Thursday, January 22, 2009

Beware of the Ludditosaurus

I was swapping emails with Dan Schreiber - the director of John Lloyd's QI spin-off radio series The Museum of Curiosity - a couple of days ago and during the course of the conversation I admitted that I'd 'taped the first series off the wireless'. Taped? Wireless? Buggeration! How old and dated did I sound? So I considered how to reword the email more accurately. I'd used a software programme to grab the digital audio from a radio show being streamed to my computer by the BBC i-Player and had saved the resulting recording in MP3 format. So how was I going to reduce that tirade of technobabble to a simple bite-size phrase like 'taped it off the wireless'?*

'Recorded it off the radio' seemed like a possibility. But it wasn't strictly accurate as no actual recording had taken place. I'd downloaded a digital file from one location to another. And could I call it 'radio' if there were no radios involved? Remember, this was simply information passing from one hard drive to another via the internet. So what to call it? Accessing? Downloading? You see the problem? The technology has run ahead of our facility to decribe what it does.

Technology has developed so fast, in fact, that it resembles a period in Earth's history around 530 million years ago called the Cambrian Explosion. During this period, Nature ran amok creating many, many different forms of living organism. But then, after a time, those thousands of strange variants were slowly whittled down into just a handful of species from which every creature we know today evolved. The same kind of explosion has happened with technology ... I just wish that the whittling process would hurry up a bit. I'm fed up with the confusion of choice. Take file formats as an example.

For audio, I can now choose between formats like CDA, AAC, M4A, MP3, WMA, OGG, MP4, VOX, WAV, AC3, RAW, AMR, G729, AIFC etc. To watch a movie, I'm faced with choosing between MPEG, AVI, WMV, MOV, 3GP, XVID, DIVX, H246, MP4, ASF, ASX and many more. Worst of all is digital imaging where the number of picture formats is, frankly, arse-wipingly ridiculous. With just one piece of art software that I use, I can load, alter, process and save over 50 different types of file from the more familar JPG, BMP, GIF and TIF formats to the more exotic DXF, CGM, KDP, PIC ... Why do we need so many formats? Can't we get this down to just a handful?

I will concede that certain formats seem to be winning through; MP3 has become a kind of standard although people refer to their 'MP3 players' despite the fact that they may be listening to a variety of formats. The bestselling 'MP3 player' is, of course, the Apple i-Pod ... but that doesn't play MP3s! It converts everything to Apple's M4A format. So even here there is a terminology clash - MP3 can hardly become the industry standard when Apple doesn't use it and when the other big player - Microsoft - encourages the use of their WMA format. In digital photography, people talk most commonly about JPGs because it's the most common format for domestic use cameras. But within professional business, many companies still prefer uncompressed formats like RAW, BMP and TIF because the picture quality is better. Surely we can simplify all of this?

At home I have a choice between normal TV and digital TV, between standard DVD and high-definition Blu-Ray. So why not do the same with file formats? How about .aud for standard audio of MP3 type standard, .vid for DVD standard video and .pic for JPG quality pictures? Simple eh? Then we could have hi-res and hi-def versions of thses files that could be denoted by the addition of an H in the file extension: Aud and AudH, Vid and VidH, Pic and PicH. Isn't that simple? Surely that's all we need? And it would suit everyone.

Then there's the matter of cables. I must own around 20 USB leads. All of them have one thing in common; the plug on one end is universal (that's what the 'U' in USB stands for). The other end has something completely different to every other USB lead. I own a couple of digital cameras, a few MP3 players and i-pods, SatNavs, mobile phones etc. ... and they all have their own unique USB lead. It drives me mad scrabbling through the bowl of black plastic spaghetti on my desk to find the right one. Doesn't this strike you as a kind of madness?

I want all of my computer peripherals, gadgets and doohickeys to run on the same USB cables. If, for some reason I don't understand, they have to have different cables then at least make the choice small and label them with easy tags like A,B and C or small, medium and large. How refreshing it would be to simply walk into a techie shop knowing that I need a USB large or a USB-C cable. Fantastic. What more do you really actually need? Please do tell me because I'm dying to know.

I try not to be a Luddite dinosaur. I really do. I like gadgets and technology. But I also have to get on with my life and it really is too short to be spending time worrying about format types or finding the right leads.

*Wireless is a curious term as it labels me both as an archaic fuddy-duddy and a thrusting modernist geek. We've gone full circle haven't we? Prepare for the Gramophone's second coming ...


Anonymous said...

Oh I hear you and I applaud you. Not very green is it, using all those non-renewables when I'm sure there could be a proper universal USB cable and lets not even get started on the formats. No really, I had no idea there were so many. Sigh.

Funny, just today I was trying to explain, to my 77 year old tech-dinasor Mum, my wireless network I have here at home and she interupted "I've had a wireless in the living room for years. How do I get it to connect to the computer?"

Stevyn Colgan said...

Rob - Awww, bless her. It must even more bewildering for the older generation. I'd be interested to see whether they see our fancy new technology as an improvement.

Maybe it's my old and sadly fur-lined ears but I'm not convinced that there is a substantial difference between the sound quality of a vinyl LP and an MP3 file. It seems to me that the only improvement has been an improvement in portability and a reduction in size. Is that a good thing? I don't always think so as I'm bombarded by the tinny hissing and farting of overcranked i-pods on the London Underground. Or the conflicting cacophony of schoolkids playing 10 different ghastly R&B tracks out loud on their mobile phones on the bus. And as for the size ... well, we all know what they say about whether size matters. And what we've lost in square inches, we've lost in soul. There is a sensual pleasure in placing the needle in the groove and hearing that first crackle. You just don't get from pressing a button with a triangle printed on it.

As things get smaller, lighter and ever-more plasticky, I'm yearning for the old clunky analogue stuff. I want tactile pleasure as well as utility. I want good design but I also want substance. Music for me is best heard live, being played by live musicians. At the opposite end of that scale is digitally-remastered recordings with all of the clicks, hisses and imperfecions removed. It's the musical equivalent of the difference between the Mona Lisa and an anodyne, airbrushed Vogue cover girl.

Blimey. That was nearly a post in itself!

SweetPeaSurry said...

I halfway embrace technology. I do have a blackberry that I use for my phone numbers, addresses and birthdays. All of my appointments are logged in as well, and I get little notices of upcoming events. YAY.

I have yet to get an mp3 player though. I just don't listen to music all that often.

I was toying with the idea of getting one of those sony book readers. Too expensive right now, and I would have to double purchase books. I do like to have the ACTUAL book in my library.

Okay ... I'm done babbling, I'm on to the next post as I'm playing catch-up with your blog.