Wednesday, August 05, 2009

On the Use and Abuse of Random

> How random are you?

Rowntrees recently released some sweets in the UK called 'Randoms' - part of the ad campaign runs: 'what makes them so unique is that contain four different textures, six fruit flavours and 258 different shape and colour combinations. With shapes as diverse as a monkey, cupcake, acorn, shuttlecock, palm tree and even a pair of y-fronts! This really is variety like never before'.

There seems to be the beginnings of a trend within manufacturing to drawn on the influence of generative systems to produce variety. Recently, faber and faber commissioned some book designs that
are unique for every copy: 'Faber Finds generative book covers'

Of course, I hope this trend continues.

However, what I really want to write about here is a recent linguistic development in the UK. I first noticed it amongst my students but you now hear it in advertising, on radio, even the BBC news: namely the use of random as an adjective. Previously, there have been legitimate occasions for this: you often hear something like 'I made a random decision' - although the alternative 'I made a decision at random' sounds more elegant to me. What I am highlighting though are phrases such as 'a random man came up to me' or 'wow, that experience was completely random'.

You can have fun with the first example: I imagine a 'random man' as one whose clothes magically keep changing - now he's wearing a deerstalker with a red suit, now a bowler with speedos etc. What is meant used to be said as 'a man came up to me at random'. The meaning of the second example is quite hard to capture exactly but runs something like 'I had a strange/unexpected/disorientating experience.'

Part of me (the grumpy old man part) deplores this use of 'random' -but I'm mindful of the kind of discussions in Stephen Pinker's book 'The Language Instinct' so perhaps the language is changing and I have to learn to live with it. One aspect I can challenge though is, perhaps, a philosophical one: the assumption that the notion of randomness is straightforward.

Let me give some examples of how it is not.

The first one is close to home: in Parallel Music, as a form of short-hand, I describe it as drawing on computer random number generation to provide the indeterminacy. In actual fact, computers use pseudo-random number generation, as there will always be a slight numerical bias in the output. Also, within this system, the possibilities of different versions are very large but not infinite: given enough time, one could hear all the possible permutations of a piece of PMusic.

Secondly, to what extent is the phrase 'I chose a colour at random' actually true? Ever since discussions of the unconscious mind, we have become aware of the possibility of mental events beyond our control (or at least, recognition) influencing our behaviour. And nowadays we are increasingly aware of the importance of our genetic heritage as a contributing factor in our lives. Therefore can we ever truly make a random decision? Did the man really come up to you at random?

What I really don't like in much of the recent use of the word random is the implication of a certain passivity, a lack of responsibility: 'Oh the world's all random so you can't get involved; this random man blew up a bus; politics is all totally random' etc.

Well this random man is telling you: it's not as random as you think.

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