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Category: media

Non-Human High Fidelity: I Want to Take you Higher


Resolved: it’s an article of faith that higher resolutions are better. I want to take you higher. The way to get a higher resolution is to start with the density of pixels or the sampling rate. Sound and vision. The more information packed into each unit of measure, the higher the resolution of the image. Clarity and “realistic-ness” are the qualities we attribute to high resolution images. The image was so clear, it was just like the real thing. I couldn’t tell the difference. Was that live or a recording?

McLuhan talked about hot and cool media. Hot media is high definition in the sense that the viewer can’t get a word in edgewise. The media, and its content, is projected toward the senses filling up all the space, there is little or no room for the viewer to fill in the gaps. The interpretive faculties are overwhelmed and retreat. Cool media leaves spaces for the viewer to project herself into the stream. When the viewer fills in the gaps a different kind of richness, or density, is created. Each strategy absorbs the viewer in a different way.

“Big Data” is another form of high definition. More data points, bigger sample sizes bring more statistical clarity. Meta-figures emerge from Big Data that aren’t available from the perspective of the civilian on the ground. These meta-figures provide probabilities of future outcomes and are reliable to such an extent that corporate strategies are based on them. In the light of high def big data your future possibility space has become both visible and has had probabilities assigned to each vector.

There are two uncanny moments when it comes to the experience of high def. The first is the well-known idea of the uncanny valley. That’s the creepy feeling we get when a simulation of a person is just a little off, just short of perfection. We are both attracted and repelled, the experience is close enough to the real that we’d could be easily sucked in. But we’re creeped out by the idea of being sucked into a simulation — in the sense that it isn’t alive and real, but an illusion of life created out of dead matter.

The second uncanny moment is more subtle. When Steve Jobs was standing on stage selling the benefits of high-definition retina screens, he made the argument that these new screens matched the capability of the human eye to perceive visual data. For humans, the retina screen is the finest viewing experience available. This also happens with audio recordings. When designing codecs and compression strategies, the science of the human ear and the process of hearing is taken into account. The idea behind MP3 compression is to remove the sound that is unhearable by humans resulting in a smaller file size. What you don’t hear, you won’t miss.

This means that as we move toward higher and higher resolutions we reach the end of the capabilities of our perceptual apparatus. Our senses begin to fail us. We keep adding visual information to the picture, but the picture doesn’t change. All the instruments agree that the resolution is getting better. The unaided eye and ear face the uncanny moment when invisible change begins to occur. The picture gets better and better, but for whom is it getting better?


It’s in the world of recorded audio that we see the most passion when it comes to the ability to hear beyond the capacity of humans to hear. Audiophiles purchase stereo equipment and special recordings that reproduce both hearable and unhearable sound. It’s an invisible material difference that’s measurable, yet imperceptible. This non-human form of high-fidelity recording technology no longer uses humans as a reference point. Audiophiles claim that humans can hear the difference and to settle for less is a moral failing in the commercial market for audio recordings.

On the road to higher definition visuals, the state of the art appears to be High Frame Rate 3-D. Peter Jackson released a version of his film of “The Hobbit” in the highest-definition visual recording technology yet created. The purpose of this technology is to get even closer to reality — to show how it really is with seeing. At 48 frames per second, HFR is well within the upper bound of 55 fps for human seeing. So at this point, there is no unseeable information in the image.


In comparisons between the HFR 3D and standard 2D versions of the film we get an object lesson in McLuhan’s hot and cool media. Many viewers coming to the film for the first time had trouble following the details of the story in HFR 3D. Peter Jackson, who knows the story on a frame-by-frame basis, prefers to watch the HFR 3D version. Jackson believes the HFR 3D version provides a more “immersive” experience. For an average audience member, the HFR 3D version leaves no gaps. For the director there are plenty of gaps between what’s on the screen and how he imagined the film.

As our technologies are able to provide higher and higher resolution reproductions to our senses our own finitude is exposed. Historically resolution has been limited by cost. Higher resolution cost more and therefore wasn’t widely used. As cost becomes less of an issue, aesthetic judgement moves to the foreground. If you make your home movies in HFR 3D will that preserve a record of how it really was? Is it live or is it Memorex?

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The Uncanny Valley of News


The digital, they say, has a cost that approaches zero. Once the digital copying mechanism becomes a sunk cost, the cost per copy asymptotically swoops toward zero. This does a strange thing to value and price. The ink-on-paper media has had to come to terms with the fact that the Network is a vastly less expensive surface on which to inscribe their messages. The digital, in its short history, has yet to find its own level. It’s largely been priced as a discount to its analog counterpart. The news media is starting to understand that its identity lies in the ink rather than the paper.


The digital media can only feed on the corpse of the analog media for so long. We seem to have finally arrived at the point where digital media is beginning to establish its value, and therefore its price. Paywalls are starting to work, some digital editions are starting generate significant advertising revenue, and independent blogs are able to survive by subscription. We pay, not for more, but for less. Fewer things, better quality.


The banks of the river of news have overflowed, the medium has overheated and begun a McLuhanesque reversal. No one wants ‘all the news’. At a certain level of quantity the news can no longer be consumed and processed, it just flows through at the level of headlines. Marshal McLuhan noticed that information overload forces the information consumer into mode of pattern recognition. We now try to employ machines to process the torrent and pick out the patterns for us. But now even this pattern recognition mode has overheated. This happens the moment we aren’t satisfied by knowing something ‘like’ the news, but have no familiarity with the actual news itself. We’ve arrived at the uncanny valley of news.


