Find the Signal in the Noise

In our media saturated world, it can be nigh impossible to find the signal in the noise.  That is to say, we have access to so much content all the time that it’s tough to find the music, movies, books, and games that truly speak to us, that really matter to our lives, that greatly influence and stimulate our thinking.  Realistically, there is so much content that we’ll never be able to consume all of it in our lifetime.

I am constantly reminded of this.  Every time I turn on Netflix or Amazon Video or Hulu, I am paralyzed by the number of choices available to me.  Every time I turn on my iPod or fire up Amazon Music, I can rarely decide on what songs to listen to.  Every time I browse through my book shelves, I feel overwhelmed by the number of pages  on display for me to read.

Avalanche

Just the other day I watched a friend playing a Mega Man game on his Xbox One.  We laughed at his repeated deaths.  I remarked how hard old school Nintendo games were and thus how they might not be as good as we remember through our rose colored glasses.  Another friend stated emphatically that he still thought the game was good on its own.  But it’s impossible, I pointed out, to remove the nostalgia factor from our perception of these old games.  If we gave these same games to a child today, it’s more likely the child would not love it as much as we did (or still do).  The biggest reason for that is the simple fact that we all owned far fewer games when we were young.  We also owned fewer movies and books and less music.  But it’s precisely because we had so few items that we appreciated each one so much.

As the old adage says: less really is more.

If you realise that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
– Verse 33 from the Tao Te Ching

This first world problem has been exponentially exacerbated in the past several years by the rise of ubiquitous streaming technology.  Netflix provides an almost incomprehensible number of movies and TV shows.  Spotify supplies its listeners with the power to listen to basically any song they can think of.  And if you can’t stream it instantly, you can order it at a discount and free shipping to your door within two days, or even an hour or two if you live in the right metropolitan area.

But when you own too much, you really own nothing.

The more you own, the more you feel compelled to consume it all.  It’s not enough to read the book in your hands because you’ve got a stack of unread books a mile high.  You have to binge watch that television series to make time to binge watch the next one.  You have to constantly shuffle your music playlist to keep up with all the songs you haven’t listened to.

We’re all so consumed with what’s next that we often forget to focus on what’s now.  And God forbid we actually revisit something.  When was the last time you reread a book?  Or rewatched a movie?  Or listened to the same album on repeat for a week?  As a kid, I used to watch Star Wars or Back to the Future every single weekend (which I’m sure drove my mom batty).  I wore out the few cassette tapes I owned.  I raced the eight courses in Rad Racer 2 until I could drive them with my eyes closed.

Nowadays my kids demand the same bed time story every night for weeks on end.  We listen to the same CD every car trip.  And we play the same silly games every day.  It can be wearing for an adult to keep going over the same material so often.  But I don’t begrudge my children their repetitious behavior.  It’s what I remember doing as a child.  And it shows how invested they are in the content they’re absorbing.  Instead of groaning at watching the same Bugs Bunny cartoon for the fifth time in a row, I marvel at how enthralled my son still is on that viewing, and I wish I could be that excited about anything on the first time nowadays.

When I was younger… a limited number of games to play meant replaying the same ones over and over.  Discovering all the nooks and crannies was a tangible reward, while improving my performance on the same sections offered self satisfaction and helped developed a willingness and drive to push through repeated failures until I achieved my goal (even if that included loads of controller throwing along the way).  Dealing with frustration in real life is a bit simpler when you’ve died a million deaths on the same damn platform in Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania (curse you, Medusa heads!).

When I was younger… a limited number of cassette tapes and CDs meant knowing every song on every album.  Actually going into a physical store to browse the racks for a new purchase was exciting.  Finding an elusive album as you flipped through the discs was a small thrill that can’t be replicated by typing it into a search engine and seeing it pulled up instantaneously.  Music was much more of a shared experience.  Nowadays most people listen to music on headphones, and are constantly discovering new songs.  A couple decades ago, most fans of a genre listened to the same albums.  For people of my demographic, you can pretty much assume they are familiar with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a number of other alternative rock bands.  For metalheads, it would be hard to find one who didn’t listen to Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (or Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden if you did your homework or raided your older brothers’ album collection).  Nowadays, I don’t even recognize half the names of artists on the radio.

When I was younger… a limited of books meant truly absorbing knowledge and slowing down to appreciate the writing.  I could even take time to reread my favorites. With sites like Goodreads, my list of books to read is almost as long as my list of books I’ve read.  Discovering new books used to mean browsing a book store or library and taking a chance that a new book would be interesting.  Nowadays, I can browse through hundreds of books, follow an unending chain of recommendations, and read summaries and reviews for every one, all while simply pushing a button to add them all to my pile.

I fully admit most of this sounds like Clint Eastwood telling those young punks to “get off my lawn” in Gran Torino.  And if you don’t have this issue with too much content then it likely sounds awfully silly to you.  But I bet there’s something in your life that is excessive and drags you down with its psychic weight.  Maybe you don’t own too much music but you buy too many shoes.  Maybe you don’t want to read so many books but you constantly upgrade your phone or other gadgets.  Maybe you don’t own an abundance of video games but you feel compelled to own a house bigger than anyone else you know.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
– Verse 9 from Tao Te Ching

You can read books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff.  You can follow sites like Mr. Money Mustache or The Minimalists.  You don’t have to rid yourself of all possessions and live like a Stoic.  But by focusing on the things that “spark joy” instead of insatiably consuming everything in your path, you can find a deeper meaning in your life that is refined by the things you own.

You will own the things rather the things owning you.

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Travis Hudson
Chief Editorial Officer at Rampant Discourse
Software developer by day. Member of the literati by night. Full time father of one son and one daughter. Music enthusiast. Comic book defender. Cultural deconstructionist. Aspirant philosopher. Zen but not Zen.

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