Sunday, June 26, 2011

When does digitization = death?

You are not watching infinite recursive images.
You are watching a Mandelbrot zoom.

OK, time for some intuitive leaps and logical inferences that might make some perverse sense from time to time, if only by accident (or design, but that's another story).

I'm writing a blog item in Design News at the end of June to honor two geniuses in analog design engineering, Jim Williams and Bob Pease, who happened to die within days of one another in mid-June (Bob while driving away from Jim's funeral, as a matter of fact). Theme of the blog item is that we should never assume the deaths represent the great passing of precision analog talent in a world gone all-digital. Sure, digitization has wrought daily miracles, but if anything, there seems to be a hippie-dippie backlash that assumes analog representations of life and the physical world are warmer, closer to the earth, representative of the world in all its glory, yada yada yada.

I would no more rant against the digital representation than make blanket assumptions that all economic globalization is bad. Binary representations and Boolean logic have allowed us to fill in more gaps in our knowledge in the last century than was accomplished during the early Enlightenment era and the fleshing out of Newtonian physics. By the same token, we can identify victims of globalization while realizing that, had it not been for globalized markets free of tariffs and protectionist trade barriers, a far greater percentage of humans on the planet would be starving right now. But that doesn't mean we don't point to the aspects of the world lost through digitization of real-world analog information. In fact, it's an excuse for screaming real loud, as Pee Wee might say.

Jon Pareles of The New York Times screamed real loud on Sunday morning, warning of the limitations of obtaining all music from the cloud. We can say that cloud-based storage is more environmentally sound, since we don't make any physical representations of our music (the same might be said of books, e-books, and the decline of printed words). And Pareles, living in the typical minuscule New York apartment, expressed relief at not having so many CDs and vinyl LPs cluttering everything. But, as I've ranted on this blog before, the MP3 file on a small media player or smartphone takes us back to the time of crappy sound representation exemplified by the transistor radio of the 1960s (and the saddest thing is that many younger people say they actually prefer the sound of an MP3 file to a lossless WAV file - their ears have grown accustomed to the craptastic). In addition, Pareles said, if all possible musical compositions are available instantly, at sharply declining prices (and profit margins for the artist), the entire music-listening experience is cheapened.

The world around you is a smear. It is an analog slope that can only be approximated in digital format. Yes, a high-resolution A/D or D/A converter may give you a representation accurate enough to fool any human perception, but you will never live in a digital world. You will live in linear fashion in a world overrun by digital processes. When I'm pondering all this crap, I speak in a shorthand that assumes a black and white image is more digital, while a rich color image (even if pixellated) more closely resembles the electromagnetic spectrum. The static image is digital, the flow is analog. You might call this a conversational successive approximation register, or you might call it sloppy thinking. I agree. It makes for an easier way to bitch.

Which brings us to the poem below. This started out as a lamentation for a nephew-in-law who decided to emulate Ian Curtis by hanging himself in his mother's kitchen. Because Curtis wrote such songs as 'Digital' and 'Transmission' (not to mention 'Atrocity Exhibition', which might have some relevance here), and because Anton Corbijn directed the black-and-white film, Control, that explored Curtis's death, I let the two hanging deaths in Macclesfield and Tampa stand in for the world gone digital.

The intermezzo was my elegy to Williams and Pease. Maybe they died at an appropriate time for a world gone digital, but it bears mentioning that Williams was an experimental artist (specializing in sculptures of analog components) who had more intuitive vision than most so-called digital artists gracing the 21st century. Cause of death in both cases (stroke and Parkinson's for Williams, car crash for Pease) involve inherently linear processes. This does not mean the analog element of their lives passed with their particular genius. It means their lives and their deaths are mixed-signal representations.

The gloria in exelsis deo second movement is the non-stop babble of a toddler, free of AutoTune voice synthesizing and free of any digital avatar. It is the life resurgent, the joy formidable. It defies a digital representation. Long may it blur, long may it smear.

Mixed Signal

I. Lamentation - Digital
Problems are always evident in the Family Guy A/D conversion
of a black and white Corbijn film.
The stark binary Macclesfield noose
displays dozens of spectral reflections
in a bright Florida sun.
Mom finds body just the same
but what remains monochrome
for an Ian Curtis freeze-frame
enters Disney’s Wonderful World of Color
for a forgotten detailer of floors and window casements –
be it loneliness or pills.
I could go on as though nothing was wrong.
Dance to the radio.

Intermezzo - Mixed Signal (Baseband)
A night of gin in an era of Smiths and Paula Abdul,
playground of found art where the voltage comparator
displaces all wire and clay.
Marty reminds us that a single well-placed cruise missile
might wipe out the nation’s analog design talent
by flattening a single-story Eichler home.
Crumpling dashboards and Parkinson’s tremors
extend the cruise-missile descent window by 25 years,
but the 32 feet per second per second
of face kissing steering column
leaves little doubt as to the denuded analog landscape,
the empty bottle of gin.

II. Gloria in excelsis deo - Analog
There is no freeze-frame of toddler,
only Mach blur of chatterfield
Pirate guy knows the purple snail buried treasure.
It’s probably in the potty,
and we can march there,
here’s your trumpet pirate guy,
and you can color Tinkerbelle’s friend,
and did you learn to play the piano?

Thus do the gods assure me
that flow representations of an analog world
are neither created nor destroyed
in Palo Alto
in Tampa
in Cambridge
in Macclesfield.
No matter how finely you zoom your Mandelbrot
on a two-year-old smile
you find no digitized freeze-frame,
only a Mach blur.

Loring Wirbel
June 25, 2011

Copyright 2011 Loring Wirbel

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Wonderful, Loring. Anna's blur says it all, well, that's after you've said it so brilliantly first.