Signal vs Noise – Consume vs Create

Thought I’d try my hand at some armchair philosophy today. I am an amateur at this, so be easy on me in the comments.

We are constantly being bombarded with information. Information that is useful is often referred to as Signal. Information that is not useful is considered Noise. This is the Signal to Noise ratio.

From the Wikipedia page Signal-to-noise ratio:

Informally, “signal-to-noise ratio” refers to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data.

The internet is a phenomenal research tool, but noise lurks around every mouse click. Noise is often those enticing links that we follow if we don’t have our guard up. The other day I went online to research the economic effect should the Federal Reserve monetize the debt by buying long term Treasuries. Then I got suckered into clicking into some top 10 list. It’s only 10 items, let me read it real fast. Next thing I know I’m watching a bear attack video on YouTube. How did that happen?

Noise is the empty carbohydrates of information. Not fulfilling, yet often quite tasty. Signal is the nourishment that enriches us. And anyone that has killed a few hours (or years) watching CNBC knows that Noise often does a real good job making itself look like Signal.

Now that Signal to Noise has been covered, I’d like to add a new axis. I’m going to call it Consume vs Create. In our relationship with information, we are either consuming (pulling) data or creating (pushing) data. We may be consuming Signal or consuming Noise. We may be creating Signal or creating Noise. See my lovely chart below.


Although it is impossible to avoid Noise, my goal is to come up with a strategy to minimize Noise exposure. I quit watching CNBC over a year ago once I realized the information was really Noise being peddled by a network that makes its money from advertisers that don’t share my investment philosophy. My investment research went to books, well written newsletters and financial blogs. In that scenario, I traded Noise for Signal and I became a better investor.

The natural pull is toward Noise. Sugar just tastes better. It also easier to Consume than Create. It is far less effort to eat a pie than to bake one. But as I learned from the book Satisfaction – The Science of True Fulfillment, in order to achieve satisfaction one must mix novelty with action. Consumption is passive. Creation requires action.

Enough rambling. The ideal state is to balance time in quadrants A and B and to take action when we find ourselves spending too much time in quadrants C and D. In the book The 4-Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferriss asks his readers to first define what they want from life and then eliminate the unnecessary. How do we keep ourselves from drifting toward the unnecessary?

Periodically ask yourself these two questions.

  1. Is this Signal or Noise?
  2. Am I Consuming or Creating?

Once you acknowledge Noise, make an effort to move toward Signal. And if you discover you are always Consuming, recognize that satisfaction requires some Creation.

Thank you for Consuming my Noise. 🙂


Add yours

  1. Interesting..though I would be willing to bet that the operational definitions for signal and noise would vary significantly between people (even with the same person on a different day since humans are only considered to be about 80% repeatable). Might need a Gage R&R to assess the impact of measurement error 🙂

  2. MAS, great post. I look forward to reading many more posts on philosophy in the future.

  3. Thanks. I am planning on expanding on this post in the coming weeks.

  4. I would like to declare myself an avid fan of Quadrant D.

  5. This is one of the reasons that, despite being a “techie” for my job, I’m not much of a texter, loathe chatting and delegate Facebook & Twitter use to times I’m already “wasting” (like sitting in a waiting room). I want my creations to be larger than my consumptions but this takes concerted effort.

    Thanks for voicing what I’ve been feeling. Enjoyed your post on Harrison Bergeron — well-said!!

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