When dealing with machines and instruments, particularly the ones that are supposed to measure something, the signal-to-noise ratio is a useful metric to gauge the level of useful signals gathered compared to useless and distracting noise. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that our national system, our democracy or even our national discourse is a working system, the ratio of signal to noise has been declining steadily for a while. Lately, it has reached absurdly low levels. I understand and appreciate the limitations of my fundamental assumption, that our democracy or our national discourse is a working system, but for the sake of argument and optimism, let us assume that it is a system; working or not, we can argue about that some other time.

My concern lies in both the source of the noise — and there is an awful lot of it — and our perpetual focus on it. Those who come from far off lands and then refuse to leave the planewhen it does land, continue to increase the noise to unbearable levels. But the bigger problem lies in those of us, perhaps most of us, who focus on that noise. When was the last time we thought about focusing on the useful information, the real signals — of our growth, development and progress? I often wonder what is the real goal of the hypothetical revolution, or the march to the promised land? The rhetoric and the mind-numbing noise is providing us with little information on policy to tackle the greatest challenges of our nation. How does another threat of national boycott change any of our stubborn problems of development? How does that enable us to focus on any real signal of prosperity, peace and security?
If the readers feel that somehow my frustration is with those who are not in power, I would hate to disappoint those on the other side. The actions of the government are hardly a source of comfort. First, the government has played a central, and to many, a puzzling role in amplifying this noise that is coming from previously unknown quarters. If the noise was loud previously, thanks to the government, it is deafening now. Second, just as the signal-to-noise ratio is a useful metric, keeping perspective of false positives is equally enlightening. The national reserves propped up by foreign loans, hyperbole about innovation when the percentage of Pakistani patents is nothing to be proud of, a national crisis in quality control of life saving commodities and embarrassing maternal and child health indicators, should not be a reason for anyone to celebrate any success. Discovery based on false positives is neither real nor worthy of praise.
Let me come back to my signal-to-noise ratio analogy. I believe that feeble as it may be, there is a signal. It is a faint signal, pointing us to our real challenges. It needs to be amplified and the noise around it needs to be decreased for us to hear it. The signal is pointing to some promising sectors in our society — championed by those who do care — and also pointing us to all the barriers we ourselves are creating for our progress. The real problem, however, is not the fact that the signal is faint; it is the fact that we are choosing to ignore it. The real problem lies in our choices and our will. Instead of listening to the signal or trying to look for a signal, not only do we focus exclusively on the noise, we are also doing our best to amplify it.
Its our choice, after all, to focus either on the signal or the noise, but let’s not forget that the performance of a working system, at the end, is judged by quality of the signal, not by the intensity of the noise.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2014.