Vol. 6, Issue 1, March 18, 2008
Government Scientists Create World's Smallest News Item
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced yesterday that they have succeeded in producing the world's smallest news item, containing no more than 1 nano-iota (10-9) of information. What is more, the scientists managed to do so without referencing Britney Spears.
"Many researchers have pursued entertainment stories as a means of reducing the quantifiable information content in a news article," said team leader Hartwell Bigham, senior news analyst. "While this does permit fairly manageable content in the milli- and micro-iota range, they tend to run up against the irreducible problem of celebrity name recognition." In other words, in order for any entertainment story to exist, it must be anchored by at least one celebrity name, which by definition carries sufficient information to enable name recognition.
"Our story has no recognizable names at all," noted Bigham proudly. "The key was sticking with second- and third- tier Treasury department officials. Also, we only used 15 letters of the alphabet."
The hunt for stories containing the minimum amount of content possible has been fueled in recent years by what analysts call "information overload" - a phenomenon resulting from excessive availability of facts via an unprecedented number of venues.
"Requiring readers to understand an increasingly wide range of political, social, economic, or scientific contexts in order to make sense of a news story is an unwarranted burden," said Bigham. "People find it very taxing to think so hard, and frankly you know how popular taxes are."
To date, most field research in information reduction has been carried out by industry leader CNN, which routinely manages to produce stories which achieve the milli-iota range. However, it is difficult for even the most seasoned news teams to maintain consistently low levels of information. In general, the more stories a news outlet needs to produce, the more difficult it is to maintain acceptably low levels of information.
"It's a catch-22 situation," noted Bigham. "Previously, if you maintained absolute consistency in the level of information at the milli-iota level or lower, you ran the risk of viewers perceiving repetition among the stories. Most news outlets have little incentive to maintain such levels of information in their coverage, and toss in random facts to boost story differentiation - you know, a budget number here, the name of some African country there - it's a pretty haphazard approach. Our approach is more quantifiable and should allow much more consistently low levels of information, without resorting to the common approach of focusing on entertainment related items."
A key part of the Livermore team's approach is the sophisticated use of 'anti-facts' to counterbalance the inevitable use of proper names and events. Anti-facts are a naturally occurring phenomenon in the wild, which have been produced under controlled conditions in several research facilities since 1990. Murdoch's News Corporation pioneered the production of these elusive semiological particles. Indiscriminate use tends to foster production of factual wavelengths, rendering them indistinguishable from actual facts and raising the level of perceived information in a given news article.
The Livermore research was funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
"Did you really not guess that already?" said Bigham.