Friday, July 22, 2016

How could one tell the signal from the noise?

From The Invention of News: How The World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree.
Not all news concerned events of such momentous or immediate relevance. Even before the publication of the first weekly newspapers in the seventeenth century, enormous quantities of news were available for those prepared to pay for it, or even just to follow the talk in the market square. To Defoe this abundance was a great miracle of modern society. To others it was deeply troubling. From this great mass of swirling information how could one extract what was truly significant? How could one tell the signal from the noise?

Those who followed the news had to devise their own methods of making their way through the mass of rumor, exaggeration and breathlessly shared confidences to construct a reasonable version of the truth. First they tended to exclude the purely personal and parochial. Our ancestors certainly delighted in the tales of the ambitions, schemes and misfortunes of their families, neighbors and friends: who was to marry whom, which merchants and tradesmen faced ruin, whose reputation had been compromised by a liaison with a servant or apprentice. When in 1561 a citizen of Memmlingen in southern Germany rather unwisely decided to get to the bottom of who had spread a rumor that his daughter had fled town to conceal an unwanted pregnancy, fifty citizens could offer precise recollections of how they first heard this delicious gossip. But however eagerly consumed and passed on, this sort of scuttlebutt was not generally what people thought of as news. When men and women asked friends, business partners or neighbors, ‘What news?’, they meant news of great events: of developments at court, wars, battles, pestilence or the fall of the great. This was the news that they shared in correspondence and conversation, and this was the news that fueled the first commercial market in current affairs.
The issue of over abundance of raw data and a dearth of verified data is clearly of long standing, even back when there simply wasn't all that much data in the first place.

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