From high fidelity to endless temptation


Maybe it comes from having too much time on my hands. Winter is hanging on forever and I’m bored out of my mind, especially in a summer tourist town where nothing happens for six months at a stretch.

So I work to keep myself entertained: I play connect the dots. And that’s what I doing while I was fixing supper last night. While my daughter was listening to her iPod without earphones, all I could make out was the annoying lightweight candy buzzing from the tiny speakers.

It wasn’t the song or the type of music; I generally like her music. It was the machine. The speaker only delivers an approximation of music. And even with the earphones downloaded music quality isn’t up to par; it’s a lot like watching movies online.

Back to fidelity and beyond

A half a century ago the big news in audio was high fidelity. Just what is fidelity? According to my handy-dandy computer thesaurus, fidelity is: faithfulness, loyalty, true-heartedness, trustworthiness, dependability, formal troth (in the case of marriage), accuracy, precision, correctness, closeness, and authenticity. So I guess high fidelity would be a super version of all that.

The Blu-Ray DVD format is definitely high fidelity. But somehow Blu-Ray disc sales haven’t lived up to the manufacturers’ projections. And regular DVD sales are declining, and they’re relatively high fidelity, too. Instead, more people are downloading movies directly from the Internet. And downloaded movies are definitely lo-fi, even worse than digital music downloads.

Back to the dot connecting, I’m reading a book coincidentally titled Connected. In it the authors look into the mechanics of social networking—the hot new suburb of sociology since the advent of Google, MySpace and Facebook.

What authors and Harvard profs Christakis and Fowler propose is the idea that “your friends and your friends friends affect everything you feel, think and do” and they say so right on the front cover. Some of their evidence is remarkable—and initially confusing. For example, they claim you’ll never date the ex-partner of your ex-partner. Or if your friend’s friend’s friend gains weight you will too. But their evidence suggests otherwise.

Applied to regional culture, that may explain why, for example, we New Brunswickers are more prone to obesity or failing economies. Our regional friendship networks amplify these trends.

Weighing the value of fidelity against other options

There’s another aspect of fidelity that connected a few more dots. Say, for example, someone is involved in a long distance relationship with someone who isn’t divorced yet, and both have been married multiple times. Their situation raises the obvious question of fidelity, as in why so many people in our society no longer stay with one partner for life.

Why, I wondered, are we so willing to trade off fidelity for something else? And what are we trading it for? I realized that fidelity becomes less important as the number of choices increases.

When choice is limited we tend to value fidelity. A couple with six kids has a lot fewer options when it comes to considering divorce and remarriage. With a responsibility to six dependents the choice of potential partners is limited. It’s simply easier for the couple to stay together.

But on Facebook choice outweighs fidelity. The kid with 243 friends on Facebook can afford to betray one of them, especially if that friend is one of those remote, online types.

The same is true in any other high-choice environments. In entertainment, variety outweighs fidelity nearly every time. We’re willing to trade quality for choice. And that’s turned out to be a windfall for businesses like Netflix, YouTube and iTunes. Quality is subordinate to choice. Although we can find things that have creative qualities on those media, the media themselves are low-quality mechanisms.

This trend suggests disturbing patterns for future human behaviour, My kids are already accustomed to the lo-fi world of infinite choice. They live in a culture of endless, instant gratification. But as the world runs low on resources, that lo-fi / hi-choice imprinting may be a real liability. Particularly when the job ahead will rely on their ability to develop elegant hi-fi solutions to emerging problems—as in creating hi-fi transportation systems or food production systems or energy generating systems as we empty the world’s fossil fuel tank.

But technology—and human behaviour—is never an “either-or” proposition. The computer didn’t produce a paperless society. Instead, we’re consuming more paper than ever, which is a chilling prospect as the developing world catches up to our levels of consumption. And it’s not just paper; it’s everything.

Maybe we can combine our new knowledge of social networks with the idea of fidelity (loyalty and quality) to avert the looming ecological disaster ahead. But the danger of giving ourselves over to a diffused social network may form an unbreakable habit looking only at interconnections and not what’s happening in the actual world around us. Sure, we’ll talk about the problems, but will we be capable of doing anything about them—particularly if it means restricting our choices?

Good question. Have a friend of your friend get back to me…

Fidelity of personal expression

On a personal level, fidelity versus choice is the difference between a life in which every action is an intention versus a life were every action is an impulse. We all fit somewhere along this scale. And we all deal with this in our own life experiences. It dramatically shapes how others see us.

Here's an example of what I mean: I've recently been looking at Canadian painter Alex Colville's paintings again. The man's art is incredibly high fidelity. And he produces the work in the same high fidelity manner, only producing three works a year, and carefully composing and executing each. The man is also very conservative, both politically and otherwise. His personal life is also framed by fidelity, married to the same woman for over 60 years.

We might compare him, on the other hand, to Picasso. That man was all about the expression of choice and the range of humanity. He was a philanderer, a communist, a humanist among other things. His personal politics and his life were left-leaning in the extreme.

