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Book Review: Noise Matters

By (May 29, 2015) No Comment

Noise Matters:noise matters cover

The Evolution of Communication

by R. Haven Wiley

Harvard University Press, 2015

“The enemy,” Saul Bellow wrote in Starting Out in Chicago, “is noise,” and although he was probably referring to the purity of the artistic experience, the principle has traditionally carried over into a whole host of metaphorical applications – and into the actual world of acoustics, where noise has popularly always been conceived as degradation empty of content. In his extremely readable and thought-provoking new book Noise Matters: The Evolution of Communication, UNC Chapel Hill emeritus professor R. Haven Wiley defines noises as “sound that has no interest for us yet makes sounds of interest hard to hear” and states flatly, “As a result of noise, we make mistakes.”

In studying a wide range of Earth’s living things – especially the gorgeous Hooded Warbler in the woods of North Carolina – Wiley and his students have mapped out not just the many ways noise can impede the passage of “signals” to “receivers,” but also, more intriguingly, the ways “receivers” have adapted auditory strategies to compensate. This complex-yet-accessible book (“complex” because the thing comes replete with Theory of Relativity-style long equations and “accessible” because Wiley writes in such an engaging tone that you’re willing to forgive him any number of algorithms) makes the obvious, counterintuitive case that noise has played a vital role in the evolution of hearing, where how badly you want to be heard has an inverse relationship to how complex your message had better be:

Ritualization brings the same trade-off already noted above between the rate of transmission and the performance of the receiver. The more a display (signal) combines elements in standardized spatial and temporal relationships, the less it can use these elements to encode information. Encoding information requires variable relationships among signals or components of signals. Whenever a response advantageous for a signaler requires communication of more information to a receiver, there arises the trade-off between the rate of transmission and the efficacy of transmission in noise. At a noisy cocktail party or in any noisy gathering, this trade-off no doubt constrains us humans to vapid conversation. Over megaphones in crowds we are constrained to platitudes. Likewise, in general, noise favors ritualization – efficiency – over depth or information.

Despite the abstruse level at which it studies all the ramifications of its subject (the preceding quote being the at the low end of the science-wonk spectrum), Wiley is always careful to keep his language direct and personal as his chapters range all over the world of communication and its discontents. He’s helped considerably in this by the intuitive connection his readers have every day with his subject, and he most certainly includes his own signal-making in the ambit of his study:

The arguments appear tentative for an even more fundamental reason. The present study is itself an attempt at communication. By its own arguments, I must accept that it is inevitably noisy. I can hardly conclude that communication is imperfect while claiming an exception for this book. As a signal it no doubt incorporates its own dose of noise, from obfuscation to error. Any adaptations on my part to mitigate noise through adjustments of contrast, redundancy, and predictability are unlikely to eliminate all error. In addition, the physical transmission might contribute more noise. And you, dear readers, you receivers, no doubt add a share to the noise. Consilience about noisy communication has yet to develop. Perhaps this book can start the conversation.

The result of all this erudition and stimulation is very likely the best book of science published by a mainstream press in 2015, something that will make readers think about every sound they hear and why they hear those sounds and why they prefer some of those sounds to others. It’s an invigorating inquiry.