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The Hard Way

January 26th, 2004

My summer holiday activities over the last couple of months included a lot of work on my music collection (I’m slowly transferring from vinyl to MP3/AIFF) and rereading Nick Hornby. So, I was naturally struck by how rapidly the skill of making compilation tapes, a central theme of High Fidelity has gone from the esoteric to the everyday. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this. Joel Keller, writing in Salon, says

Putting together a home-brewed compilation of songs used to be an act of love and art. Now it’s just too damn easy to be worth caring about.

and much more in the same vein, though his conclusion is more elegiac than polemical

When making the decision between practicality and artistic merit, I’ll choose practicality more often than not. I may be wistful for the old days, but I’m not an idiot.

So let’s have a moment of silence, for the mix as we used to know it is dead. Technology has overtaken the experience and made it cold and impersonal. But it’s time to look forward, as the Internet has allowed us to trade and download more varied types of music, making for better-sounding, albeit more antiseptic, mixes. One of these days, Nick Hornby should do a sequel to “High Fidelity” and list Rob’s Top 5 music downloads. I’m sure it’ll be a nice read. But it just won’t be the same.

The first time I heard this form of argument, it was from my Grade 4 teacher, lamenting the arrival of the ballpoint pen, and its adverse effect on the quality of handwriting. Possibly since I never mastered the steel nib/inkwell technology still favoured by the South Australian Department of Education in the 1960s, I was not impressed. Since then, I’ve seen the same argument applied to calculators, word processing and desktop publishing. And of course, the argument wasn’t new when I first met it – in one form or another, it’s been applied to almost any technical innovation that replaces a complex skill with an easily usable machine. (It’s separate from the income-distributional arguments that apply when skilled workers are displaced by unskilled ones, although the two are often entangled).

Before defending modernity on this , let me extract what I believe to be the core of validity in this argument. If the production of an item requires substantial skill and effort, the average quality of the items produced will be higher. This is for the same reason as (I ahve been told) some Japanese stores giftwrap their fruit – given the cost of a piece of fruit, giftwrapping makes sense. If making a compilation tape at all takes hours of work, and requires skills that only a music enthusiast will bother to acquire, a lot more effort and judgement will go into the selection and ordering of the tracks, correction of the levels and so on, than if a 14-year old can put together a CD in five minutes, as is now the case.

Similarly, when WYSIWYG word processing first became feasible, it was asserted that the quality of writing declined because students were spending too much time on flashy presentation. While this possible, I suspect the truth is that the total input of time declined substantially. Students judged (probably correctly at first) that an essay that looked professional, contained no spelling errors and so forth would get by even if the content was pretty weak. Moreover, cut and paste made it easy to produce an apparently final version without rewriting. In this case, the problem is that those setting the essays wanted to elicit some amount of work from the students but (with the exception of those students who actually wanted to learn something) the student’s objective was to minimize the effort required to do the job. At least until teachers learned to disregard cues like good presentation, the result was a decline in average quality which (if you agree that Teacher Knows Best) made everyone worse off.

Another case where average quality declined with bad effects, following an increase in ease of use, was that of Internet newsgroups. These were useful forums as long as the skills and effort required to use them confined access to those willing to make serious contributions. When they became easily accessible (roughly when AOL merged with the Internet) the newsgroups were flooded with garbage. It’s only since the rise of blogging software that the old vision of the Internet as a forum for debate that could bypass media monopolies has reasserted itself.

In most cases, though, (including that of blogging) a decline in average quality is quite consistent with an improvement across the board, in the sense that more and better good quality outputs are produced, even while the average is dragged down by people who would previously not have produced at all. People like Sal Tuzzeo, quoted by Keller may sneer that

On the subways you see people with iPods. They have, what, a thousand songs on them. Ten thousand, even. They stare random-glared into oblivion. [R]obots with s***ty music taste and too much money to spend on music-listening hardware and shoes, in that order

but why shouldn’t people be free to follow their taste, s***ty or otherwise? Keller argues that

Fewer people who are connected to the music they listen to translates into a less critical and picky audience for the crapola that the record companies and radio stations promote. The quality of music overall goes downhill.

but, again, why should anyone care about average quality or what is promoted on radio stations? People who are critical and picky, but don’t have the time or skills to make compilation tapes, chase down obscure records and so on, now have a much better capacity to find and reward those who are producing it.

By the way, talking of innovation, this post was produced using Ecto, a blogging client for Mac OS X currently in version 0.2.1, but already a big improvement on anything else I’ve used. Thanks to Brad DeLong for the tip.

[Posted with ecto]

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  1. January 26th, 2004 at 22:13 | #1

    nice point, quiggin, why would anyone care about average quality if you can still find good stuff (created with or without the new tools)

    i guess the signal to noise ratio declines, but unlike finding pairs of socks in the morning, this shouldnt matter that much for finding and producing music…

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