We have always been such suckers for the shiny new object, especially now, with digital technologies coming fast and furious at consumers' kryptonite — the compulsive desire to own the latest and greatest. Whether or not the shiny and new actually improves our lives is rarely a consideration. And maybe it should be.
In the 1970s, a harbinger of the present-day digital deification of music (and much more) arrived in the form of a technology called Dolby Noise Reduction. Used in movie theaters as a chest-thumping signifier of top-shelf sound, Dolby became a hip must-have feature for every home stereo unit. But the dirty little secret was that Dolby just wasn't very good. It deflated dynamics and made music sound muffled and claustrophobic. By reducing noise, Dolby diminished the listening experience.
Still, we're predisposed to believe noise is a bad thing. Truth is, it's a natural — and essential — component of life, providing texture and context to just about everything. In the digital world, though, signal is king, and noise is something to be squashed. What this does is gauze reality, according to author Damon Krukowski. Signal without noise numbs us and slowly chips away at our humanity.
Krukowski presents a persuasive case in "The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World." As he systematically traces the history and evolution of sound and digital encroachment, he determines that the obsolescence of analog-based audio plays a bigger than expected role in the de-evolution of society. In the digital age, we've become self-centered, antisocial drones increasingly (and blissfully) unaware of the world around us, hypnotized by inferior-sounding music blasting from our ear buds. Unwittingly, the space between those ear buds can get lonely and disorienting.
The result is we find ourselves in a universe that's increasingly curated, a convenience that allows us to turn off our minds, relax and float downstream. Our choices are determined by digital algorithms that make our decisions so we don't have to: Think Amazon, Yelp or any music streaming service making "suggestions" based on our user habits.
Krukowski is best known as a musician — he was the drummer for '90s indie band Galaxie 500. It would be easy — and possibly justified — for him to spew a bitter, geezer-fied rant about how great things were at the end of the last century. After all, musicians feel it more than most. For example, Neil Young often issued get-off-my-lawn screeds about the superior sound quality of analog vinyl versus digital CDs and MP3s (that is, until he went into the digital music player business).
Instead, Krukowski takes a less emotional yet still pointedly passionate look at what's been lost in the digital era. Again, it's the noise. Noise is beautiful. Noise is tangible and real. It's information. "When we listen to noise, we listen to the space around us and to the distance between us," he writes. "[W]e listen together in shared time."
Take, for example, our over-reliance on GPS applications. In the past, Angelenos could study a Thomas Guide or call for directions to get from one point to another. Still, it was necessary for us to immerse ourselves in our environment — the surrounding noise — in order to find our way. GPS has become a crutch, an enabler, leaving us lost without it. "Without analog clues to location, information gathered from our own senses, the world becomes an Alice in Wonderland-like place where signs pointing north nonetheless lead south, and sounds come from the left or right but never straight ahead," Krukowski muses.
Cellphones face similar scrutiny. They remove atmosphere while isolating signal in order to increase sound quality: i.e. noise cancellation. Which means voices can be heard but not felt. The sense of distance created by analog phone reception is now stripped away.
Apart from reminders of what's being lost, the author's historical journey through technological changes is entertaining and enlightening. From sheet music to wax cylinders and player pianos to stereo, subwoofers and Napster, each small shift moved the culture in some way.
For example, mono recording, by the very way the sound was delivered, was designed as a communal experience. But stereo, particularly with headphones, was isolating. "Each of us must occupy it alone," Krukowski writes. That doesn't mean it can't be mind-blowing, he explains, highlighting the aural beauty of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." He describes similar transcendence in Frank Sinatra's studio genius — his mastery of phrasing and manipulating the mic — and the communal efficiency of unamplified communication during Occupy Wall Street.
Krukowski finds many ways in which noise manifests … and has disappeared. If noise is information, the current state of music, for example, appeals to the illiterate. With LPs or CDs, listeners could glean context for the music they listen to — liner notes, production credits, instruments played. Today, music has been stripped to the bare essential — a sound file. The rest of it? Just so much noise. "Digital music is all the sound you cannot touch," he writes.
Recordings themselves, particularly analog recordings made on tape, were documents set in a fixed moment of time. But digital technology has turned the album into a fluid proposition. After Kanye West issued "The Life of Pablo" in 2016, he continued to tinker with the released and posted tracks. West described this flexibility an example of "contemporary art," but Krukowski calls it "art severed from its own history."
By their very nature, MP3s are of a degraded quality in order to improve the accuracy of the transmission. Older folks who make use of the technology may complain about the inferiority of these sound files, but younger listeners, those without context, have propelled a streaming revolution and have no qualms about sound quality. It's just another piece of candy, disposable and often free.
Analog recording is the opposite, imperfect, with a past. Like an oft-played vinyl album filled with crackles and pops, "Analog sound media resemble our own bodies," Krukowski writes. Indeed, like our bodies, analog is easily broken down. In the digital age, when the isolated signal is treated as information and monetized, only the noise belongs to us. It's something that requires proper care because without it, we will become silent.
Himmelsbach-Weinstein is a Los Angeles writer and television producer. He blogs at valleyboy.net
By Damon Krukowski