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Are we settling for a life in low fidelity?

A while back I was bemoaning the dumbing down of media with my good friend Skinny and I think we eventually concluded that it was simply the scourge of new media and everything would come right again soon enough as technology and delivery inevitably caught up to previous standards in response to consumer demand. But I now fear we were wrong, and that in fact this devolution is starting to affect other areas of my life. So this set me to thinking... Are we settling for a life in low fidelity?

The basic contention started with visual media and music, two things dear to both our hearts (as anyone who knows either of us could certainly attest!), but when I started thinking about other areas of my life where the principle applied I found I had quite a list:

1. Visual Media - The internet introduced us all to a world experienced in 72 dpi at 56k, not the 300dpi or more that print design veterans like Skinny and I knew and loved. Accessibility in many ways of course outweighted the loss of fidelity, but it's been a long decade getting broadband to the average Kiwi home to really realise and enjoy the experience of richer media. Whilst I don't want to open up the broadband debate here, I feel reasonably comfortable apportioning no uncertain amount of blame on Aunty Theresa at this point and hoping we are finally out of the woods on that issue. I mean, there's no point in crowing about our recent accomplishments in Silverlight and its brave new world beyond Flash if no one can access them! And I guess I can't blame low consumer expectation when for most there has been no choice.

2. Photography - The advent of digital photography at a consumer level must surely have been the greatest boom the photographic hardware industry has ever seen. Not only has it seemingly put a camera in the hands of absolutely everyone in the western world, it has enabled the unprecedented portability of visual image recording devices, particularly with the proliferation of in-phone cameras. The impact on citizen publishing has been undeniable, but the quality of said imagery certainly has not. Unfortunately neither does sticking a camera in everyone's hand necessarily mean they have any clue how to compose an image, but this I guess is an issue beyond the scope of this rant... The one thing I would ask though, if you haven't upgraded that first generation 1.3 megapixel digicam that cost you a bomb, do yourself a favour and toss it (or at least give to your four year old nephew to chew on). Without getting silly and stumping up for a 20 megapixel SLR, seven megapixels plus is totally affordable in something the size of a postage stamp. You won't regret it when you return to those images in another decade and want to reminisce about how lean you were, your full head of hair or your stellar fashion sense.

3. Monitors - As a designer I enjoy the luxury of using some extremely well spec'd PC kit at Intergen every day and maintain a similar investment in my home office. Why is it though, unless you pay an arm AND a leg for a high resolution MAC LCD, a Trinitron CRT is still a more accurate image? The Viewsonic 22" HD widescreens (Viewsonic manufacture the MAC LCDs too) we use at Intergen Interactive are a great piece of kit, BUT, run side by side with one of our aging 20" CRT Trinitrons, the loss of fidelity in both colour accuracy and vignette rendering is marked. Manufacturers are constantly promising more/better on the immediate horizon (with a price tag to match), but it amazes me what the average person will happily devolve to for the sake of recovering a few square centimetres of desk space. Oh, and don't even start me on domestic LCD flat screens...

4. Music - I should preface this category by forewarning that I do still have a turntable at home in regular use. I was one of those people who were a bit sceptical at the reduction in sonic fidelity from vinyl to compact disc. I also accept I am a bit of a HiFi geek and the rest of you probably never noticed what you'd lost. However, the loss of fidelity from CD to MP3 is just a whole other thing. Don't get me wrong, MP3 (and other formats) certainly has its place in terms of portability and when you're in an environment like a car, for example, it does a fantastic job. But, the one time I would really like a high fidelity delivery is with headphones on, and that's certainly not what you get (even recorded at a higher bit rate) from your pod or pod clone. And now I have friends running their entire domestic music collection from media centres, but all in LowFi, and through perfectly good HiFi capable stereo or theatre systems. What's with that? At what point did putting a CD in a player become that onerous a task? Are we really getting so convenience oriented that the quality of what we're listening to doesn't matter any more? And yes, I'd had a surf round and read up on loss-less compression (the technical explanation requires an understanding of physics I don't possess!) but have yet to hear a first hand demonstration on some good audiophile kit to pass judgement. It promises great things though, and I certainly hope this will result an accessible and affordable media.

5. Sports Utility Vehicles - I'd managed to resolutely avoid the painful devolution of my motoring convenience to the dreaded "SUV", until this year. Sadly a change in role for my beloved also came with a change in company car, or in this case the black SUV chosen by the previous incumbent in the role (complete with black tint windows, no less). Everything I'd ever feared about this pointless but incredibly popular form of transport has transpired to be true. It has the aerodynamics of a small brick building and the gas bill to match. The load-carrying volume is no better than a station wagon. Its winding road manners are almost as good as the 1971 Holden Kingswood I learnt to drive in.  Given that only 2% of SUV drivers ever take their vehicle beyond the terrain of the supermarket car park, why on earth don't they just buy a station wagon?

Obviously I could go on, and depending on one's interpretation of fidelity, this could be quite a far-reaching list. So why does it matter to me, and why do I think it should matter to you? My concern is that the future is now, and it's not what it was cracked up to be (Sjef has the shirt to prove it). In fact, in the instances listed above it's frequently been worse. Yes we have the ability to create and share media in ways that were inconceivable even ten years ago, but at what cost? Are we really listening to music or just hearing noise? Are we creating digital visual records of our lives for future generations or content with 15 seconds of disposable YouTube fame? Does it matter that the image on your LCD monitor is an "adequate" representation of the source image? In the greatest era of technical and communication evolution in history, we do deserve more.

Are you settling for a life in low fidelity? Toss the old digicam, trade in the SUV and crack out some vinyl. You'll thank me for it, really!

Posted by: Eamon O'Rourke | 15 October 2007

Tags: Silverlight, Accessibility, Visual Media

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