Speaking at Web 2.0 Expo in 2008 Clay Shirky made the point that one of the big problems we face today isn't information overload, as the millions of articles written on the subject in recent times suggest, but filter failure. How content providers attract attention and how consumers manage the avalanche information is always going to be a challenge in this age of abundance.
Listen to the above clip. Quite dull I guess. What can we say about it? Well, it was clearly recorded near a road. There are cars and mopeds passing. There's the faint sound of voices in the background. And there is the sound of sweeping. That's about it. Pretty unremarkable.
I captured this sound, like one would a photograph, whilst traveling in Indonesia. Something compelled me to record it. It's one of many sounds to go with the photos and videos of events that caught my attention on the trip. All quite normal I guess, but noticing the normal has been happening a lot recently. It's something I've been thinking about since I played Papasangre sat under a bridge in Austin whilst waiting for the bats to come out and do their evening turn. I had half an hour to kill so I put on my headphones and played the game. If you don't know Papasangre is a video game with no video. You navigate this crazy frightening world using nothing but sound to direct you. It's brilliant. Download it.
It got me thinking about my ears and how I take them for granted. On the way back to my hotel I decided to pay less attention to my journey though my eyes and more attention with my ears by looking down at the pavement as I walked. The city became a new place, alive with events I might not have noticed had I been scanning the scenery for visual stimulation. Normal sounds became interesting, exciting and occasionally dramatic. Sirens, loud voices, screeching tyres all soundtracked the imaginary movie script building in my brain. It's amazing what catches the attention when you apply a little bit of deprivation. I experienced massive filtering of the content with slight adjusting the receptors. Perhaps being a fan of radio has primed me for painting pictures with the mind.
When you travel simple things you might normally ignore become interesting too. All senses are on alert for sounds, sights and smells that might not get a second of attention at home: voices at a bus stop, the smell of a local market, an exchange between a shop keeper and a customer, the way street signs are written - that's why there are more than 100,000 photos of fire hydrants on Flickr.
There are angels in the architecture of our surrounds which are lost to bombardment of familiarity that our attention seems to naturally gravitate to. When everything becomes unfamiliar the interesting stories become more noticeable as our attention seeks to make sense of this swarm of new information. You observe more, question everything and seek to make connections between the new bits of information. This is the opposite to what I talk about above. It's a way of adding focus by removing all filters.
Let me tell you more about the sound recording. It was captured in a cafe in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. I was having a cup of tea and making use of the cafe's free wifi when the intermittent sound of sweeping caught my attention. Across the street a young lady was waiting for breaks in traffic so that she could go out into the road and sweep away the remains of this morning's spiritual offerings in preparation to lay more - an act that would be repeated many times throughout the day.
Hinduism is the dominant religion in Bali and as part of their daily routine the women must lay offerings, plaited palm baskets filled with coloured petals and rice, around their houses and throughout the streets. Sometimes the offerings would contain a biscuit or a sweet. I wonder whether it is the Gods or the demons that have the sweet tooth. A huge amount of the day is taken up plaiting the containers and preparing the offering, an act that all girls learn from their parents and grandparents at an early age. The offerings are a way of thanking their God for the richness of their lives, whist at the same time making bargains with demons, which they believe house themselves in all physical objects (occasionally you would see offerings on sat on the seat of a bicycle or on a bin).
She swept away the last of the remaining pink, blue and red petals, removed the basket which held them, and cleared the road for more to be laid in a ritual that was so elegant, tranquil and beautiful to observe that it almost made the chaos of the traffic vanish. What might normally be an annoying sound became something quite beautiful. With the added knowledge of why she was sweeping the road the familiar sound of bristles scraping concrete became attention worthy. You didn't have to see the ritual, just hear the sound.
I don't really have a point other than the solution to the problem maybe to either fix the filter as Clay suggests or give out even more information. I might be wrong but I think we take photos of fire hydrants when we visit America because it makes us think of Starsky and Hutch. Without the extra knowledge of the Hindu offerings my audio is quite dull. With it the sound of the sweeping became worthy of my attention and is recorded as a permanent reminder of the thousands of offerings laid by amazing people in the beautiful country of Bali.