Fidelity is inversely related to accessibility. Face-to-face conversation with another sentient being conveys a reasonable probability that one person will more or less get the gist of the other person’s message, their intent, their content, their raison de parler. A faithful transmission. Now granted that was more likely to be the case in the middle of the last century, a time when conversation passed between two parties undistracted by cellular phones, television or radio broadcasts, errant emails, text messages, FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. Unfortunately now, even in the absence of those actual distractions, most human minds have been trained to the pacing and discontinuity of our dogged electronic companions. We are at one with them. And we are at sea with each other. Nonetheless, a face-to-face conversation has at least the possibility of a degree of fidelity unachievable in other forms of interpersonal augury. You can stare directly into your interrogator’s face, his eyes, watch the lines around the corners of his mouth, the flexing of his cheek muscles, the furrow of his brow, the timbre of his voice, the pauses, subtle changes in volume and speed, the direction of his gaze, the rhythm of his breath. And hear the actual words. To say nothing of the rest of body language. It is a finely tuned high fidelity medium that bears with it maximal capacity for the conveyance of subtle meaning. Fidelity. But you have to be right there.
You can only have such a rich and nuanced conversation if two bodies are brought together in close proximity. In The Temple of Communication. They can’t really even be in different rooms of the same house, though that is oft attempted, much to the frustration of one party or the other. What? Weren’t you listening? Were you talking to me? And so on. No, you just have to be there, mano a mano. So you see, accessibility is limited. If you want to have that conversation with that person you have to be in that place. Punct. Then there’s letter writing. Precise to a point. Much of the nuance and moment-to-moment variability is lost. And of course the immediacy of the feedback is gone. The response delay can be excruciating. But it renders the recipient accessible, even at a great distance. At least along the lines of spatial coordinates. The temporal coordinate loses all claim of fidelity. Some pen pals manage to overcome the gap by the heroic prodigiousness of their efforts, the shared rhythm of their epistolary exchange. But these are rare events in the history of human communication. The reading of scratches in the ash of passing thoughts. Spodomancy is an ultimately unreliable art. Then the telephone was invented. Instant augury at great distance.
The original scratchy conveyance of voice over the telephone wires was no doubt an astounding feat of prestidigitation for its day. Ghosts in the machines. The sound quality was poor, but people overlooked the low fidelity because of the sudden magical accessibility of distant folks with which to converse. And over time, as the countryside was blanketed in telephone wires, and the technology improved by leaps and bounds, both accessibility and fidelity gained ground. Telephonic discourse crossed oceans and clambered into the air. But, I still insist, even at its finest, words over the telephone wire are but a tinny echo of flesh speaking directly to flesh. And of course there used to be the matter of having to be near a phone. The loss of information due to restricting communication to the auditory channel sometimes results in spectacular emotional mismatches, a failure to communicate. Fidelity goes out the window. Clamomancy, the practice of falgush, Persian divination by eavesdropping. But two things supervened at more or less the same time: the internet and cellular telephones. Accessibility soared. Letter writing done in a flash over vast distances, spanning the entire globe. A telephone in every pocket! Electronic augury was at hand.
Fidelity took a nosedive. Email resulted in a kind of laziness in communication that falsely assumed the receiving party was on the same wavelength as the sender, no need for subtle details. The not infrequent emotional disconnect still results in relationship ruptures, paranoid assumptions and escalation of conflict where there actually is none. The reading of electronic entrails is a dicey business. The use of distorted punctuation!!!!!, JARRING CAPITALIZATION, and that ever present hobgoblin of the mind, the emoji ;=), all fail miserably to overcome the fundamental loss of fidelity. The same problem is multiplied in text messages and social media missives, further exacerbated by the necessary brevity of the infoblasts and the massive dissemination to presumed interested parties. Everybody’s got a dog in the fight, even if their dogs never have the opportunity to have a proper doggy introduction. Cell phone conversation, rapidly becoming passé, is hindered not only by the constraints of telephonic discourse in general, but by the cellular technology artifact that when one person speaks the other party is perforce cut off. The whole rhythm of human talking to human is irreparably distorted. No one talking at the same time, whether in agreement or disagreement, no live harmony or counterpoint, just lockstep digitized conformity. Fidelity takes another hit, in spite of being able to ring up anybody anytime anywhere, practically limitless accessibility. Then video entered the picture. Video-augury, the divine image.
