Signal to Noise Ratio (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first part of a two-parter, I’ll post the second part on Wednesday. This part considers, briefly, the history of mass-communication then, in the second part, I’ll look at the implications for the church.


There is a measurement that scientists are often very interested in. It is called the “signal to noise ratio”. It is important because it basically determines how confident one can be in the results that one is obtaining. The signal is the thing one is trying to measure, the noise is all of the errors and random fluctuations that tend to mask the signal. What one wants, obviously, is a high signal to noise ratio, but that is not always possible.

To make this clearer, imagine a radio. When one is listening to a strong local radio station all one hears is the program, but if one tries to tune in a weaker, more distant station one becomes more and more aware of the hiss and crackle, the static, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hear the program, until, at last, it becomes impossible.

It is very instructive to apply such a measure to the history of communication. We don’t need to worry about an exact metric—that is, coming up with specific numbers—the trend in the ratio is clear.


From the dawn of history (which is defined as the invention of writing) until the invention of the printing press, every copy of every book or scroll had to be made by hand. Even then, it was a lot of work until Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. As a result, only important books survived. After all, if one were going to dedicate all the time and trouble to making a copy it would have to seem worthwhile. This is not to say, of course, that all of these writings would still be considered true or valuable today, but they did represent what was best and most important to the cultures they came from. Thus almost all books are signal and there is very little noise, so a very high signal to noise ratio.

Then came the printing press. Now many copies of a book could be made with far less effort, and hence cost. This was a good thing in that now many more people could own books, and the bible and other important works could reach much wider audiences. But there is also a negative: because books are cheaper to produce, more people started to write them, including people with less, or even nothing, to say. So the signal strength has gone up, but the noise level has risen too, and probably more than the signal. And that means that the signal to noise ratio has gone down a bit.

As printing technology improved, costs continued to decline, and so did the ratio. With the invention of the paperback book, costs took a nose dive and the noise level soared. Now today the number of books available to us is vast, with thousands of new books published each year. But how many are really worth reading? How many are signal rather than noise? How many will be remembered even in ten years, let alone a hundred? There is still a reasonable signal I think, but a lot of filtering is needed to find it in all the noise. Those interested in finding the signal would do well to remember C. S. Lewis’ dictum to “read at least one old book for every new book”.


But of course the printed word is no longer the only form of communication. Ignoring a few abortive technologies like the telegraph, the first major medium was probably the wireless radio. And when one looks at the history of radio what does one find but the same trend as in books.

In the early days of radio both the receivers and the broadcast facilities were big, expensive, and hence fairly rare. Only programs that were deemed in some way cultural or valuable were produced and aired. A high signal to noise ratio. But as the cost of production dropped, and as the potential audience grew (especially with the invention of the portable transistor radio) the number of stations increased and the standards for what could be aired dropped (I don’t mean that the technical quality dropped, that improved, I mean the standard or quality of the content).

Today there are dozens (at least) of radio stations available no matter where one is. And with the advent of satellite and internet radio that number will keep going up. With so much air time to fill up it is no wonder that less and less, proportionately, is worth listening to. Television too shows the exact same progression.


But it is not only the mass media that show this trend. Consider the telephone. From a somewhat rare device, something one might have one of, fixed in one’s house that was used mostly for emergencies or to stay in touch with distant relatives and friends, it has grown to be ubiquitous. Even before the mobile phone, the old phones had changed society. People stopped “just dropping by” and it became courtesy to phone first, then later to call and make an appointment—to see a friend!

Mobile phones have made even more dramatic changes in people’s lives. Now, wherever one goes, a significant percentage of people are talking on their mobile phones. What are they all saying? Can it all be necessary, important? It almost seems as though people today need that contact, meaningless as it may be, in order to know that they exist! Where once the mobile phone was a status symbol—“See, I am so important that people need to be able to reach me at any moment!”—one now gets the impression that if one took away mobile phones people would just pop out of existence like soap bubbles.


And we haven’t even touched on internet technologies: email, instant messaging, chat rooms, personal web sites, blogs, twitter… With all of that, and for almost no cost, anyone can now say almost anything to the whole world. The result? Everyone is now saying nothing, very loudly, to almost no-one. The signal to noise ratio is rapidly approaching zero!


So far we have looked at two factors, the number of media available, and the cost of publishing, and we have seen that as the first goes up and the second down (the consistent trend, historically) so the signal to noise ratio drops. There is a third factor that deserves consideration as well: The use of a medium to sell.

As each medium begins to reach a sizable audience it has inevitably become used to advertise products and services. In print, for instance, newspapers were originally just that, vehicles for the conveyance of news and informed opinion. But today they are hardly that at all. In an average newspaper, over half of the available space is given over to advertising, even ignoring the various flyers that are usually included. And what passes for news in what remains is often less than news-worthy.

Television is the same, at least broadcast television, though cable and satellite television will get there eventually. Think about turning on a television at a random moment to a random channel—what do you think are the chances that you will find a program on rather than a commercial? Email is reeling under the onslaught of spam, “serious” websites are filling up with ads or spawn pop-ups, and so on.

So, what we have, wherever we look, is an ever-growing number of sellers trying to get our attention to peddle their message and needing to be ever louder and more in-your-face to stand out. Not only is there more noise, it is getting louder and louder.

This, then, is the world we live in, and it is unlikely to change. Indeed, a hundred years ago Soren Kierkegaard made a remarkably similar analysis of his world where the only means of mass communication was the printed word. Old Screwtape must surely be enjoying himself as  he watches the triumph of “noise—the grand dynamism”!


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One Response to “Signal to Noise Ratio (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Signal to Noise Ratio (Part 2 of 2) « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] thoughtfulspirituality Explorations of Christian Spirituality « Signal to Noise Ratio (Part 1 of 2) […]

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