The New Dark Ages

Jul 16, 2010
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Sometimes I wonder if we're not entering a dark ages. With modern technology and storage techniques, I always assumed that our culture, our artwork, our philosophy would never disappear. It might go out of fashion, but future generations will always be able to turn on Ferris Bueller and say to themselves, "Okay, that's the 1980s. Now where's my Pearl Jam record? I want to experience the Nineties." Recently, I haven't been so sure.

[Image credit: sparkieblues]

I think that when archaeologists dig up core samples of our garbage dumps, there will be an anomalous gap where art and culture seemed to take a nose dive. Right around the end of the 20th century through the first couple decades of the 21st century, it's going to appear as if we all lost our minds and our collective aesthetic taste fell off our tongues.

I'm thinking of our artwork; starting with music. Since the dawn of recording and playback technology, there has been a constant push and pull between a higher quality, audiophile path, and a more portable, lower quality path. In the last decade or so, portability emerged as the resounding winner. Formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio flopped completely, mostly because portable music and digital files were becoming all the rage.

Compared to CDs, most compressed digital files lack range and sound quality. In our mass-market appreciation of music, we took a step backwards. Sound quality, separate from the art of music-making itself, has gotten worse over the years in the ears of the average listener. Pair the compressed audio files with the standard low quality earbuds included with all portable players, and you have an entire musical culture sinking in the sand.

Photography takes an even worse turn. Film was never cheap, and neither were the photo processing costs, but cameras were growing slim and portable. Digital cameras were a great step forward for photography, but the camera phone could ruin a generation of photos.

The low level of quality that we accept from even the best camera phones on the market is intolerable. Once again, we've taken a step backward in photography. Current digital cameras don't quite meet the color reproduction and fine detail of quality film, but the results are close enough even printed on a large piece of photo paper. So, digital is still a step behind the film we've all abandoned, but camera phones are the lowest of the digital camera breed.

The quality of a digital camera image relies on a few key factors, none of which camera phones possess. You need quality glass, which is impossible in tiny phone lenses. You need a low ratio of pixels to sensor size; fewer pixels on a larger sensor. But all camera phone sensors are ridiculously small compared to a real, dedicated digital camera. They will never be able to match the quality of even a simple point-and-shoot. Finally, you need excellent image processing. Camera phones can come closest to real cameras with their post-processing, but so far none has been able to match a quality digital P&S.

So, all of a sudden, our photographic history jumps from fine color photos and textured black and white to laughable postage stamp pictures with grainy details and terrible color. It's like a grimy fog caked up on the lens of the world.

Video might be even stranger, looking back. After all, everything shoots video these days. Besides your phone, your camera shoots video. Your iPod shoots video. Your laptop shoots video. High definition cameras get cheaper all the time, with more advanced image stabilization and low light sensitivity.

To be fair, video has come farther than any other medium. We've been refining audio recording and photography for more than a hundred years. Video cameras have only been mainstream for a couple decades, at most. Still, I see the trend towards portability, away from quality. How many YouTube videos, or even iCNN reports, are filmed on a laptop Web cam or with a cell phone camcorder? Too many.

I know there's a certain Marie Antoinette quality to my argument. Let them eat cake! Of course everyone should be using HD camcorders instead of piddling little QVGA cell phone cameras. But who can afford it? Portable music players like the iPod let people take music everywhere, and the music lasts for days and days. If lower quality music is the price to pay, isn't it worth the cost? How can it be bad, bringing more music into people's lives? In photography, the cultural importance of having a camera with you everywhere, even if it's a cheap camera attached to your mobile, cannot be ignored.

In other words, it's not a choice between high quality and low quality. It’s a choice between low quality and nothing at all.

I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out a cultural moment. I think that very soon we'll have portable devices that are just as good as their full sized counterparts. Cameras, music players, computers, the whole lot. I think that digital storage is going to become so widely available that we'll laugh at the notion that we had to sacrifice quality in order to save space.

In between, though, we'll have this moment. We're straddling, on one side, an analog world that we're leaving at its pinnacle. It's full of old tools and we know how to use them as well as we can imagine. On the other side is a new world of digital tools. We're still learning, still doubling our capacity for knowledge every few months. It's a rough start, but the future looks bright.

For now, though, we're in a dark age where knowledge will be lost. Looking back on this time, our future generations will see us transform from artists who painted with oil on canvas and light on silver halide, into a culture that perceives the world around it more perfectly through digital means. We're in a moment where prehistory becomes history.

If anything, we won't lose our most factual information to history. We're doing a great job preserving the written word and the daily news. But when it comes to art and culture, I think some day our civilization will look back and wonder how it all went wrong, all of a sudden.


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