Looking at the reports from CES show, it’s easy to see an irony in technology which is often ignored; it always alters the media that’s played on it. The idea is captured in Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “The medium is the message,” but the last 20 years have accelerated that concept beyond what anyone could have imagined would have been possible in the 1960s. The modern audience can has an almost infinite amount of variation that can be added or subtracted to any media experience depending on their equipment, settings, quality of the source, and even the room their watching it in. It’s the end of a process that started when the first purchaser of a gramophone cranked their player up to speed back at the turn of the previous century.
And not everyone is happy about it.
The cranky old man factor non-withstanding, David Lynch does have a point. But what he doesn’t address is exactly when do you “experience” the movie the way he’s talking about? Can you get it on a 20″ standard def television? Or a 40″ 1080p set? Is surround sound necessary, or is only the image that increases the genuineness of the movie going experience? You can put all the filet mignon you want into meat grinder, but what comes out the other end is still hamburger.
In a world with low quality compressed audio, and most video being watched in an area roughly the size of a postcard it seems like the modern audience doesn’t care much about quality playback. That’s nothing new of course. The need to get information out to a mass market has always driven down the quality of the “experience”. Even before the digital revolution most media consumers have been quite happy to watch the low quality image on the television, see movies on constantly degrading videotape, and listen to music on eight tracks and cassettes through tinny speakers in their car-stereos. When the “stereo” version of the VHS tape needed more space to hold the improved audio data, they just wrote it across the top of the video, degrading the image quality for the next decade.
While digital media allows for perfect copies of recordings, it’s entire history has been about low quality media. Record executives in the late 90s proclaimed that the mp3 format wouldn’t survive because they were too low fidelity to satisfy the fans, but that seemed to be a pretty basic misunderstanding of who the audience was, and what they really wanted. Instead pop music has been refocused on playing through smaller speakers and little white earbuds. Loud and compressed is the way that our media is delivered, and for the most part we seem to like it.
Another elements that changes with consumer distribution is the point in the playback chain where the quality degradation occurs. In previous generations it was always the media itself that held the highest quality. It was the job of the consumer to unlock the potential. Audiophiles were constantly upgrading their speakers, needles, players, and amplifiers to wring out that last bit of depth from their records. Solid granite record turntables would spin on cushions of compressed air, even while their sons and daughters were scratching up the exact same LPs on a cheap all in one plug and play machines.
In the digital world the manipulation and degradation of the data begins with the transformation of the original media to digital format. Instead of being handled by an engineer, the user simply “rips” their music to mp3. The highs and lows are simply chopped off, before the software gets down to the business of compressing the rest of the signal. Converting DVD video to DivX is a similarly brutal experience, as subtle colors and details are sacrificed to make sure that a two hour film can fit onto a single CD-Rom. Software doesn’t care about anything but getting the job done.
So now that anyone with a $300 PC can suddenly play producer we tend to end up in a race for the bottom. What matters is increasing the portability of the media by crushing it down to make sure that we’ll easily be able to play it back on the tiniest devices, and that it won’t take too long to download or take up too much space on the hard drive.
The media producers seem not to care as well. They’ve given up on the idea of educating the audience with any message besides “copy bad”. By focusing all their energy on the media wars the media industries have validated the idea that crappifying their content is a good thing. Because if they’re so desperate to keep that low fidelity mp3 out of your hands that they’re willing to sue you for it, it must be pretty good, right? While they’ve been decrying that an entire generation of kids have grown up to be amoral music pirates, they’ve also lost the chance to educate the kind of audience that tends to spend the most, and actually care about the work.
Meanwhile the technology companies, who were once partners with the content providers, have found themselves having to wage a campaign of subterfuge in order to offer devices to the consumer that give them the portability and accessibility they crave.
Meanwhile the major forward movement has been about adding more and more speakers to the surround mix. Formats like DVD Audio have landed with a thud, and most people are unaware they even exist. And that’s not really the consumer’s fault. Every new format seems to come with a warning label and a boatload of restrictions that make it hard to imagine who, if anyone, would actually use this media under the conditions they’ve mandated. Or to put it another way, audio files and audiophiles don’t mix.
Low quality media will always be a part of the landscape, and even as we are forced to upgrade to digital TVs and start buying Blue-Ray DVD discs, a large portion of that audience will continue to be perfectly happy watching their movies on a cheap LCD screen with $10 ear buds. Luckily a large portion of that audience will also be happy to pay a little bit of money to make sure that they can watch the latest and greatest piece of content, as long as they can put it where they want to.
There’s no doubt that we’ll continue to see our media morph and transform as it moves onto new devices such as media players and cell-phones. Change itself has become a constant part of the media landscape and one of the defining ways that media can transform itself and continue to be profitable. But that can only happen if the producers stop wishing for the future they thought they were going to have, and start dealing with the one that’s already here.