Low Fidelity – Now at a Digital Reality Near You!

“Good Enough is the New Great” trumpets the New York Times 2009 Year in Ideas.

Catchy line. And something to keep in mind when walking the Analog/Digital divide. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not unhappy about the new lo-fi reality we seem to be living in so many ways. True audiophiles tell me my iPod cranks out less than optimal renditions of my favorite tunes. That said it works just fine as a sound track for those long motorcycle rides.

So “good enough” definitely has its place. Who hasn’t said or at least heard the old consultant cliché “Don’t let Perfect be the Enemy of Good.” I know I’ve scratched my head more than once at some seemingly minor nuance of goodness that makes all the world of difference to a pack of my geek friends (iPhone anyone?). There’s definitely a chance for overkill when it comes to the concept of fidelity to a given reality (especially a created reality, but that’s another conversation).

Regular readers can guess, though, that I’m less concerned with going too far with the concept of fidelity to reality, than with not going far enough in this digital world of ours. If you’ve gotten out to the movies recently you might have seen “Up In the Air,” a sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful flick about location, layoffs, presence, and perception. One of its narrative devices is the idea that a company can save money in the process of mass layoffs by using networked video conferencing to save the cash and time required to show up in person at some remote location to have the “separation” conversations. Yeah. Good luck with that. Let me know how it works out.

I hope folks would at least wonder if that didn’t cross some kind of line, even if they couldn’t exactly define what the line was or how it was crossed. I think we at least sense that some essential elements of interaction are not included as the camera and the microphone capture sound and image, package them into bits and bytes, fling them over the network and then reassemble them into the second hand reality of a video link.

I’ve got staff in an office that’s about 200 miles away from my home base. That’s far enough that I can’t just hop in the car on a whim and go show my face. Having had to deal with this in Cro-Magnon pre-video age of network technology, I gotta tell ya I love video conferencing. It makes a huge difference in how much I can invest in and how effective I can be at building a team, a community across distances.

And yet I still get in the car once at least once a month and drive to that office and spend a couple of days working from there. Those in-person visits matter. The incidental hallway conversations, the drop-in discussions, even the work to make the cubical and office arrangements have all created a level of relationship and understanding that just isn’t available in a video only world. Time and space are not infinitely compressible to fit the needs of a digital network or a particular P&L.

Taking a really long view of it, I wonder if we didn’t pick up a little too much momentum during that Renaissance transition from knowing through revelation to knowing through observation. In the move from Priests to Scientists as our ultimate authorities, did we overshoot the mark and end up with the Media Techs as our fount of all knowledge? If the podcast or the infomercial or the reality tv said it, it must be true, right? We used to say “Pictures don’t lie,” but we’ve come to understand that that particular kind of second hand reality is, in fact, subject to error either through intentional manipulation or just misinterpretation.

Like a smart woman (or man for that matter) making a bad choice, we cannot seem to extend that knowledge to a pragmatic assessment of all the second hand reality that we’ve so fallen in love with.

This blind love takes all kinds of forms. There’s the petty bureaucrat who prefers the version of reality painted on their computer screen to the reality of the person standing in front of them. You’ve probably had a manager who was more attached to latest buzz word encapsulation of the moment than the reality unfolding out their door. We’ve all used or at least heard happy-talk numbers for customer satisfaction or productivity or performance that had little or no relationship to the angry phone calls, long waits, and shoddy equipment that were our day to day experience.

So. Off with their data driven, statistically inferred, representational heads? Absolutely not. There are times when the 2nd hand reality of digital experience is, in practice and upon reflection, more than good enough, maybe even preferable. However, like all the steps in the Analog/Digital dance, the trick is knowing when.

One thought on “Low Fidelity – Now at a Digital Reality Near You!

  1. I’ve wondered if anyone else notices sound/audio or what kind of hearing people have. How awful/bad the audio of most podcasts is(my partner considers them painful and often tells me to shut them off) At my cousins we made a call on Skype the other day which to me was unintelligible garble but they didn’t seem to notice. While I can tell the audio on my ipod is inferior and, for most uses it is an acceptable trade off for the convenience. I suspect that most people can’t tell the difference.

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