Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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retroview

Retroview: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

A few years ago, a friend let me borrow a CD. It’s cover was odd (below right), the band name–Neutral Milk Hotel–and title–In The Aeroplane Over the Sea–obscure. “But it’s really good,” I was assured.

And indeed, as I found after finally listening to it, it was. Surely the instrumentals were unconventional–bagpipes appear, as do many other sounds I don’t even know how to describe. And the vocal were as much nasally and grating as they were melodic and on-key. But on the whole, there was something about it. That something that folks might call “Je ne sais quoi;” I just like to call it “something.”

The lyrics too, which are probably the most important part of music for me, were obscure. Snippets certainly made sense, but if there was a unifying theme or idea behind the thing, I didn’t know what it was. Some lines were clever enough to stick, others would fade away, on the whole it was nice–possibly even optimistic–but was obscure enough to leave me wondering.

An example, from the song “Holland, 1945”:

Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart

There’s a certain nihilism there, sure, but to hear it put to music it sound more hopeful than hurt. Unlike so many songs, this one’s apologetic without forming an apology. It doesn’t long, wish, or despair. It just says it, whatever it is that it’s saying.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon this Pitchfork article. Pitchfork, for those uninitiated, is the center of the hip indie-music world. Whether or not that titles completely accurate and fully agreed to is unknown to me. I don’t spend enough time following music criticism or the indie rock scene.

But here’s the point, I realized that this wasn’t some random album that a friend pointed out. It was something emblematic. And then last week, I came across Taylor Clark’s excellent profile of the man behind the album, who he accurately calls “Indie Rock’s Salinger.” Though I’m no great fan of Salinger, there’s strength in the analogy. Both men were tortured, troubled, and left the scene for hermetic life soon after success. Both are also revered as “geniuses.”

The articles made another point, but one I’m not sure I want to spoil. After all, it was something of a postmortem revelation for me that I wouldn’t want to deprive you of. I’ll just say that (1) both articles make explicit and early reference to this fact I hadn’t known before reading them, and (2) it made the album make more, but not complete, sense.

So I guess the whole point is this. If you’re into indie rock and don’t own this album, get it. If you’re not into to indie rock but interested, get this album. Actually, if you’re breathing and have twelve dollars in your pocket, it wouldn’t be a mistake to buy this album. You should at least consider it.

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