Somewhere in the middle of the range Jackson Pollock tried, I think, to reconcile these two directions, fidelity and choice with his splash paintings, which were both conservative and liberal, if that makes any sense. But Pollock caught the new dynamism of social networks—the complexity of choice—now available to modern humans.

Unifying fidelity with diversity

Interestingly, there are scientists who believe that Pollack's work, which at first seems completely random, is actually an amalgam of fractals, and they use the presence of fractals in Pollack's work to distinguish authentic Pollacks from forgeries.

This self-organizing behaviour in seemingly random systems is perhaps the deepest feature of all life. And within that self-organization is a fidelity not only to the living organism, but to all other species attached to it—all making endless evolutionary choices with, well, fidelity.

Diversity seems to require fidelity in nature, as much as it also strives to break fidelity—to cheat—in order to make evolutionary progress. And in an odd way, it's the same in our own lives. Our creativity depends on both fidelity and betrayal, the seeking of other, more advantageous, options.

The trick, of course, is knowing when to use one or the other approach.


  1. Wow, I'm definitely HIGH-FI this Winter.
    Watch out Cyber Contact I have been worshipping at the Whole Foods altar, and the waist to proof it. Let's put the theory to test. Have you expanded your waistline?

  2. Uh, yes. Not dramatically, I hope.

    Maybe we're inclined toward hi-fi as we get older—and more discriminating. But kids are more interested in rapidly extending their range rather than plumbing the depths.

    So was the drift to hi-fi whole foods intentional?

  3. Yes. I try to buy local, if possible, and foods that won’t turn your inside into part of the Periodic Table.

  4. Don't all foods turn your insides into the Periodic Table? :) And now we have to worry about our acquaintances turning us into the PT! Just finishing off the Connected book, and rethinking every set of relationships and networks I've indexed. As a creative, I cross a lot of networks but am rarely at the centre of any, preferring a more individual course. That could work for or against me, as these positions work in the same way for everyone. But the authors suggest that some of this is genetic on top of the obvious environmental effects. Woe betide the poor introvert! Tough for guys like James Joyce and Van Gogh...!

    Here's an outtake on Jung:

    "Among Jung's patients in the 1930s was James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who suffered from schizophrenia. Jung had earlier written a hostile analysis of Ulysses, and Joyce was left bitter at Jung's analysis of his daughter. He paid back in Finnegans Wake, joking with Jung's concepts of Animus and Anima. In his essay 'Ulysses' (1934) Jung saw Joyce's famous novel as an exploration of the spiritual condition of modern man, especially the brutalization of his feelings."


  5. I ment the part of the table that makes you glow in the night.

    Well, since Christakis and Fowler claim that eating habits can be transmitted across long-distance networks I shall stop making those comments.
    Further they claim that, our position in a social network has a deep effect on how we fare – while occupying a marginal place in a social network can have advantages (it makes you less susceptible to harmful contagions), as a general rule people with more friends and connections are happier, healthier and better off.
    I found that this is a somewhat unfocused and ill-disciplined book.
    Christakis and Fowler oscillate uneasily between arguing for the explanatory power of social network analysis and beating the drum for social networks. They acknowledge the way in which people's life chances and quality of life are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, including parenting, material wealth, education and skills, as well as networks, but then focus on networks to the exclusion of almost everything else. They scarcely stop to consider how their concept of a network relates to older and more familiar (and richer?) concepts of "social capital" and "community", or the ethics of government intervention in people's "private" networks.
    The hopeless state of our public finances means that whatever the political color of the next government, it will have to introduce the most far-reaching cuts the modern welfare state has ever seen. As this books helps to make clear, minimising the damage to social networks will be essential.

  6. I'd have to agree with your take on the authors' ill-disciplined approach. You're a breath of fresh air. Don't quite have much critical perspective of the book yet. Still considering the personal dynamics of networks, what I know of them empirically, etc.

    You bring up the idea of qualitative aspects of relationships, whether interpersonal, family or public. Ethics, as you say, matter. So do individual and group experience and age, key ingredients of social capital.

    What I did like about the book was it got me thinking about the notion that social networks amplify inequity. That's not so good for poor people who may not have access to networking technology. Or for introverts, who may be disinclined to network. And the other observation: that liberal networks seem to me more porous than conservative ones, which leaves liberals a bit less cohesive and therefore politically weaker in some senses.

    But what really gets to me is the evolution of human social structure. We've moved from loose tribalism to rigid feudalism to what we are today, managed corporatism, a complex, semi-managed assemblage of networks.

    The question becomes, as our society comes under increased pressure from lack of resources, how will our social behaviour change to accommodate? And is this something that can be predicted?

    I think it may be even more complex than modelling climate... You mention that 'minimizing the damage to social networks will be essential.' But maybe the social networks will be the most resilient aspect of change, and the real job will be minimizing the damage to individuals—in spite of the networks, which could be the most pernicious of all mechanisms (see Nazi Germany, et. al.).

    I learned a few years ago that groups have a life of their own. It's extremely difficult, for example, to put a corporation to death. The members seem to be willing to do anything to keep it alive. Strange...


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