This is the revenge of traditional media. Even the “weaknesses” or the limits of these tools become part of the vocabulary of culture. I’m thinking of such stuff as Marshall guitar amps and black-and-white film – what was once thought most undesirable about these tools became their cherished trademark.
The Marshall guitar amplifier doesn’t just get louder when you turn it up. It distorts the sound to produce a whole range of new harmonics, effectively turning a plucked string instrument into a bowed one. A responsible designer might try to overcome this limitation – probably the engineers at Marshall tried, too. But that sound became the sound of, among others, Jimi Hendrix. That sound is called “electric guitar.” Or think of grainy black-and-white film, or jittery Super 8, or scratches on vinyl. These limitations tell you something about the context of the work, where it sits in time, and by invoking that world they deepen the resonances of the work itself.
Brian Eno wrote about the revenge of the intuitive in 1999, but his point about the apparent flaws in our tools becoming what defines them is still valid today.
Robert Capps, writing 10 years later, reports that some consumers prefer the “percussive sizzle” of MP3s to more high-fidelity formats:
Of course, there are those who appreciate the richer sound of uncompressed files, CDs, or even vinyl records (regarded by some audiophiles as the highest-fi format available). But most of us don’t give it a second thought. In fact, there’s evidence that consumers are simply adapting to the MP3’s thin sound. Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats—from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files—and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They’ve grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle—aka distortion—found in compressed music. To them, that’s what music is supposed to sound like.