In Tor Nørretranders book, The User Illusion, he coins the term exformation, which represents information that is explicitly discarded when a message is transferred from one place to another. When I think of discarded information, I think about mp3 audio, a format which intentionally deletes data at many places including highest and lowest frequencies. You probably don't hear the difference, but with that data removed the file size is smaller, which means more space on your device.
You and I don't compress music. We compress thought. Our ideas are purest when they are in our heads, where they exist as a combination of experience, knowledge, feeling, and emotion. But as we try to express that thought, we cannot transfer experience, or knowledge, or emotion. All we have are words. And words are a blunt tool.
As I am writing these posts, the topics are meaningful to me and the drafts in my head are detailed and rich. But then I have to condense these concepts into consonants, vowels, and punctuation, which become taps on a keyboard, then finally, patterns of light and dark pixels.
You see these pixels and reconstruct the idea in your own head, and if I am lucky, you clothe it with your knowledge and experience and come up with a thought that is similar to mine. That's the only purpose of language, after all… to communicate. And English, with all of it's faults (like how the word dough has more silent letters than audible ones), has such a rich vocabulary that it can be incredibly expressive when used to its capacity.
But despite how expressive a language is, we continue to intentionally strip out information when talking to each other. Young people are like exformation hackers in they way they text. What does it mean when she says "ok" without a period at the end? What about "OK" or "mmm k" or just "k"
You see that single character and you attach all sorts of meaning and emotion to it. You play out several scenarios in your heads and jump to conclusions. And she KNOWS that you do that. In games like these, exformation is just as important as information, and ambiguity is an asset. Go ahead and take that letter "k" and fill it with all sorts of unintended meaning. It's just another technique she can use to discover what you are thinking when both parties are guarding their feelings.
Exformation can be perfectly transmitted when two parties have common interests and shared experiences. Like the look of reassurance from a friend or the long silence that follows when you share a difficult piece of news with your spouse. Much can be said without saying anything at all. Those who have been married for a while are familiar with this language.
But despite our best attempts to communicate with each other we are ultimately alone in our thoughts. We reach out desperately through the few bridges we have: language, touch, music, art, facial expressions, status updates, or sequential animated GIF. We seek for understanding and empathy but so much is lost in transmission. We can never really know how somebody else feels, nor can we accurately judge their intentions.
So we may be alone, but at least we can understand why. And if Tor Nørretranders could get this concept out of his head and over to Ze Frank, who remixed it and gave it to me, who tried in these words to give it to you, then maybe we can get enough information across to not feel so alone after all.
In a previous post, I talked about the history books and the consequences of missing meta-data from the historical record. I want to return to one point:
"If you look at the historical record, you'll see a general trend: The further we look back in time, the less we know. We can blame much of this on decay. We live in a dynamic world with forces of erosion, destructive organic processes, and tectonic activity. Nothing lasts forever."
In many ways, this "nothing lasts forever" idea is changing.
We live in a different world than our ancestors did… one that has changed significantly because of the digital revolution. One of these changes is that the content we produce in a digital format is persistent. It lives on and on without degradation or decay*.
This is part of an incredible progression. Two hundred years ago, a song was a particularly special thing because there was no way to preserve it. That changed. With each new recording technology that came along, music could be saved and stored… but there was always a shelf life. Vinyl records were fragile in some ways and cassette tapes would age and lose fidelity. But now, if your music is stored on Apple's iCloud, you can listen to it forever, without any decrease in quality. In fact, in this format, it could actually increase in quality. There are similar gains in the transition to digital video and images. The end of decay means incredible opportunities for preserving memories and information for years to come.
But there are other consequences. Earlier I said that details in history were often "intentionally omitted from the records because they weren't notable, or significant, or graceful." But now, with the amount of data we're storing online, those details actually ARE being preserved. In no other example is this more apparent than in Facebook.
I got a Facebook account in 2005, back when it was "The Facebook." I don't know what an average Facebook user looks like but let's assume that I'm pretty close. With other **reasonable assumptions, in the year 2050 anybody on the planet would be able to hop on their computer and see me bragging about my Fudgesickle + Milk = Chocolate Milk realization during my Freshman year of college. Setting the privacy ramifications aside, the fact that we are preserving such detailed information on such a large scale is unprecedented in the history of the world. Throw in Twitter, Google+, and the blogosphere, and we've got an incredible glut of non-decaying data containing relationship drama, family feuds, vaguebooking, trolling, dudes commenting on their workout routines, and photos of cats. Every day, this dataset gets larger and easier to search through.
This results in some unintended consequences. What happens when we introduce a never-changing object into a dynamic world of growing, learning, birth and death?
When our words are preserved in such a way that they don't decay, it always feels like they were said yesterday. Any passerby can read the information, fail to notice the timestamp (if there even is one), and believe that you still feel that way, when you don't. Think of the hard feelings from the civil rights movement or the bombing of Japan in WWII. In this life, the passing of time dulls pain and brings forgiveness. But when the stinging words are perfectly preserved--etched into digital stone, as fresh as if they were said yesterday--how can healing happen then? I'm not sure.
What's more, it's entirely possible that these bits of information will outlive us. Perhaps they will even define us. Perhaps two hundred years from now, when the last person who knew you dies, all that will remain of your existence will be the digital footprints you left. Do you want your legacy to be your fiery comments on the Huffington post, or your zealous devotion to ensuring that this pickle gets more 'likes' than Justin Beiber?
I didn't think so.
* Well... theoretically. There are still a few caveats.
** We would have to assume that I'm not using of Facebook's opt-in content restriction features and that Facebook is still around 40 years from now.
When I lived in South Africa, I was immersed in a culture very much unlike the one I grew up in. I knew I wouldn't be there forever, so each time I went to the grocery store, I made it a point to pick up something I had never tried before. Because of this, I got to try Ostrich, Koeksisters, Samosas, Maltabella, Astros, Weet-bix, Litchi... even Chicken Feet. To me, it was just one small way I could intentionally step outside my comfort zone.
A few months ago, (now in Washington DC) I was sitting in a restaurant and while looking down the menu I saw an item labeled "Charred Octopus." My first thought was "why would someone order 'charred' anything?" But after that, I thought about my time in South Africa… and then I ordered the octopus.
Trying new food, when you get the opportunity, is a trivial thing, but the principle behind it is important to me. In the few short years that I'm on this earth, I want to drink deeply from the well of life. I want to understand this world I'm living in and where I fit in and how I can make it a better place. It's in pursuit of this understanding that I find myself trying new things for the sake of trying new things. It's about embracing change in life. Breaking out of routines. Keeping yourself on your toes. In this way, my life is more interesting, my conversations are more rich, and I become less resistant to change.
Next time you think about calling the same people, watching the same television show, taking the same route to work, eating the same breakfast… just don't.
Order the octopus instead.