We always knew it would happen. Every boomer grew up with Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist watch and George Jetson’s videocom with his boss. It was only a matter of time. The time came, FaceTime. And Apple Watch, WhatsApp, Zoom and Son of Zoom and Bride of Zoom. The whole world seeing and hearing and gesticulating and speaking all at once. And increasingly with the enhancement of digital backgrounds, virtual facemasks and immersive settings. We’re there! ;=) Not. As the pace of technological advance accelerates, there is even less time to focus on fidelity. The digitized cut-off has leaped from cellular phones into the vidspace, and the possibilities for platform malfunction have multiplied dramatically. But we tolerate it, as we tolerate the lack of maintenance in all capital-driven systems, because we see immediate profit. Faces stare at us through the ether, faces we more or less recognize and care to see, like newly departed loved ones in heaven who have miraculously found a way to wave back at us from afar. Electronic necromancy. Cheap tricks, boozing at the doggery. Yes, the voices don’t always match the movement of the lips, and the whole damn thing freezes from time to time, but dammit, we’re really there. Or are we?
I admit it, it’s delightful to actually look upon and gesticulate with old friends who live in far flung locations or are quarantined due to our unending pandemic. Unending in part due to our just-in-time supply chain and the geopolitics of who flung poo. And here in our good ol’ US of A, the rugged individualism that allows a person to think they have the right to threaten the lives of others because, well, dammit, no one’s gonna tell ‘em what to do. Communitarian considerations be damned. We ain’t no frickin’ commonist state! But I digress. Still possible with the written word, though likely many readers will try to cut to the chase, wherever that is. But in vidspace there are no hugs, no handshakes, no claps on the back, and not a terribly wide range of movement. A virtual straight jacket. And the so-called ‘immersive’ options only make it worse, sacrificing picture quality for the illusion of inhabiting some weird fictional space together. And all the farts and glitches that are attendant upon the medium. Thinking of Carl Icahn’s quip to Bill Gates about computers versus cars, imagine if you had to reboot your friend in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. Well, there is the occasional smack upside the head, but you get me. We are avidly making the sacrifice of fidelity as we suck up more infospace accessibility. The servers are burning up the cpu’s and btu’s and iou’s somewhere in their underground refrigerated spaces, contributing mightily to the drain on electrical resources, in direct competition with bitcoin mining. And the planet’s ability to sustain its human payload is rapidly waning. We neglect the land and worship at the altar of the virtual. Oneiromancy. It’s only a dream.
It strikes me as no accident that just as we have been informed by the most recent IPCC climate disaster report, that current trends in anthropocentrically unfavorable climate change will continue unabated until the year 2050 NO MATTER WHAT WE DO NOW, that we humans have turned our lonely eyes more than ever to the comforts of the virtual world. Maybe, buried within all those Zoom meetings, TikTok videos, YouTube lessons, Instagram portfolios, Twitter feeds, FaceBook meetups, podcasts and even sexting, is the secret wishful thought that maybe, just maybe, we can all transport ourselves to the virtual reality, the simulacrum, that the philosophers and computer scientists are telling us we already inhabit, even if we don’t know it. Total absolute instantaneous accessibility of everything all the time everywhere! The Amazon business model? Yeeha, bring it on. Yikes. Fidelity approaches zero. I mean, if it’s all virtual, how does the concept of fidelity even make sense? What is the basis for comparison? What is the source? Is you is or is you ain’t my reality? How would you ever know? A heapin’ dollop o’ solipsism all around. Zero fidelity. Or I suppose 100% if all there is is you. Is that you?
What’s it all mean, Mr. Natural? Thus spake R. Crumb in Zap Comix back in the day. And you know what Mr. Natural said? “It don’t mean shit.” Well, maybe he was referring to all that thinking about thinking, endless navel-gazing and crawling into places where the sun don’t shine. Maybe we need to get out from behind our electronic screens and stand out in the sunshine and greet our fellow dwellers upon the planet surface, human or otherwise. Maybe we should figure out how to be kind and true to one another and clean up after ourselves, and take care of shit when it breaks, and maintain our shit so it doesn’t break just when somebody needs it. Maybe we should converse amongst ourselves and commune with the natural world. Maybe we should shift our paradigm to doing that 80% of our time or more and leave the screen time for the necessities. Like reading this love letter to humanity that I am writing right now. A tough-love letter that I will have to read out loud to myself on a daily basis in order to break through the machine trance that has grabbed me by the cranium and won’t readily let me go. I still find myself reaching for the volume button on the silent car radio when I’m having trouble hearing my seatmate’s voice. Crank up the fidelity, dudes, it’s off to rehab for most of us. Phone me, or better yet come over and visit on the back deck, pandemic and all that. It would be divine. I’m accessible to those who call me friend or kin.