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High Fidelity in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In his 1979 essay “The Studio as Compositional Tool“, Brian Eno works through the set of technical innovations that resulted in the odd occurrence of person who didn’t play any musical instrument particularly well, didn’t read or write music, nonetheless ending up as a composer. Eno lacked all the traditional tools of the trade. It was only when sound was mediated through recording that it became a plastic material that could be manipulated into song-like structures.

Here’s Eno on the transition from transmission to translation:

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

When we talk about a “more faithful” recording, the word “fidelity” enters the conversation. Fidelity is the quality of being loyal or faithful. Originally, it had the sense of taking an oath, as in swearing fealty to a monarch. Fidelity also has the sense of honoring oaths with regard to a spouse. A high-fidelity recording transports the original performance transparently—it is as though you are there. Poor fidelity dishonors the performance by leaving pieces of it behind or adding in artifacts that weren’t a part of the original. If we are a lover of a particular piece of music, we might charge a bad recording with infidelity.

In Eno’s recording studio, sounds become plastic. It’s only when a sound has been transformed into something that can itself be transformed that it becomes useful for constructing music. And this is the point where the sound no longer has fidelity to its source. The sound is only interesting to the extent of its potential infidelity. Transferring sound into a transformable recording media used to require a professional technical process. With digital recording, sound is directly sampled and encoded into a plastic media.

“I’d rather talk about the Plastic Eno Band, actually. It’s been in existence for a couple of years now. Over the past six years I’ve accumulated over 14 plastic musical instruments with a very wide gamut of sounds. And I’ve found that by slowing them down or speeding them up on tape, I can imitate any electric sound. With this in mind, I want to make a straight-forward rock record and then appear on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with a bunch of liggers playing these things. It would be an experiment in concrete music really as well as being an encouragement to all these kids who can’t afford their Vox amplifiers. There are so many things I want to do that will lose me so much money. . .”

As all media are slowly replaced with their digital equivalents, this shaky relationship with fidelity is true of more than just sound. Think about the camera and photography. How do we capture a scene with a camera? We see a moment we’d like to commemorate and we take aim with our camera. The flash from the camera floods the scene with enough light to get a good exposure. Here the process of recording essentially alters the source in the pursuit of fidelity. A skilled photographer may be able to light a scene for the camera such that when it’s processed, the photograph resembles the scene as it might have unfolded had no photograph been taken.

In the iPhone, the camera itself becomes a computerized photo studio and a compositional tool, in Eno’s sense. The photo itself is just the digital material that can be transformed with a set of filters. We don’t expect the snapshot to capture the mood; like the professional, we’ll fix it in post-production. We quickly apply a set of filters that more appropriately capture the mood of the scene and then flick the digital file into the stream of Twitter or Instagram. Is it the infidelity of the digital that enables another sort of fidelity? Or are we simply projecting the kind of scene we’d like others to imagine us playing a role within.

When we consider the picture being constructed of us through the data exhaust we emit in our online activities and our encounters with electronic and surveillance systems—does it make sense to talk about the fidelity, the truth, of the picture? Is the picture any more true because it’s constructed of largely unconscious digital moments? Is the ‘candid’ photo taken through a telephoto lens by a paparazzi of a movie star in their everyday life more true than the ‘glamour’ photograph constructed to create an image? When you apply for a job, do you present the candid or the glamour resume? How about applying for a loan at the bank, do you walk in the door with your candid or glamour finances?

In digital recording we have the production medium that is most open to transformation. In digital presentation, we have the consumption medium most open to transformation, both before we receive it, and after. Anyone with some form of computer has their own digital post-production facility. The blemishes can be removed, the wrong notes fixed and even the focal point of the image can be selected later.

If we were to imagine a medium that could somehow vouch for the fidelity of that which it recorded, it would be the opposite of the digital. This medium would capture the mark of the real and from that point forward it would be unalterable. In a strange way, in that moment, the mark would become more real than the real. The real itself would fade and change with time, but the mark would always have the vibrancy of the moment the impression was captured. In essence, this is the problem with using database models to stand in for real processes.

There was a time when to call something ‘artificial’ was to confer the highest compliment. The ‘real’ was a low form of existence that lacked the trappings of civilization. It was something that hadn’t been ‘fixed’ in post-production. The digital era has enabled new levels of artifice. The ‘real’ and the ‘natural’ may have to make way for the artificial. To ease the transition, the real and the natural will be the first things we need to simulate. As the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux once said:

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Terra Nullius: Blindness and the Network

In 1795, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published an essay called “Perpetual Peace.” Kant sketches the outlines of what it might require for humans to live together on earth in peace. It’s well worth reading, but there was a particular section that caught my attention. This has to do with the unruled, the uninhabitable, the inhospitable and what Kant calls ‘lands without owners’ (terra nullius). How should we interact in the lands at the edge our world? Lands that appear to the eyes looking from the outside in, and the inside out, to be terra nova.

