Digital precision has enhanced the images we see and the sounds we hear – but is it robbing creative works of their soul, writes Sam Leith
In the late John Mortimer’s autobiography, there’s a wonderful and very telling detail. Mortimer – whom we all remember looking owlish behind his enormous spectacles – was intensely short-sighted even as a child. But his defective vision went quite unnoticed until relatively late in his youth.
The day he finally got spectacles, as he described it, was a terrible one. Until then he had believed everyone was beautiful – the world was a haze of warm colours and beaming smiles. At once, though, plunged into high definition, he realised that people had spots, rheumy eyes and wonky teeth – and his world was ever after disenchanted.
This story came into my mind not long ago when my parents showed their swanky new television off to me. It was a fully HD TV, wired into the fastest of high-speed broadband and accessorised with the fanciest of internet capabilities. It streamed pixel-perfect images in ultra-HD.
And it looked, well, utterly terrible. It looked as I imagine the world looked to dear, short-trousered Mortimer in his salad days. Admittedly, there wasn’t so much of the old pimples and wonky teeth – this being telly, with professional actors who are paid to be good-looking. But everything looked cheap.
An episode of Doctor Who had the vibe not of a thrilling adventure in space and time, but of a 1980s sitcom with a suspiciously wobbly wall. Perhaps, my HNW friends, you have one of these devices. Perhaps you have many such: perhaps a three-metre flatscreen monster, the width of a credit card, glares down on your double superking bed; perhaps one adorns your den, or your home cinema, or the games room in your modestly proportioned superyacht.
The latest gadget is, after all, a status symbol, and high price usually correlates with high quality. You expect that if you pay £5,000 for a television, you’ll be getting the best. And if you do have one such, hasn’t it started to bug you? Don’t you notice how everything looks disconcertingly tinny, jarringly, well… realistic?
I’m struggling, on a theoretical level, to figure out exactly why this is – but I know I am not alone in my dismay at what HD does to an image. And realism is what I suspect it is.
Television and film are a sort of magic: flesh and blood actors are transformed on screen into creatures of fantasy; sets, sometimes rickety ones, take on the solidity of stone walls and interstellar spaceships. There’s a slight, beneficial blurring – a sort of magic.
Yet in the pitiless pixel-perfect rendering of HD you get none of that. You see people just like you and me, slightly embarrassingly, playing dress-up. I wonder whether there’s an analogy in the world of music.
For a long time I, too, shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes every time I encountered a hipster with a walrus moustache and a Bakelite phone banging on about how digital music was soulless and only vinyl captures the warmth and spirit of human music-making. But perhaps they were on to something after all.
The critic and musician Damon Krukowski recently published with the MIT Press a book called Ways of Hearing, in which he argues that digitisation takes the music out of music. He says it’s a matter of what information theorists call signal-tonoise ratio: in effect, the unwavering precision of a digital drumbeat, the infallible exactness of the digital signal, drives out the messy human expressiveness of noise.
‘The reason is that virtual instruments are all signal,’ he explains. ‘As you pile them up, you don’t get a richness of noise. You get a bunch of competing signals.’
You may agree or disagree with him – perhaps you’re an avid post-humanist or a Kraftwerk fan – but I think he touches a truth. The hiss and pop, the gentle background burr, of worn vinyl intrudes a very subtle randomness, a very subtle warmth, into the listener’s experience.
Take that example of the worryingly perfect drumbeat when thinking about live performance. Neil Young’s backing band Crazy Horse achieve what an album title called ‘Ragged Glory’ precisely because they were sometimes a bit shambolic: they played not with exactness, but with soul. They might sit a bit behind the drumbeat; a guitar might squall a little off note; there was a sort of fuzz to the performance. Which, like the fuzz on the telly, is where the magic is.
This affects other arts too. Don’t we feel the same sense of discomfort when we see an old master painting that has been too thoroughly cleaned? Don’t we revel in furniture to whom age has imparted a patina, or in a bronze that has weathered and taken on the enriching colours of verdigris?
Accordingly, I prescribe this. Shun your horrid HD telly, no matter how much it cost you. Bring the old one out of retirement; or rent or buy movies in SD.
As T S Eliot put it, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ And if that goes for life in general, it goes double – as I’m sure Old Possum would have agreed – for episodes of Doctor Who on the telly.
This article first appeared in issue 69 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe.