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.