Preserving information entropy

[SPOILER ALERT: I excerpt an article which discusses the season 3 finale of Downton Abbey, so if you haven't watched that episode yet and don't want it spoiled, close this tab and be gone with ye.]

Vulture summarizes a bunch of reasons why Downton Abbey will probably not air at the same time in the U.S. as it does in the U.K. A lot of those are very sensible ones, but the one which I take issue with is the first one:

Spoilerphobes may have been mad, but they still watched.
Back in December, the Internet flooded with tears after online headlines spoiled Matthew’s demise. But it’s impossible to quantify the actual percentage of Downton viewers who had the story ruined for them, and Hoppe says the fan feedback hasn’t been that bad. What’s more, viewers don’t appear to have abandoned the show as a result. “There is a little bit of negative buzz around the spoilers, but it’s pretty minimal from what we’re hearing,” Hoppe says, pointing to the ratings, which are ginormous. PBS says the third season of Downton is averaging more than 11 million viewers per episode (when you factor in the premiere plus seven days of DVR viewing). That’s 420 percent above the public broadcaster’s average prime-time rating and double the average viewership of the show’s second season. By far, it is the most-watched program in PBS history. “That kind of success is hard to argue with,” she says. It’s also worth noting that Sybil’s episode-five death didn’t become headline news in the U.S. the way Matthew’s did, proving that some secrets make it to the U.S. intact.

I heard this used as justification for airing last year's Summer Olympics on tape delay, too: the ratings were great, and people tuned in to watch primetime events even when everyone knew who had won the 100 meter dash, or whether Phelps had won a particular event.

Aaron Cohen wrote a post when he was guest blogger at Kottke last summer citing a research paper that said tests showed that subjects preferred movies and books that were spoiled for them, even in genres like mysteries where a surprise ending would seem to be most important.

I am intrigued by contrarian ideas as much as anyone, but I can't buy into this line of thinking. It's not just because it may be confusing correlation and causation, but that's definitely a big part of it. If you take the findings of that paper to the logical extreme, we should actively start telling people the endings to movies and books just to drive more sales. Why stop there, why not just tape delay all sporting contests and then release the results before the events are actually televised?

I remember the moment when I actually first saw the ending of The Sixth Sense in a theater, without any knowledge of what was coming. That moment when I realized what had happened and my entire brain nearly exploded the neurons were firing so hot. Then I imagine someone telling me ahead of time about how that movie ends, and then what I would have felt watching the movie (that's essentially how I felt watching most of the events at the Summer Olympics on TV last year since everything was spoiled for me ahead of time).

If it's something great, I'll still enjoy a spoiled experience. However, I love an unexpected surprise. I loved when my sisters flew to Seattle and surprised me for my 30th birthday. I loved the time my manager said pack my snowboard for work so we could slip away for an afternoon ski trip in Seattle and then it turned out we were actually flying to Sundance for the weekend. I loved the ending of The Others (the rest was good, too). I loved that moment in Infernal Affair I when the elevator doors opened and...well, I won't ruin it for you. 

Genuine surprise is a pleasure the modern world is robbing us of bit by bit. We live in an instantly connected world where information flows more easily than at any time in history, and increasingly our only foolproof defense against spoilage is to lead a monk-like existence of solitude from all other humans and devices. I understand that giant media entities like NBC and PBS are unlikely to shift the TV schedules for the other side of the world, but let's not pretend it's not suboptimal.

In one of my favorite books of 2012, The Most Human Human, Brian Christian argues convincingly that information entropy is of huge value to the experience of being human. 

[information entropy can be quantified. If I tell you to guess a random eight letter word, you'll have a very low chance of being right, but if I present you with the first seven letters and ask you to guess the eighth, for example Faceboo_, your chances of guessing that eighth letter are quantifiably higher.]

Here's one relevant passage from the book:

Information, defined intuitively and informally, might be something like 'uncertainty's antidote.' This turns out also to be the formal definition—the amount of information comes from the amount by which something reduces uncertainty...The higher the [information] entropy, the more information there is. It turns out to be a value capable of measuring a startling array of things—from the flip of a coin to a telephone call, to a Joyce novel, to a first date, to last words, to a Turing test...Entropy suggests that we gain the most insight on a question when we take it to the friend, colleague, or mentor of whose reaction and response we're least certain. And it suggests, perhaps, reversing the equation, that if we want to gain the most insight into a person, we should ask the question of qhose answer we're least certain... Pleasantries are low entropy, biased so far that they stop being an earnest inquiry and become ritual. Ritual has its virtues, of course, and I don't quibble with them in the slightest. But if we really want to start fathoming someone, we need to get them speaking in sentences we can't finish.

This is all a long way of saying that if someone out there wants to organize some secret Game for me without tipping me off, that would likely be the greatest thing ever.