Digital Perfectionism?

In stark contrast to my last blog on AI and digital humans, I’ve just been reading Damon Krukowski‘s book, “The New Analog – Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World”, published in 2017. It’s an essential text for anyone interested in the impact of sound compression, noise filtering, loudness and streaming on the music industry (and much more besides).

The are two main theses the author explores:

1. The paradoxical corollary to Moore’s Law on the rate of increase in computing power is Murphy’s Moore’s Law: that in striving for improved performance and perfectionism in all things digital, equally we risk amplifying the limitations inherent in analog technology. in short, the more something improves, the more it must also get worse. (See also my previous blogs on the problem of digital decay, and the beauty of decay music.)

2. In the realm of digital music and other platforms (especially social media), stripping out the noise (to leave only the signal) results in an impoverished listening, cultural and social experience; flatter sound, less dynamics, narrower tonal variation, limited nuance, an absence of context. In the case of streaming music, we lose the physical connection with the original artwork, accompanying sleeve notes, creative credits and even the original year of publication.

Thinking about #1 above, imagine this principle applied to #AI: would the pursuit of “digital perfectionism” mean we lose a large part of what makes analogue homo sapiens more “human”? Would we end up compressing/removing “noise” such as doubt, uncertainty, curiosity, irony, idiosyncrasies, cognitive diversity, quirkiness, humour etc.?

As for #2, like the author, I’m not a total Luddite when it comes to digital music, but I totally understand his frustration (philosophical, phonic and financial) when discussing the way CDs exploit “loudness” (in the technical sense), how .mp3 files compress more data into less space (resulting in a deterioration in overall quality), and the way streaming platforms have eroded artists’ traditional commercial return on their creativity.

The book also discusses the role of social media platforms in extracting value from the content that users contribute, reducing it to homogenised data lakes, selling it to the highest bidder, and compressing all our personal observations, relationships and original ideas (the things that make us nuanced human beings) into a sterilsed drip-feed of “curated” content.

In the narrative on music production, and how “loudness” took hold in the mid-1990s, Krukowski takes specific aim at the dreaded sub-woofer. These speakers now pervade every concert, home entertainment system, desk-top computer and car stereo. They even bring a distorted physical presence into our listening experience:

“Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio…. When everything is louder than everything else, sounds lose context and thus meaning – even the meaning of loud.”

The main issue I have with digital music is that we as listeners have very little control over how we hear it – apart from adjusting the volume. So again, any nuance or variation has been ironed out, right to the point of consumption – we can’t even adjust the stereo balance. I recall that my boom box in the 1980s had separate volume controls for each speaker, and a built-in graphic equalizer. To paraphrase Joy Division, “We’ve Lost Control”.

Next week: I CAN live without my radio…

Analog games – interactive, real-time, educational, creative

At various times this blog has featured articles on analog technology, and the importance of making time for play. My theme this week returns to these topics – and quite appropriately as the holiday season and gift-giving are upon us.

As part of the run-up to the holidays, last week my wife and I were at a local restaurant to meet with friends who were visiting from overseas. Among the party were four children, all aged under 10. Now, I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the situation – friends who haven’t seen each other for a while want to catch up and enjoy some good conversation over a relaxing dinner, and more often than not, the digital pacifier (smart phone, tablet, portable DVD player or games console) will be brought out to keep the children occupied.

Well, I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised that our four younger diners were fully engaged in each other’s company for nearly four hours – and not a screen in sight. Instead, they happily played together with the following toys and games:

  • A board game of Ludo
  • Some LEGO mini-figures
  • A box of alphabet flash cards

They even managed to invent their own game using the flash cards.

I’m not saying that younger children shouldn’t be playing with apps or video games – but screen time has to be used constructively, not as a default setting. I’m also aware that many apps and games can be educational and interactive. But I don’t think we place enough value on enabling and encouraging children to play games in real-time, with real friends, using toys that they can easily understand and control.

On a related note, another friend recently bought his wife a record player, so they could rediscover their vinyl music collection. Their young daughter, on seeing and hearing the gramophone in action asked, “How does the sound come out of those round things?”

How often do children display the same curiosity about how mp3’s or YouTube work?

On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a safe and peaceful festive season. In particular, I would like to thank all my regular readers who have each given me feedback on what they like about this blog, especially those who have been generous enough to either comment on or critique specific content.