“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine” is the title of a new Wired article. In it, Robert Capps makes the following point:
The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as “high-quality.” And it’s happening everywhere. As more sectors connect to the digital world, from medicine to the military, they too are seeing the rise of Good Enough tools like the Flip . Suddenly what seemed perfect is anything but, and products that appear mediocre at first glance are often the perfect fit.
Capps goes on to make his point using a number of examples: The Flip video camera (easy). Web apps (no installation). Mp3s (small file size). Even healthcare. Quality, he says, is no longer measured by fidelity and richness of experience. It is measured by convenience.
I suppose I cannot argue with empiricism. What is is what is, and the article as a whole seems fairly descriptively accurate. But let me wax normative for a moment. The masses may be satisfied with disposable, cheap aesthetic. But society as a whole needs to retain the focus on quality. John Mahoney at Gizmodo makes the point in an article entitled “Why We Need Audiophiles“:
We play my solid 256kbps VBR MP3 of “Heroes” off my iPod; it sounds like shit. Free of pops and crackles, yes, but completely lifeless, flat in every way. This is the detail that matters: Audiophiles are basically synesthesiacs. They “see” music in three-dimensional visual space. You close your eyes in Fremer’s chair, and you can perceive a detailed 3D matrix of sound, with each element occupying its own special space in the air. It’s crazy and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It is within this 3D space where the audiophile lives and operates, and spends all his money. Fremer himself is the first to admit that it would only take $3,000 to $5,000 to build a system that will be deeply satisfying to most music fans. On a scale of 1 to 100 completely of my own devising, let’s put this system at around 85. Now, imagine that you’ve tasted 85, and you want to go higher; you want Bowie’s cries of kissing by the wall to inhabit the most perfect point in your system’s matrix, and Bryan Ferry’s back-up fly girls on “Avalon” to flank him just beautifully. That, friends, is where you might end up paying hundreds of thousands.
So why would you pay thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars, when a few hundred bucks gets you something decent enough? My feeling is that it is because quality matters. The quality of the music itself. The experience. Not gadgets, not apps, not disposable conveniences. Mahoney continues:
The thing is, Fremer loves music first and foremost. The audiophile I had feared was one who cares far more about the overpriced gadgetry than the actual music. This is not who I ended up meeting. This man listens to music and makes sure it was recorded with the best fidelity, that the intents of the artist have been preserved. And thank God he does, because we certainly don’t. I listen to most of my music on downloaded, compressed, lossy MP3s, and so do you. But even if you can’t hear the sound quality, we need someone like Fremer up on that wall, a preservationist of archival recordings and an ombudsman for new recording techniques, because one day you’ll want to hear it, and it’ll be there because of audiophiles. These guardians in and outside of the recording industry ensure that, whether it’s in a movie theater tomorrow or in your own home listening room on some far off future date, you’ll be able always get back to a recording that expresses every frequency, every ounce of warmth and life, of the original performance. Because if you can hear, it, if you ever get to live in that 3D space, you’ll be glad Fremer helped defend it.
I feel that way about information retrieval (and music information retrieval, for that matter ). Most people using web search engines don’t want fidelity. They are satisfied with the cheap, convenient, McDonald’s-equivalent of information. But we need Infomationphiles, the same way we need Audiophiles. Perhaps convenience and the easy money that comes from encouraging a landfill-clogging disposable consumption habit is great in the short term. But if that’s all anybody wants, that’s all that will ever exist, in the long term. Audiophiles drive technological innovation, and they do so out of a pure love not of the technology, but of the music itself. I only hope that there are still Informationphiles out there, folks who want the same high-fidelity, quality experience on the web.