What is Total Noise? And why does it matter?

 •  Filed under total noise

Let's start with a question: What's worse, "fake news" or the inability to think?

It's not a rhetorical Q. The answer seems obvious. Yet one look at the internet and you'd think that "fake news" is a new phenomenon responsible for society's collapse. Meanwhile, public support for the humanities, whose very raison d être is teaching people how to think, has never been lower, and funding for post-secondary education continues to dwindle.

Our whole focus on "training people for the workforce" has influenced how we think about education and its role in preparing people for citizenship. The results aren't always good: the focus on "skills" has muted reliable ways of cultivating general intelligence.

In order to be an "informed" citizen, whatever we mean by that, you not only have to know how to identify fake news but how to think about news in the first place.


A symptom is not the cause

Visit almost any website in 2017 and you'll find a think piece about "fake news," an over-simplified scapegoat for various political, social, and cultural problems. Here's another line for a thinkpiece I haven't read yet: "Fake news" and its influence are symptoms of how people think about the world.

"Fake news" is really just the latest incarnation of our tendency to tremble when confronted with complexity. Instead, we latch onto oversimplified explanations for Why Bad Things Happen.

Don't get me wrong. Fake news is clearly a problem, one that is fueled by a broader culture of anti-intellectualism. "Fake news" has many different faces, though, and to classify media in this way is to miss the point. Thinking critically means not thinking in binaries, which is precisely what the concept of "fake news" wants us to do. It asks us to neatly categorize information into polarized camps: fake/real, false/true, valuable/worthless, left/right, &c.

The focus should be less on "how to identify fake news" and more on how to think about news in the first place.

Does news make us more informed? Maybe we're asking the wrong question. How "informed" does an educated adult need to be on the "issues" to vote in an election with two candidates who have polarized visions for America's future?

If you vote on values and common sense, which probably accounts for over 90% of "informed" voters, then is the news going to help you decide whom to vote for? Are we surprised that America's new President is issuing executive orders against Muslims when he's doing what he said he'd do? Wasn't that in the news? Maybe just the sources I read.

"News" couldn't stop Tr^mp voters, most of whom are "educated" white men and women. The idea of the Tr^mp voter as a working class man fighting for economic security is a myth; these were voters with Bachelor's degrees. Maybe this is the first time they've been told that Fox News and Breitbart are steeped in right-wing spin, but probably not. I find it hard to believe that any "news" got them to the polling station to cast a vote for Tr^mp, nevermind all the transparently dishonest BS that spreads on Facebook.

Something much more sinister is going on.

Last time I checked, a pretty low bar to clear for college graduates is basic literacy, enough to distinguish between "real" and "fake" news. And yet we're having the same conversations: the education system is in "shambles," and we need a renewed focus on "information literacy" to save our democracy. If graduates are unable to distinguish between "clearly fake" and "probably real," then we probably have bigger problems on our hands.

"Soft skills" like information literacy, critical thinking, and writing are how we now describe the work of the Liberal Arts in the context of a skills-based education. But once upon a time, when education had merit on its own, intensive reading, writing, and research were pillars of general intelligence.[1] They were not "assets" to put on a resume, but required for a meaningful career and informed citizenship.

Getting people to think more complexly is not an easy task. But general intelligence and its associated skills should be side effects of intense study in any subject area, a neglected pursuit in the age of skills-based education.

Want to be an informed voter? Study World War II and the creation of the post-war world, which descended into an ideological war between superpowers with conflicting global agendas. Read novels written by people of different backgrounds -- economic, ethnic, racial, religious, and gender -- and learn how to discern the political, social, ethical, and philosophical issues that are at stake. Examine different time periods and experiences of people who have witnessed and documented historic change.

Stop reading the news, at least until you learn how to think.

Instead of focusing so intently on a specific problem ("fake news"), we need to reimagine information literacy not as an "outcome" of education but as something we internalize while studying complex problems and how others have solved them. And the way we navigate these problems most effectively will help us develop skills that improve our learning. The effect of learning how to think, and learning what information to value, stays with us far longer than our ability to follow a rubric for identifying "fake news."


Fake news, meet Total Noise

In other words, we need to prepare ourselves for what we're up against. We need to ask ourselves what skills and knowledge we need to make sense of it.

What is it, anyway? What are we up against? Aside from Tr^mp, authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and bigotry, there is another enemy lurking about that is rarely discussed.

"Fake news" is but one threat within a much larger, more pervasive problem. What we're up against is encompassed by an inelegant phrase that captures the unending complexity of today's information landscape: Total Noise.

Total Noise is the late David Foster Wallace's phrase for the "undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric." It is unfiltered and constant information absent of deeper meaning. It is your eternal timeline, the 24 hour news cycle, every source that has been or ever could be part of a story.

In Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, he argues that Total Noise is a symptom of a broader problem, our inability to deal with being bored:

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or 'excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly...but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. The terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down.

His description here is dated, but swap in "smartphone" for every example and the analysis is just as accurate.

We are beholden to our addiction to information, to being "conscious" and "informed" in the only way we know how, but is there a viable alternative when our world is undergoing so much change and this quickly?

The irony, of course, is that exposure leads to acknowledging there's a problem. I'm as guilty as anyone for indulging this addiction. But let this serve as a warning: I'm like a drowning man who's telling you not to get in the water.

And but so, we find ourselves at a crossroads. If "fake news" is but one component of a more pervasive problem, Total Noise, then what is the alternative? If "paying attention" to the wrong things is causing widespread misery, is the solution to "turn off" those endless streams of information?

Where am I going with this? You might think that the old standby "Ignorance is bliss" might be relevant here. But ignoring a problem has never solved anything, let alone something like this.

The trick, I think, is not only knowing how to pay attention, but knowing who deserves that attention. We have to be our own curators, and we have to identify writers and thinkers who help us work through complexity, then let the rest be. Here, again, Wallace's concept of "Decidering" is helpful:

I suspect that part of why 'bias' is so loaded and dicey a word just now—and why it’s so much invoked and potent in cultural disputes—is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary . . . to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.

This kind of "curational" literacy works for identifying and ignoring "fake news," sure, but more importantly, it helps us think more clearly about complex problems.

Awareness of bias and the ability to discern integrity in the "handling of facts" goes a lot further than any other system I've heard about.

I don't have to ask a million subjective questions about a piece of information to determine its value. I start with one: "Does this source demonstrate integrity in their handling of facts?" If the answer is no, I discard it. If the answer is yes, I proceed accordingly, and hope that I can learn something that helps me form my own opinion.

That's just one way of approaching it. You may learn that other methods work better. The point is that it's not about "fake news." It's about how you think about news in the first place.


  1. I guess "general intelligence" isn't specific enough to merit discussing by itself in our culture of overspecialization. ↩︎