Here’s Kant:

Uninhabitable parts of the earth–the sea and the deserts–divide this community of all men, but the ship and the camel (the desert ship) enable them to approach each other across these unruled regions and to establish communication by using the common right to the face of the earth, which belongs to human beings generally. The inhospitality of the inhabitants of coasts (for instance, of the Barbary Coast) in robbing ships in neighboring seas or enslaving stranded travelers, or the inhospitality of the inhabitants of the deserts (for instance, the Bedouin Arabs) who view contact with nomadic tribes as conferring the right to plunder them, is thus opposed to natural law, even though it extends the right of hospitality, i.e., the privilege of foreign arrivals, no further than to conditions of the possibility of seeking to communicate with the prior inhabitants. In this way distant parts of the world can come into peaceable relations with each other, and these are finally publicly established by law. Thus the human race can gradually be brought closer and closer to a constitution establishing world citizenship.

But to this perfection compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing. In East India (Hindustan), under the pretense of establishing economic undertakings, they brought in foreign soldiers and used them to oppress the natives, excited widespread wars among the various states, spread famine, rebellion, perfidy, and the whole litany of evils which afflict mankind.

In particular what’s interesting is this idea of a blank slate, a new world, a chance to start over again from scratch. America is, of course, the embodiment of this idea. To see a blank slate or a new world requires certain kind of blindness. It’s a kind of negative seeing that projects a space that might allow freedom, an escape, from the world in which one is always already enmeshed. It’s a kind of seeing that moves from the inside out.

When we were able to say that “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”, we were projecting a kind of blank slate. The Network appears to us as terra nullius, a land without owners. It’s a place where we can get a fresh start, a level playing field, a place where the incumbents don’t dominate.

When we see by projection, it’s as though we’ve entered a bright room out of the darkness. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust. But once they do, we start to see that our new world is someone else’s old world. What we perceived as a blank slate is really a palimpsest.

As our eyes begin to adjust to the lighting of the Network, what writing is becoming visible? What’s the old world of this new world we believe we’ve created?

Searching for The Atom of Meaning

If we begin by looking for the atom of meaning, we tend toward looking at the word. After all, when there’s something we don’t understand, we isolate the word causing the problem and look it up in the dictionary. If we look a little further, we see the dictionary is filled with a sampling of phrases that expand on and provide context for the word. The meaning is located in the phrases, not in the isolated word. We might look at the dictionary as a book filled with phrases that can be located using words. The atom of meaning turns out to be a molecule.

When we put a single word into a search engine, it can only reply with the context that most people bring to that word. Alternately, if we supply a phrase to the search engine, we’ve given the machine much more to work with. We’ve supplied facets to the search keyword. In 2001, the average number of keywords in a search query was 2.5. Recently, the number has approached 4 words per query. The phrase provides a better return than the word.

As amazing as search engine results can sometimes be, the major search engines seemed to have achieved a level of parity based on implementation of the citation algorithm on a large corpus of data. In a blind taste test of search engines, all branding removed, the top few pages of results tend to look pretty similar. But when you add brand back on to the carbonated and flavored sugar water, people display very strong preferences. While we may think search results can be infinitely improved within the current methodology, it seems we may have come up against a limit. At this point, it’s the brand that convinces us there’s an unlimited frontier ahead of us–even when there’s not. And one can hardly call improved methods for filtering out spam a frontier.

If, like Google, you’ve set a goal of providing answers before the user even asks a question, you can’t get there using legacy methods. Here, we’re presented with a fork in the road. In one direction lies the Semantic web, with its “ontologies” that claim to provide canonical meanings for these words and phrases. Of course, in order to be universal, semantics and “ontologies” must be available to everyone. They haven’t been constructed to provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace. In the other direction we find the real-time stream and online identity systems of social media. Google seems to have placed a bet on the second approach. Fresh ingredients are required to whip up this new dish: at least one additional domain of data, preferably a real-time stream; and an online identity system to tie them together. Correlation of correlation data from multiple pools threaded through a Network identity—that gives you an approach that starts to transform an answer appropriate for someone like you, to an answer appropriate only for you.

When speaking about additional data domains, we should make it clear there are two kinds: the private and the public. In searching for a new corpus of data, Google could simply read your G-mail and the content of your Google docs, correlate them through your identity and then use that information to improve your search results. In fact, when you loaded the search query page, it could be pre-populated with information related to your recent correspondence and work product. They could even make the claim that since it’s only a robot reading the private domain data, this technique should be allowed. After all, The robot is programmed to not to tell the humans what it knows.

