Signal and Meaning

On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

In the long run, every signal dies. Paper rots, genes mutate, forests burn, files corrupt. Error correcting codes help, but they aren’t enough. Perfect preservation of effort is not the way of the universe. Human languages evolve and break down meaning.

Will my personal journal be lost in an accident following the poisson distribution within my lifetime? Will my grandchildren care enough to translate my life’s work to the technology of the day before it is unreadable? There is a difference between preservation and the ability to understand, as Robert Scoble points out.

Software is a signal. It stops when the cost of maintaining it exceeds the value derived. Strangely, software has a longer signal than usually envisioned.

Some signals stay stronger longer. I know more about Plato than I do about most of the people on my street. Millions of people have come before me that I will never know anything about, billions living right now that I will never hear about. Does this imply a mediocre life? People are still riveted by JFK. Elvis lives. Surely there is a high signal strength for them. Much replication, remarkable, revelatory about the human condition. But most people will not be remembered outside of their family tree.

Spawning children spreads gene and life information with some lossiness.

Linus Torvalds said “Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it.” In the long run, though, all signals are lossy.

Before a signal starts, I imagine it looks like this:

From nothing comes something, if only briefly. Most signals looks something like this:

A typical blog has a few posts, topical, uninteresting, no replication. The typical newsletter has a few editions and then fades to nothing. The signal returns to zero quickly.

Some signals, however, look more like this, and they are rather exceptional:

Over the span of the universe, though, all signals that we can comprehend look like this:

The strength and length of any signal is too small to stand out from the nothingness and noise. It’s on that line somewhere, but too short to be meaningful.

My thoughts on what to do about this:

Spread signals. Great ideas will replicate faster, great works will be preserved longer.

Start signals. The best measure of effectiveness is how long that signal lasts. Writing, music, software, companies, groups, buildings. Life is inherently a signal, something finite, an exception to entropy. One’s life might be definable by the signals started, the external manifestation of internal capacities.

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