The Decline and Fall of Quality

Sometimes the advance of technology that is leading us inexorably towards a Skiffy Future (flying cars! face transplants! digital monies!) isn’t all that great. Take, for example, digital music. Most of us know that the popular MP3 format for digital audio is not the greatest as far as quality goes – it is, after all, a compression algorithm that takes the huge tracks you find on a CD and makes them small enough to be easily transmitted over Internet connections or to be stored in mass quantities on tiny handheld devices. The advantages of such a format are obvious to all of us – hell, not only is every CD I own residing on my hard drive as MP3s, every cassette tape I own is also sitting there as MP3s. Everyone loves MP3s exactly because they are portable and infinitely copyable.

At a price, of course: The MP3 format, I am told, is not so hot when it comes to audio quality. It’s compressed, after all, and that means that data that sits comfortably on a CD or in a FLAC file gets squeezed in. Which is all well and good if you’re taking a pristine, uncompressed format like a CD and making personal files for yourself – if you’re corrupting your music for portability’s sake, that’s on you. But now we hear that the music industry is mixing thier songs specifically for MP3 (this via BoingBoing via Slashdot), because they know that everyone is just going to rip the songs into that format anyway, and this means the source data on your CD is going to be sucky to begin with.

In other words, the advance of technology has ruined the technical quality of your audio. And you know what? I don’t care.

I have what Scientists of the Future call Tin Ears. My friends mock me for the large sampling of 96Kbs MP3 files I have in my collection, most made long ago before I clearly understood the process, yet I can’t be bothered to re-rip them into better quality, because, frankly, I can’t tell much difference. Which puts me in a quandary: On the one hand, if nothing is done our future will be a dystopia filled with tinny highs and muddy lows. On the other, I won’t be able to tell the difference personally, and it’s not like there isn’t a good trade off here. Personally, even if I could tell the difference between CD-quality and MP3-quality, I might accept the downgrade in exchange for the portability and ease-of-copying.

I also think there’s a certain Quality Horizon, a point beyond which improvements become meaningless. I consider, with heavy thoguht, those fancy new Blu-Ray DVDs. And I ask, who cares? Sales are sluggish precisely because folks look at the roughly 1000 DVDs they’ve bought over the last few years, peer owlishly at the supposedly greatly improved quality of the new issues, and can’t really see the point. Why bother? There’s no obvious mechanical upgrade like there was between cassettes and CDs or VHS and DVD – no better portability, longevity, or bonus features. Just the assurance that the overall quality of the thing is better. Which it probably is, but not necessarily to an extent that makes upgrading worth it.

My personal Quality Horizon, when it comes to audio, is pretty low. I’m a man whose music collection was at least 65% songs taped off the radio, commercials and all, at one point. Do I look like someone who can tell whether I’m listening to a CD or an MP3?

That’s one good thing about being a writer: Electronic formats don’t necessarily threaten to downgrade my words. I mean, sure, it might downgrade my royalties as you all gleefully download my books from torrent sites, but at least the super-high-quality prose itself will be preserved, right? Don’t answer that.



    Thanks for your blog. Need more like these.

  2. Damaso

    First welcome back to civilization (or at least as close to it as Jersey is). The fact that you travel to Texas on a semi regular basis just confirms your love for the Duchess.

    True there will be some bottles of gin lost due to the torrents but the way I think about it is: if you are too cheap to order a book on Amazon and download a torrent you were probably the kind of cheap SOB who would have gotten the same book at the library (you know who you are).

    At the same time because the price point is low you will probably have people who buy your books through on the Kindle or whatever other ereader. The result is probably a wash.

    Now if there were just some way fans could directly pay the author online say Paypal, or a shipping address for a bottle of scotch, I think many of those who pilfer books online wouldn’t have a problem throwing a few bucks your way…

  3. jsomers (Post author)


    “Now if there were just some way fans could directly pay the author online say Paypal, or a shipping address for a bottle of scotch, I think many of those who pilfer books online wouldn’t have a problem throwing a few bucks your way…”

    Nothing is stopping y’all! Start mailing me cash and booze. Even if you’re only *thinking* about stealing one of my books, send me a dollar. Or send me a bottle of whiskey. That’s what God wants you to do.


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