Using private data invites a kind of complexity that resides outside the realm of algorithms. The correlation algorithm detects no difference between private and public data, but people are very sensitive to the distinction. As Google has learned, flipping a bit to turn private data into public data has real consequences in the lives of the people who (systems that) generated the data. Thus we see the launch of Google+, the public real-time social stream that Google needs to to move their search product to the next level.

You could look at Google+ as a stand-alone competitor to Facebook and Twitter in the social media space, but that would be looking at things backwards. Google is looking to enhance and protect their primary revenue stream. To do that they need another public data pool to coordinate with their search index. Google’s general product set is starting to focus on this kind of cross data pool correlation. The closure of Google Labs is an additional signal of the narrowing of product efforts to support the primary revenue-producing line of business.

You might ask why Google couldn’t simply partner with another company to get access to an additional pool of data? Google sells targeted advertising space within a search results stream. Basically, that puts them in the same business as Facebook and Twitter. But in addition, Google doesn’t partner well with other firms. On the one hand, they’re too big and on the other, they prefer to do things their way. They’ve created Google versions of all the hardware and software they might need to use. Google has its own mail, document processing, browser, maps, operating systems, laptops, tablets and handsets.

Using this frame to analyze the competitive field you can see how Google has brazenly attacked their competitors at the top of the technology world. By moving in on the primary revenue streams of Apple and Microsoft, they indicated that they’ve built a barrier to entry with search that cannot be breached. Google didn’t think their primary revenue stream could be counter-attacked. That is, until they realized that the quality of search results had stopped improving by noticeable increments. And as the transition from stationary to mobile computing accelerated, the kind of search results they’ve been peddling are becoming less relevant. Failure to launch a successful social network isn’t really an option for Google.

Both Apple and Microsoft have experienced humbling events in their corporate history. They’ve learned they don’t need to be dominant on every frequency. This has allowed both companies find partners with complementary business models to create things they couldn’t do on their own. For the iPhone, Apple partnered with AT&T; and for the forthcoming version 5 devices they’ve created a partnership with Twitter. Microsoft has an investment in, and partnership with, Facebook. It seems clear that Bing will be combined with Facebook’s social graph and real-time status stream to move their search product to the next level. The Skype integration into Facebook is another example of partnership. It’s also likely that rather than trying to replicate Facebook’s social platform in the Enterprise space, Microsoft will simply partner with Facebook to bring a version of their platform inside the firewall.

In his recent talk at the Paley Center for Media, Roger McNamee declared social media over as avenue for new venture investing. He notes that there are fewer than 8 to 10 players that matter, and going forward there will be consolidation rather than expansion. In his opinion, social media isn’t an industry, but potentially, it’s a feature of almost everything. In his view, it’s time to move on to greener pastures.

When the social media music stopped, Apple and Microsoft found partners. Google has had to create a partner from scratch. This is a key moment for Google. Oddly, the company that has lead the charge for the Open Web is the only player going it alone.

Mind The Gap: You Are As You Are Eaten

As happens so often these days, it was a phrase that passed by quickly in the stream of messages, but somehow stuck in the mind. Most of the messages flow by leaving the lightest impression. Other fragments have sharp and jagged edges and they tend to get caught on the walls of thought. They stay there forming an irritant until you can get your hands on them and disentangle them from the mesh. This time, it was a short broadcast from Doc Searls that went like this:

“The time has come to choose your species. If you’re just what you own, you’re veal.”

These phrases linked to longer developments of the idea in the posts: “Let’s All Be Spotted Hawks” and “A Sense Of Bewronging.” In the spotted hawks post, Searls contrasts a video in which people are defined by what they own and the way Walt Whitman defined and talked about himself in his long poem “Song of Myself.” The key bits being Whitman’s expression of the infinite Kantian interior:

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.”

I’m not defined by what I own, the inside of me is as big as all of the big, mysterious outdoors. The other post addressed the issue of who can process big data and why that matters when you’re the one emitting the data exhaust. What does it mean when you can no longer read your own tea leaves, but require the mediation services of fortune teller with access to real-time sense making algorithms that operate across multiple big data archives? How can we possibly make an unaided decision? Without computer-based augmentation, our puny human decision is bound to be suboptimal. When we take a close look at our desires, do we see a desire for a machine that knows our desires better than we do? Here’s Searls’s take:

“Sorry, but no. My Web is not their Web. I’m tired of being shown. I’m tired of “experiences” that are “delivered to me. I’m tired of bad guesswork—or any guesswork. I don’t want “scarily accurate” guesses about me and what I might want.

