Fidelity, compression and culture

The alphabet is a miracle, one that is compounded by books. And the lessons we learn from this cornerstone of modern culture apply to organizations, meetings, tech, politics and almost everything we do together.

Your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird contains every single word that Harper Lee had in the edition she signed off on. Even if the paper, the page count and the typography change, it’s a high-fidelity duplicate of the original.

She wrote the book using the same 26 letters that every author in the English language uses, and when you read it, it will reveal itself in precisely the same format as she intended.

The fidelity is high. Every duplicate is the same.

And the work isn’t compressed. It unfolds precisely as the creator intended–26 letters, all available to each author.

This is different than AM radio or a song copy on a cassette. AM radio is compressed, and by the time it gets to you across the city, it’s also low fidelity. MP3s are compressed, but every copy is a high-fidelity duplicate of the first one. On the other hand, with cassettes, each copy loses something. Eventually the copies become nothing like the original. 800 copies later and you have nothing but static.

Lossy compression is forever. Information was intentionally removed. What you hear isn’t what the artist heard in the studio, and all the equipment in the world can’t restore it. On the other hand, math and computers can now often give us reversible compression, but that’s a different discussion. We compress information because smaller files give us a chance for higher fidelity and cheaper networking.

High fidelity means that each copy is what we expect.

Lossless compression (or no compression) means that we haven’t left anything out in order to get the fidelity or sharing to work.

Packaged food companies and makers of cheap chocolate prize the consistency of high fidelity (every bar is the same, if lousy) over the magic of something special. So they blend ingredients and dumb down the recipes so it’s always the same. This compression isn’t done in error, it’s something they work hard on.

A Broadway show is high fidelity when you see it, but that disappears if you try to save it. You have to be there live, a reference recording on video isn’t the same. Telling someone about the show is not the same as seeing it.

And the script is not lossy compression. In fact, the script is exactly what the playwright intended, but the director and the actors embellish the script in each production and performance. That’s part of their job. Sort of the opposite of compression.

Gossip is compressed and low fidelity news of the community, and both get worse as it spreads.

One of the miracles of email and the internet was how high the fidelity is (instant perfect copies, forever) and the ability for text and certain forms of other media to be uncompressed as they spread. Of course an MP3 can’t be turned back into the original reel to reel master recording, and a Wikipedia article changes over time.

Language translations are lossy and also low fidelity. Nuance disappears as we swap one language for another, which is why a talented translator is so much more valuable than a computer doing the same work.

And meetings? Meetings at work are largely low fidelity and ultimately quite compressed. Unlike a memo that can be in and of itself, a meeting is a performance, and then it’s summarized, and summarized again, until it becomes a story that’s a shadow of what the person who started the whole thing had in mind. Nuance disappears.

Democracy is probably best served by high resolution and the non-lossy compression of ideas and arguments. Alas, the internet and TV, while adding speed and impact, probably lower the resolution and increase compression at the same time.

As Jeff Jarvis points out in response to a great piece by Ted Chiang, GPT and other AI chatbots are essentially lossy compression mechanisms for the web. They read the entire web and compress it on demand into a few paragraphs. Like Cliffs Notes, one of the problems of this convenience is that it can’t be uncompressed. The nuance disappears and is difficult to reconstruct.

Our lifetimes have seen this pendulum go back and forth, over and over. From black and white TV to color (this offers way less compression of the original image). From film in the theater to low quality streaming on a phone. From a landline phone conversation to a bad connection on a cell to a few characters in a text message. CDs sounded worse than a good LP, but SACDs and MQA can sound better in the right circumstances. Companies go from handbooks and memos to hallway conversations to Slack checkins.

Lossy compression is forever. Fidelity is a powerful delight. Stories spread and resonate, but by their nature compress the truth of what we just encountered. A novel is the author’s complete telling of the story the way they chose to tell it, while history books and journalism always compress what actually happened.

If you want to change the culture, or understand a technology in media, or do history, mess with fidelity and look for compression. Robert Caro is a low-compression biographer…

And now, AI redefines fidelity altogether, sometimes embellishing what was there before and presenting something that might mistakenly be seen as a high fidelity original.

And still, the alphabet is a miracle. High fidelity, low compression, resilient and widely distributed.