The Noise Factory


“Start spreading the news…” – Frank Sinatra

If you haven’t cracked it open yet, David Brooks’ The Social Animal is a playful dive into the decisions, choices and forces shaping human existence. Not a small task, yet he does it with remarkable artistry and wit. For example, Brooks casually summarizes the flow of knowledge.

He claims we label information from our evolutionary past as genetics. Have you noticed companies like 23AndMe and DNA11 popping up to decode and create wall art out of our genetic memory (with our permission, hopefully)?
Information from thousands of years ago, we call religion - organized collections of belief systems and worldviews, which stand the test of time through supporters who institutionalize the movements. 
The information passed along from hundreds of years ago is our culture. Certain behaviors cannot solely be attributed to genetic inheritance, but rather an evolved human capacity to imagine, create and communicate with peers. 
This is combined with information from decades ago, which we call family. 
And, he concludes, we label the information offered years, months, days or hours ago: education or advice. 
Brooks’ chronology ends there, but our generation could also create a separate classification for information received seconds ago. We don’t consider all tweets, Facebook posts or news flashes an education: rather, we let them fly by, with barely a thought, until someone else compiles them into a coherent piece of advice.
Perhaps it’s just noise – the knowledge offered seconds ago, without a second thought. Our generation has shrill, unrelenting noise overload: heartwarming puppy stories, conspiracy theories, memes, gifs, celebrity gossip, and the occasional thoughtful editorial. Noise only becomes sound when we listen, and make connections between disparate signals. I thought of this as the noise exploded over Oxford last week, with #skollwf and #oxfordjam salutes and lamentations being screamed out into the ether where very few (if any) were actually listening.
I hope that the very valid discussion of what’s working, what’s not, who’s who and what’s next in social entrepreneurship and investment that took place in Oxford last week doesn’t fade away as noise. But I think it’s worth expecting that few pieces of information will make long enough to become advice or education – unless, through action, we make the noise sing.
Luckily, these events are more than a noisy exchange, and focus on building a community of like-minded people who can provide knowledge to each other throughout the year. Time will tell whether this spirit and commitment will evolve into family, culture, or even for some, religion. I won’t hold my breath for impact-driven genetics.