Good enough really isn’t good enough for me
Blaming technology - skype, iPods and more - for sliding down the quality slope
A generation has grown up never having had the pleasure of a crystal clear line.
Technology, we generally accept, improves and advances the quality of life. “Vorsprung durch Technik” (advancement through technology), as our friends at Audi put it.
But hang on. In many ways that directly touch on our daily lives, technology’s life-lifting reputation is all a big con.
Let’s start with phone calls, where our expectations have sunk as our tolerance has risen. At some point, the world collectively decided that call quality didn’t really matter as long as you could make out most of the words. No one is bothered these days about fuzzy lines that drop in and out, issues that would once have had us complaining to our phone provider. You could be talking for five minutes before you realised you had Angela Merkel on the blower and not your mother. OK, so you thought it odd that mum suddenly seemed interested in European Central Bank interest rates, but still.
In the name of convenience and low cost – in Skype to Skype calls, no cost, which is a persuasive price point – we just don’t care. It wasn’t always thus.
Peak telephony in Ireland happened in the early to mid-1990s, when the old, analogue system was replaced by digital exchanges, giving Ireland one of the best phone networks in the world. Then, as mobiles and internet telephony encroached, we ditched landlines. In 2012, fewer than 50 per cent of us had fixed-line phones (many of those, mediocre voice over internet ones), while most people have mobile phones. An entire generation has grown up never having had the pleasure of a crystal clear line, where you don’t need to say ‘what?’ several times, or wait for the person to phone back on a better connection.
Then, there’s music, which has been skiing briskly down the slope of quality decline for ages. I blame the iPod. No, wait: let’s snarl collectively at the real villain, memorably portrayed in The Social Network, Sean Parker. When he launched Napster – now largely forgotten, except by those of us of a certain age, as the free music download site that disrupted a whole industry – Parker discovered that millions of people would digitise (or ‘rip’) their music collections and make them available to others.
But in doing so, the sound quality went over a cliff. Back then, most of us had slow internet connections and might wait 10 minutes to download a three-minute song. Ripping the song at lower quality meant the file was smaller and travelled out of or into our PCs at a more gratifying rate.
Enter the iPod. We wanted more songs on our iPods (as if 2,000, most of which we never listened to, wasn’t enough), rather than the better sound quality of the original recording. And, despite the vastly increased capacity of storage at lower cost, we stick with mediocre. Download music from any online music store or stream it over a service and the quality default is “who cares”.
The fact that that music warrior Neil Young has used Kickstarter to fund a much better quality alternative, Pono (ponomusic.com/), which means ‘righteous’ in Hawaiian (yes, it’s just as you’d hope for from the rock icon, isn’t it?) is the exception that proves the rule. “There is a way to do this right, and we are going to do it,” says the website. Do it, Neil! Rip in there like a hurricane and give us back a decent sound experience.
And finally, I offer up photography. No, I’m not arguing that we have to go back to fiddling with film cartridges and waiting ages to see our holiday snaps.
I’d just like to see better quality images. Thanks to our mobile phones (see, we are back to telephony again as the ringleader of society’s decline) we all take low image quality pictures – and frankly, too many of them.
Even more cats
Because the cost of taking and sharing images has sunk to zero, hardly anyone filters subject, composition or resolution for quality. Hence we have to look at lots of stuff, shared by friends and family, that we really have no need to see. Meals. Kids. More cats that the internet ever dreamed existed. I know because I take and post gazillions of tedious, slightly blurred, poorly executed pictures myself.
In a perfect world, no one would be able to buy a mobile without bringing in a certificate showing they had completed at least one photography class.
What’s really going on here is the cult of “good enough”. It’s a long-recognised phenomenon in the tech world. By a ratio of about 80 to 20, the majority will take “good enough” quality at lower price over a superior, more expensive alternative.
The classic example was VHS v Beta video tapes.
“Video what?”, did you say? Oh dear. Let’s just not even go there.