In the era of so-called ‘Big Data’ even your Network identity is a pattern. You aren’t you, you’re someone ‘like’ you. The formula breaks when the pattern no longer predicts the future. The non-conformist breaks into the conversation and says just doing what the pattern predicts is behaving like a machine—and that’s boring. Take a look at this instead…

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Bing And Time

Woody Allen once observed that “ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But in 1948, Bing Crosby convinced the ABC radio network that “showing up” wasn’t actually necessary. That was the year he launched the first pre-recorded weekly radio broadcast. The previous year he’d made the same request of NBC, but they’d refused. For NBC, by definition radio programming was live with the exception of a few commercials.

Radio and TV historian Steve Schoenherr decribes Crosby’s deal:

The new ABC network, formed out of the sale of the old NBC Blue network in 1943 to Edward Noble, the “Lifesaver King,” was willing to break the tradition. It would pay Crosby $30,000 per week to produce a recorded show every Wednesday sponsored by Philco. He would also get $40,000 from 400 independent stations for the rights to broadcast the 60-minute show that was sent to them every Monday on three 16-inch aluminum discs that played 10 minutes per side at 33-1/3 rpm.

Eventually Crosby buys the first two Ampex 200A tape recorders, serial #1 and #2, to record his show. This allows him to control microphone placement and do multiple takes to get the best performance possible. As a film actor, Crosby had been used to this kind of production process. After hearing the tape of Crosby’s demo, ABC ordered 12 of the Ampex recorders and that was the beginning of the end of the broadcast of live radio programming.

By not showing up and instead creating the first pre-recorded radio broadcast, Bing Crosby set the pattern for all modern “broadcast” media. (He also pioneered microphone technique for vocalists.) Perhaps it never occurred to anyone that the audience would one day assert the same privilege that Crosby did in 1948. We are all Bing Crosby now, and there’s very little that we need to actually show up for in the world of broadcast media.

Now there’s only sports and news programming enveloping the earth in a new real-time synchronization of time that knows neither day nor night. As Richard Nixon sings in John Adams’s opera Nixon in China: “News has a kind of mystery.”

The heads of programming at the Networks used to decide when a particular recording would be played over their syndicate of local stations. Now that power rests with the audience. What’s “new” is what’s new to you; and the quality of material in the vast library of pre-recorded media far outstrips whatever is being presented live in real time right now. Like Crosby, we the audience, don’t bother showing up for the broadcast. We’ll choose the time and place for the performance to occur.

Time present is the sequencing of the recordings of time past. Time future is what is yet to be recorded, an appointment for our DVRs. If all time is pre-recorded, all time is unredeemable. Nothing need be missed, there is no possibility of that. Everything is just a matter of priority in the great queue of items awaiting our future consumption.

When we mortals are presented with seemingly infinite banquets aimed at our appetites, the discussion quickly turns to the seven deadly sins; and in particular, gluttony. While we can now consume anything at anytime and practically any place— what is it that we should be consuming? What asserts control over our potentially infinite appetites? Is it the rational “I” who decides while basking in the luxury of its individual freedom? Does our access to the infinite buffet transform us into a mature adult who can keep, not only its ego, but its id in check? Or do we end up joining the rest of the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of the inferno?

And as we more fully become Bing Crosby, do we engage over our real-time social networks by playing pre-recorded snippets for the purpose of constructing an ideal projection of ourselves as the narrator of our lives? Walter Benjamin regrets our loss of the “aura” in a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Are these new networks we’ve constructed even capable of transmitting “aura” across their tangle of wires? And if they are, are we capable of telling the difference? Through the recording arts, Crosby was able to create a technically better performance. He accomplished this through deferring the moment of transmission. The message is worked and re-worked at a distance from the performance date. The medium itself has deferral and distance built into it. As an audience we now re-wire broadcasting to take advantage of these qualities.

What Crosby removes from the encounter is the element of chance, the possibility that something unexpected could happen. Crosby pre-rolls the dice and presents the best outcomes for your enjoyment. There’s a presupposition in this approach that enjoyment is increased when all error is absent and the moments of spontaneity are pre-auditioned and arrives with the appropriate imprimatur. What we miss is the moment when the wrong note suddenly becomes right. Herbie Hancock describes such a moment while playing with Miles Davis:

“And just as Miles was about to start his solo for ‘So What,’ at the peak of the concert, I hit a note that was so wrong I thought I had crumbled the show down like a falling tent,” he recalled.

“And Miles took a breath, and played some notes that made my note right. It took me years to understand that Miles didn’t judge what I played. He worked with it. That lesson wasn’t just about music. It was about life.”

Bing changed our relationship with time. And while it may seem like we’ll manage to avoid error and present a photoshopped version of ourselves to the world, we simply encode our errors at another level. The unexpected unexpected emerges despite the best laid plans.

Even a pre-recorded roll of the dice will never abolish chance

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TNK: It Is Not Dying

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There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:

“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”

The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarusafter a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.

The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.

In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.

With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.

With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.

Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.

In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.

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