than ever before, or smarter than ever before. Surely coping with all the data on the internet can be daunting task. But the possibilities that all of this information offers are so great that I would never want to go back.

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