Science Technology

Information Theory

Imagine you are standing, waiting for the T. Off the side of the tunnel you see that glimmer of not the T’s headlight, but rather the glimmer of the reflection of the T’s headlight as it snakes its way through the labyrinth on underground tunnels. The T dashes into view, and it would be surprising if only the sound wasn’t defening. A few seconds later the train comes to a screechy halt and the doors open. You and your neighbors quickly, yet respectfully, shuffle aboard to take a seat or, if your luck so dictates, a spot to stand either by a door or in the middle section where the kids always play. Although the T is anything but swift, you have resolved yourself to a double digit commute time. There is no way around it, but if all goes according to plan, from this point forward you will be home in X minutes.

Five full minutes later you have not progressed an inch. The car is getting warm and humid with expectant breaths. Each person around you is starting to get anxious, thinking about the groceries they still need to get, the walk they still must complete, or the person they will be meeting. The tension grows (and much faster than the delay, I might add). Then the intercom clicks on, “This train is on standby. We ¬†will procedure shortly.” But shortly is not soon enough, especially when you have no clue what standby really means. Why are we on standby? Just to make us angry? While you know that can’t be the reason, that’s how it appears…

This is the sort of situation where a lack of information far exceeds expectations. In some cases a lack of information is only a minor side effect of some greater inconvenience; but on something like the T, the primary source of frustration is not really the delay, five minutes is five minutes, it wont kill us. Rather, the worst part is not knowing why. It is the unknown that eats away at us: since instead of having us wait around to ‘fix the scheduling down the line’ or for ‘maintenance’ or a number of other reasonable purposes, we are left waiting purposeless. We are left waiting ‘because they feel like makes us wait’.

Although I hope none of us actually believe that the latter is the reason, it nevertheless becomes an aspect to out unconscious relation to the situation. No matter how much we hope and expect that the delay is for a ‘good reason’, the simple fact remains that we do not know. The lack in information itself leads us to frustration, anxiety, and confusion; all of which manifest themselves as anger towards the T.

Now my thesis is far more general than a particular situation on the T, but I think it highlights the concept quite well. Far too often PR suffers, or reputations take a hit, for the simple reason that the necessary information is unavailable to those who need it. Few things are nearly as insidious upon a persons mood than being subjected to seemingly arbitrariness and ineptitude. I hope you all will take this into consideration the next time you are waiting for a T on standby or putting the T on standby.

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