Art, Politics, and Ideas: A Report from the Edge

Calgary

In each Spur city, we will select a Canadian from the local community who is under 35 and interested in public policy, journalism or serious non-fiction writing. The Public Fellow attends all the Spur festival events in his or her city, and takes the pulse of Canadians on the topics being pursued, by engaging the speakers and audiences (in-person, online and through social media) on the ideas they bring to the festival. Below is an examination of the themes of the 2014 Spur festival, seen through the eyes of our Calgary Public Fellow. 

Over a seemingly bottomless cup of coffee at Calgary’s River Café on a snowy late-April morning, Eric Friesen explained the cultural role of the poet (with a nod to a quotation from Yo-yo Ma) as ‘going to the edge of culture and reporting back to the rest of us.’ In some way, that’s what I have been tasked with here in providing a kind of abstract summary of my impressions of the diversity of events on offer at Calgary’s inaugural Spur festival.

The focus of this year’s events was ‘Signal versus Noise’, and each of the sessions were guided by the notion of how to best separate that which is important/meaningful/salient in the domains of politics, art, and ideas at large, from the seemingly ever increasing cacophony of unimportant ‘noise’ generated as an unintended consequence of humanity’s raucous search for ‘signal’.

Rather than summarizing or commenting on each event directly, I’ll comment on three specific themes that emerged for me over the course of the weekend, each adding a degree of clarity to the increasingly blurry distinction between signal and noise in the modern landscape of ideas. In retrospect, each of these characteristic themes may appear commonsense, however speaking directly to the stated goals of the Spur festival, keeping these three themes in mind might just help us to “filter the din around us and focus on the trends and patterns that will reveal what is truly at issue.”

The first emergent theme was the inexorable individuality of signal. What is signal for one person or group may be (and likely is) mere noise to another. This was clearest perhaps during the panel discussion regarding the arts scene in Calgary. Dr. Terry Rock highlighted the fact that despite the tireless creative efforts and dedication of artists in the city, Calgary boasts the highest discrepancy between average income, and average income of artists—a clear discrepancy between perceived signal priorities amongst groups within the city. Similarly, the discussion of Alberta’s political landscape yielded many instances of competing political interests which could readily be conceptualized as the reciprocal perception of noise from the politicking signals of other parties.

The lesson for me here was that the signal versus noise distinction is itself a non-starter. At the very least we need to be thinking about distinguishing signals from noises, with the proviso that each of an ostensibly unlimited number of interested parties may perceive the distinction quite differently. This phenomenon, in aggregate, is likely the cause of Sturgeon’s Law alluded to by writer Clive Thompson in his discussion of technological change: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” In finding our ten percent, we would do well to remember that others need not, and likely do not, share that same ten percent.

Importantly, a key insight from the work of author Terry Fallis is that contrasting notions of signal versus noise need not exclusively lead to a kind of zero-sum communication in which conversation across signal-divergent individuals or groups is impossible. Indeed, in his fictional writings Mr. Fallis has focused on humor as a “trenchant device for real change” in Canadian politics. Through humor, he finds he is able to reach an audience, and more importantly, persuade that audience to the view that the current political system needs changing—something he believes would have been impossible through a non-fictional diatribe about the failings of the current system.

The second emergent theme was the inherent goal-dependence of signal. Building on the idea that what counts as signal varies between individuals and groups, differentiating signal from noise must also depend on the specific goals of the individual or group. This idea was perhaps clearest in Daniel Brook’s presentation on the history of future cities. Through acute observation of culturally and chronologically discordant architecture, he made the case that certain “precociously modern” cities (St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay, and Dubai) have been “dress rehearsals for the 21st century” in the sense that they were planned with the goal of modernity in mind. Architecture in this sense is a proxy, a metaphor, a physical incarnation of the aspirations of their political designers. For these cities, the top-down goal of precocious modernity was sufficient in manipulating what counts as signal to the extent that it literally shaped their physical manifestation over the course of their development. To drive the point home, when asked about Calgary and its future in this context, Brook remarked that great cities are marked by great ambition—a feature which Calgary shares with the abovementioned cities. He added “These were not great cities except for that someone decided they would be.” It’s difficult to make a stronger case for the salience of goals in deciphering signal.

Similarly, the goal-dependence of signal was on parade during the panel discussion on political branding. Upon direct questioning from moderator Charles Adler, political strategist Hamish Marshall defended the use of negative advertising (i.e. attack ads) in politics, much to the chagrin of the audience in attendance. His point was that despite the public’s distain for such attacks, these messages help to ‘create contrast’ between candidates, and thereby add value to the system. If Hamish sees utility and signal in political negativity where the audience perceives only nuisance and noise, it is at least partly because they have explicitly different goals.

The final emergent theme that arose for me during the Spur Festival events was the chronological dynamism of signal. That is, due to the ever-changing nature of the ideas people generate, the groups people create, and the goals they set in response, any perceived stability in signal over time is purely illusory. Author Diane Francis made this abundantly clear in her discussion of borders, geopolitics, and the myriad forces on the horizon that threaten to disrupt and undermine the current power structures in modern society. She described technological advancements in energy production, health care, robotics, 3D printing, and virtual reality (among others) as the solvent that would dissolve current traditional methods of consumption, national governance, and international politics.

Similarly, the discussion between writer Clive Thompson and Dr. Isabel Pedersen highlighted the fact that new technologies and media are often filled with the content of older, more familiar media. Early radio broadcasts featured people reading books; early television often involved the reading of radio scripts; and even the much newer Google glass concept has struggled to do more than simply hold a smartphone to your face. Stated plainly, that which is signal today may be noise tomorrow, and vice versa. As if to paraphrase this sentiment directly, Daniel Brook observed in relation to anachronistic architecture that “the derivative of today, becomes the legitimate of tomorrow.”

I want to end with a guiding metaphor concerning how we as a society might practically and psychologically deal with the changing reality of art, politics, and ideas in the face of the themes highlighted by the Spur festival. In the response to the question ‘How is the internet changing the way you think?” science historian George Dyson proposed that the flood of information unleashed by the digital age has precipitated a new way of gathering information and making meaning of it (signal!). He noted that we used to build delicate argumentative structures from valuable hard-won scraps of information we collected (think Dewey decimal system, encyclopedias in print), analogous to assembling a skeletal kayak from precious gathered sticks. In contrast, today we are faced with the opposite problem—a glut of information (think Wikipedia, Google, Big Data) that simply bankrupt previous methods of information organization and management. Following the metaphor, we now need to learn to make dugout canoes, discarding rather than hoarding information to reveal the practical value within the masses of available data. I leave you with his advice: “I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.”


Cameron M. Clark is a PhD candidate in the clinical psychology program at the University of Calgary. In addition to the empirical investigations Cameron has undertaken for his master’s and PhD work, he has also published literature reviews and opinion pieces on a variety of topics in clinical psychology, including: a review of psychosocial treatments for schizophrenia, the importance of therapist-client relationships, diversity issues in psychotherapy, political and ethical issues in professional psychology, psychological contributions of nature versus nurture to human development, as well as critical analyses of current issues in the field.

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