Filters, Part Two: sense ratios, and observations on 2 months without internet

(being part of an occasional series thinking aloud about our interactions with information and technology)

Marshall McLuhan came up with the idea of sense ratios. Essentially, every technology extends us in some direction, and reduces us in another; it gives and it takes away. (The wheel is an extension of the foot.) Thus each technology we interact with changes the ratio of our senses – it changes how we are in the world.

Here are some observations based on two months alone at the beach without TV or internet, which, for someone who has been pretty connected for longer than most, was pretty fascinating.

* I felt way more connected to myself at the beach. Whereas online I am scattered across the world, and through people’s lives; a thinning of the self. An example of sense ratios in the most basic sense – I was returned to my body and senses.

* I did not miss the internet. To be more precise, I occasionally missed practical things – the ability to find an answer to a question, and the “third arm effect” (the ability to do some things by remote which I have become accustomed to) – but in no sense did I miss any of the communication side of things – email, blogs or social media. Yet this is where the bulk of my time online goes – and apparently where the bulk of most people’s time goes.

Yet I did not feel any less connected to people; if anything, more so, as people were certainly in my thoughts. (This is also partly a reflection of psychological type.) And the brief times I was around people were sharper and more focused. There was no time for frippery, only content.

* I am happier being online less.

* The contact I get from people online is less fulfilling than the contact I get in person. I obviously feel a clear need for social interaction and contact, but social media for the most part does not supply it; it grants a poor facsimile, which mostly serves to frustrate by highlighting precisely that absence.

I want more from my people than a status update – I want real connection. But a flood of status updates gives the illusion of connection. And that is where it is damning. Like sucrose or aspartame, it tastes sweet but is no good for you. Or perhaps, a better analogy, like the empty calories in wine, which don’t give useful energy. We think we are getting our fix, but we aren’t. So we scavenge for more, and engage in further online behaviours which paradoxically take us further apart.


Back to McLuhan – tech gives and takes away. And it does give a lot. There are doubtless people I would have lost contact with altogether without the web. Things like Chat or Skype are a fantastic technological boon for communicating with those on the other side of the world.

It is kind of awesome, but yeah, we have not tweaked our delivery mechanisms… we need better filters. Filters are where we can massage the details of what tech gives and takes away. As a simple example, Facebook would gain a thousand times more functionality if there was an “Actually Important” flag you could tag an update with; because people do slip actually important information into the stream, but it is lost among the majority of stuff which is just chatter. (People would abuse such a flag, sure, but it is a self policing mechanism – everyone yell at them for being dicks and they will stop polluting the stream – or have a “not important” flag readers can use. In this way we can introduce feedback to train our information systems.)

There is a lot wrong with Facebook besides that, that is just an example of what I mean by filter – we have access to too much information, and need efficient ways to get the relevant information.

Which again begs the question, what information is relevant? Answering this is key to setting our filters – and this answer will be different for each of us.


So on the whole I am pretty sure I want to radically reduce internet time in general. Like, maybe check email twice a week, and leave it at that. Maybe trawl for news and information an hour a week – the once a week spin through the sunday mutants seemed functional. Because really, an hour here, an hour there, throughout the day, gives shockingingly poor returns. Used unconsciously, the internet is no better than television. Filters can take many forms – this is exercising a filter in time. By removing the time for anything but the important, the signal to noise ratio hopefully improves.

(But part of the power of communications tech is immediacy – some information is time sensitive. So ideally filters would be integrated into real-time – letting me know things that matter to me when I want to know them – which is getting closer to something like an AI monitoring my incoming data streams and filtering things for me. RSS feeds etc are a “dumb” form of this.)