09 March 2015

Lost in the Digital Debate

I've had the privilege of hearing and seeing quite a few live performances of classical music recently, and it's served as a reminder that in addition to dynamics and pitch and time, music has a spatial dimension that recordings can't capture, even high-fidelity stereo and surround-sound systems designed to give the feeling of sitting in the midst of a performance.

The length of a keyboard, the movement of fingers along strings, the arrangement of musicians playing different instruments -- these are lost in an audio recording.

A recording, whether analog or digital, is a substitute we've come to take completely for granted for hearing a live performance. We can listen to the same recording over and over and over again. Vinyl records lost quality in the repetition, the grooves worn down and the sound quality diminished over time, but CDs and MP3s retain whatever qualities they had in the initial recording, no matter how many times they're played.

Audiophiles argue fiercely over variations between analog and digital recordings, but both replace the presence of human beings with a flat piece of plastic that produces sound waves coming out of speakers. A record or a CD or an iPod can't interact with a human auditor.

Meanwhile, people are panicking about the demise of the book, as most of us move to reading on screens of various kinds, for various purposes. You might not have a Kindle, but you're reading this blog on a screen, and your email, and maybe Facebook or the news, scholarly articles or Google.

According to Socrates, written language is a lousy substitute for the spoken word. No matter how many times you ask a book a question, you get the same answer. We've moved since Socrates through stone and wax tablets and papyrus and animal skins to paper. In the past decade, we've fixated on the idea of the book as a physical object rather than a medium for transmission of language.

Watching hands on a keyboard last night, then walking home and hearing an owl hoot twice behind me and to my left, and another bird twittering to my right, I wondered what it is about ink on paper that, at this moment in time, inspires both devotion and fear of loss.