Blinded by the Bytes

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 June 2000

I thought it was just me. About half an hour into the Riddley Scott action picture “Gladiator,” I got a strange sort of headache. It began somewhere behind my eyes, and quickly traveled back into my brain. I had a vague memory of the sensation, and as the burly characters hacked at one another inside a computer-rendered Roman Coliseum, I realized when I had experienced this same head-ache before: traveling to Jar-Jar Binks underwater home city in “Star Wars, The Phantom Menace.”

I have been similarly plagued by a kind of unsettling dizziness whenever I listen to MP3 music files – the format into which songs are compressed for easy downloading on the Internet. The ease with which I can obtain music using programs like Napster is more than outweighed by my inability to listen to them. They don’t sound like music at all to me, but like the idea of music. Shallow, fuzzy, and unreal.

An increasing number of my friends are reporting the same phenomena. Could we be allergic to digital technology? Or are we simply too old for my brain to process and understand it? When we were kids, our parents used to complain about not being able to watch the quick-cut videos on MTV. We laughed at the inability of their ancient cerebral cortex to cope with the rapid-fire film grammar of the late 20th Century. Could it be that we thirty-somethings are now in the same position? Are our brains obsolete?

Perhaps. But a little research into the technologies behind today’s digitally simulated sounds and visuals may just reveal the opposite. What’s bothering our analog-era senses is our ability to see and hear what’s really going on. Digital graphics and audio compression routines amount to little more than tricks. Like those “Magic Eye” 3-D pictures that require viewers to un-focus their eyes in order to perceive the illusion, today’s digital trickery demands that we blur our senses to experience the simulation.

In digitally generated movie scenes, for example, the individual objects are often rendered quite flawlessly. A graphic artist might slave for weeks on the shape and texture of a single sword or shield. It’s when all the different parts are put together that digital filmmakers run into trouble, particularly when they’re placing all these computer-rendered objects into a computer-rendered environment.

As long as the objects are placed in a blank void, like the dark nothingness of space, our brains can cope. All we need to do in order to figure out what’s going on is relate one spaceship to another against a black background. When digitally rendered objects are supposed to be moving around in real world environments, however, the simulation falls apart.

The result looks about as real as a Hieronymous Bosch painting: A swarm of crisp images against an equally high-definition backdrop. And even though everything is moving about, reflecting light, and rotating in a way calculated to conform to the rules of three-dimensional motion, the whole image never quite comes together. The individual pictures are never made part of the same world. Our eyes and brains are supposed to make this leap, blurring it all together into a single event. When our sensory apparatus refuses to accept this compromise, pain is the result.

The same is true for compressed digital music files. MP3 is not a simple digital sound format, but something known as a “psycho-acoustic algorithm.” Rather than reproducing music as accurately as possible given its space constraints, a psycho-acoustic algorithm attempts to fool the brain into hearing what is not there.

By eliminating the real overtones associated with different instruments and the environments in which they are being played, then replacing them with set of similar frequencies, MP3 files save a lot of space. The algorithm imitates some of the qualities of good sound production, even though it can’t actually achieve it. Ultimately, our brain must use the sonic clues it receives to imagine the real musical event. We fill in the blank spots.

Again, this might succeed with electronic music, which exists in a vacuum with no real world basis for comparison. But MP3 recreations of recorded instruments and voices do not impact our body in the same way that a real recording does. Our brain might be fooled into believing that it’s hearing an accurate reproduction of sound, but our body resonates about as much as it would with a cheap, AM radio. It’s the disparity between what we think we’re hearing and what we’re actually hearing that causes the confusion and discomfort.

As market realities dictate the development of digital techniques, it may prove more economically efficient to push human perception towards the acceptance of these compromises. If the popularity of Napster is any indication, we already have.

Hopefully, new digital techniques and formats will be developed that spend the processing power of our computers on reproduction instead of simulation. Until that time, however, I’d prefer if such media came with warning labels: “Digital simulations employed.