Tuesday, March 18, 2008
After years on the internet, my WTF? receptor is overtaxed. ("WTF?" means literally "What the Fuck?", commonly used to express confusion or surprise) As the internet grew in size (i.e. information content), so too did its assaults on my sense of order in the world. Who can forget their feeling of WTF? at seeing their first goatse? (If you haven't seen it, don't click there. Once seen, things can't be unseen! Also don't click on tubgirl, at the end. Remember I warned you.)
Via reddit, I read a blog post titled "Philosophy is like an Erection (… the more you think about it the harder it gets)". It started out ok with "In ancient Greece (469-399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom...", and thought I was reading commentary on an actual historic happening. Most of the way through it, a minor WTF? detector was going off about something in the margin. A reddit comment summed it up well, "What does a rather mild joke about Socrates have to do with a Thai girl in a sailor suit and an animated gif of 'Super Hot Asian Teens'?" The internet makes me ask questions like this daily.
Our sense of WTF? has always been there, but we just didn't absorb as much information  in the pre-internet era. Here is a WTF? from 1980, as presented in "The Shining":
That scene always creeped me out. When I read the book I remembered the scene from the movie, and was again creeped out. If I were walking around a big scary deserted hotel by myself, turned a corner and came across this, the WTF? alarm bells in my head would be deafening. I'd probably execute a speedy 180 and run.
I think a sense of WTF? is selectively adaptive. It seems to always be a juxtaposition of the known with a detail or details that do not fit into our understanding and expectations. I argue that an early hominid noticing that there were strangers in the woods with weapons, thinking that strange and acting on it (rather than ignoring it) would tend to live longer.
A feeling of WTF? is an activation of your knowledge that something is happening in your environment that you don't understand, and may need to immediately act on - like "fight or flight". I think "wtf?" for me has reached status of emotion. It's like the first time I ever saw tubgirl - it feels kind of like being sad.
Burton MacKenZie www.burtonmackenzie.com
 It will be interesting to find some sort of quantitative maximum (per individual) on rate of ability to absorb information. As we get to understand the nature of net traffic in finer and finer grained details, we will likely find an average information processing and absorption rate for each person. (And I suspect a Bell Curve, as well) Information transmission and absorption on the net is merely a much more complex equivalent of using a telegraph key to send and receive morse code. With the telegraph, humans themselves acted as a codec for sending/receiving data, and people exhibited different individual transmission rates and other characteristics. From wikipedia on Telegraph Keys, "The alternating action produces a distinctive rhythm or swing which noticeably affects the operator's transmission style (known as their 'fist')." Each one of us likely has a quantitatively distinctive style of interacting with the internet. For instance, I can type faster than the letters appear on my screen. Sometimes I take a break every sentence, just to let the screen catch up. That is a quantitative measure of my information transfer rate.