What I crave is independence, and better ways of engaging—ones that are mine and not just theirs. Ones that work across multiple services in consistent ways. Ones that let me change my data with all these services at once, if I want to.

I want liberation from the commercial Web’s two-decade old design flaws. I don’t care how much a company uses first person possessive pronouns on my behalf. They are not me, they do not know me, and I do not want them pretending to be me, or shoving their tentacles into my pockets, or what their robots think is my brain. Enough, already.”

It was the word “veal” that supplied the jagged edge to Searls’s message. In a sense, “veal” is the right answer to a slightly different but related question. If we start with “You are what you own” and move backwards in time, past Walt Whitman. We could end up with “You are what you consume” or as it was more commonly stated “You are what you eat.”

Inevitably, these days, this brought Timothy Morton into the conversation. Specifically his essay “Beautiful Soul Syndrome.” Big data and technology is being applied to a Romantic era conception of the consumer:

Now this mention of plate glass is not accidental, because plate glass is a physical byproduct of a quintessentially Romantic production, the production of the consumerist. No the consumer, but the consumerist, that is, someone who is aware that she or he is a consumer, someone for whom the object of consumption defines their identity, along the lines of that great Romantic phrase, invented once by the gourmand Brillat-Saverin and once again by Feurerbach, “You are what you eat.” Now this phrase implies that the subject is caught in a dialectic of desire with an object with which it is never fully identical, just as Wile E. Coyote never catches up with Roadrunner in the cartoon. If Wile E. Coyote ever did catch Roadrunner, he would eat Roadrunner, at which point Roadrunner would cease to be Roadrunner and would become Wile E. Coyote. There is in effect, then a radical ontological separation between subject and object. And yet and at the same time, consumerism implies a performative identity that can be collapsed into its object, so we can talk of vegetarians, hip hop fans, opium eaters, and so on.

The plate-glass shop window of the Romantic era is transformed in the contemporary commercial Web into the idea of three screens and a cloud. The shop window is now the small screen in your pocket and is called mobile e-commerce. Searls’s use of the word “Veal” implies that when we buy into the value of computerized personalization based on algorithmic interpretations of our data exhaust, we’re abandoning the expansive Whitman-esque view of the self and instead chowing down on the self as a calf constrained in the industrial process of producing veal. The word “veal” is meant to provoke a reaction of disgust. It ties a form of mechanized cruelty to a sanitary, abstracted computerized process.

Again, here’s Timothy Morton on consumerism:

Romantic consumerism can go one step higher than the Kantian aesthetic purposelessness of window-shopping, when it decided to refrain from consumerism as such. This is the attitude of the boycotter, who emerges as a type in the proto-feminism of the Bluestocking circle in the 1780s and 1790s, and which Percy and Mary Shelley, and many others, continued. The specific product boycotted was sugar, which was sentimentally described as the crystallized blood of slaves. By describing it thus, the boycotter turned the object of pleasure into an object of disgust. In order to have good taste you have to know how to feel appropriate disgust, how to turn your nose up at something. So the zero degree performance of taste would be spitting something disgusting out, or vomiting. So the height of good taste performativity is abstaining from sugar, and spice if your are one of the Shelleys, who held correctly that spice was a product of colonialism. (Their vegetarianism was thus not only anti-cruelty, but also anti-flavor.)

Oddly, there seems to be a direct correlation between the quest for sugar and spices to give flavor to our food and the quest to squeeze the flavorful bits and patterns out of the big data emitted by crowds of internet users. But instead of real spices, we have synthetic spices. It’s like the relationship between laughter and the laugh track added to television comedy. The algorithms that have been constituted as our selves try out all the possible permutations in advance and deliver a small selection set for us to consume. The jokes are provably funny, the laughter pre-laughed and all that’s left for us to do is click “ok.”

Morton might call this the automation of consumerism-ism:

In brief, Romantic consumerism is window-shopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincy are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincy figured out that you didn’t need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life.

Searls’s complaint about the “guess work” of these personalization systems points to the gap between a computer simulation of a consumer who wonders what it would be like to consume this item or that, and the person who wonders. And at the point where the personalizations become “scarily accurate”? we enter the uncanny valley. Who are we when an algorithm consistently makes choices that are more typical of what we might do than we do?

It comes down to whether one thinks that the gap between canned laughter and laughter can be closed, whether the uncanny valley can be crossed and that it’s the promised land that we’ll find on the other side. Or as we loop back to replay the tunes of the Romantics with cloud-based algorithms, will we find ourselves lodged within the thought experiments of Mary Shelley. Her novel “Frankenstein” gives us a different and disturbing glimpse of what may lie on the other side of the uncanny valley.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!–Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.

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