POSTED March 07, 2011
That’s Bad Form — The Cloud ⚓
It took some nuanced digging during downtime to get here, but lately the idea of cloud-based media has been nagging at an old metaphor for me — Plato’s theory of forms. And there’s some Naoto Fukasawa concepts from his latest presentation at Chicago’s MCA in this one too. Here’s how that goes:
Plato argues that the idea of an object, such as a chair, is purest in it’s non-articulated “form,” sort of like a blueprint, or pure idea. A blueprint remains just abstract enough that its color, exact shape, dimensions, etc remain flexible to the point that we get hundreds of thousands of real-world creations that qualify as a “chair” even though they might look nothing alike. This reminds me of the absurdity of dog breeds. Seriously, how are a Wolfhound and a Chihuahua both dogs?
Fukasawa, the famed Japanese industrial designer, recently spoke in a similar way about chairs. Chairs, in his estimation, are not objects with four legs, a back and a seat — they’re about sitting. In this way, humans can violate an existing object, like a fallen tree, or a hand rail, and turn it into a chair without giving it a second thought. Or they create a chair from out of the nothingness with the same simple act of sitting on the ground. Sitting is the most pure form of chair, as Plato might put it. How in tune is this guy with the idea of the pure form? He showed a slide of a pair of slippers and barely mustered the desire to say the word — “slippers” — before moving on. He wants you to see his designs as if you already thought they existed. A sort of archetype of the human experience rather than a derivation or copy of the idea.
And that’s what brings me to cloud computing and cloud-based media. Think of all the iterations of a specific song you’ve owned. Go back in time. You probably had at least a few albums in a variety of “forms” such as vinyl, cassette, CD, mp3, etc. These are all lower instances, in Plato’s concept, of the original, live sound, which would be the song in its purest form. You’ve experienced this too — a live show is often the most memorable “form” of a song you’ve ever witnessed. In this way, I think “form” can be explained, at least partially, by hi-fi vs low-fi. As more and more instances are made, fidelity and purity are lost. Below, this guy made a pretty rad video, uploaded it to Youtube, downloaded it, and re-uploaded it again about 1,000 times to prove this point. Genius.
Where this gets interesting is when we consider what cloud storage of a song might mean to our mental model of original form. For example, if I have an instance of a song on my iPod, then I have a derivative copy. At least conceptually speaking, this means its a less pure instance than the original file. It’s an mp3 that’s been compressed and downloaded, and maybe even converted in the process of playback. However, the future of the cloud is about accessing media itself, the song, video, etc., (not “the song I own”) anywhere I want, any time, which makes the instance we experience closer to the purest form. We’re all sharing in a singular instance. But the degradation model doesn’t hold up here, because it’s a streamed version of the song, even worse than mp3. While it’s closer to the mental model of ethereal form, it’s actually the opposite in terms of fidelity.
This will help — Plato illustrates his theory with the famous cave allegory. In his story, a group of humans have been chained in a cave all their lives. During this time, they can see shadows of passing objects flickering on the walls, backlit by a fire just outside the cave. But they never see the objects themselves. Their understanding of what these shadows represent is forever degraded, like a low-fidelity ghost of the actual thing, until they are able to break free from their chains and approach the actual objects in question. When they can experience the things first-hand, they experience knowing them for what they actually are.
From a Death Cab show in NYC circa 2003.
So in this case, Plato surmises that objectness is the closest way of knowing for mankind, whereas in his theory of form, the idea remains the purest form, and any articulation is a reductive act. This gets caught in a loop when we think about the cloud. Accessing a song in the cloud would be to stream from the most original source of the form, rather than my local, derivative copy. But that’s where we get screwed, because the pureness of the form is actually the worst possible fidelity. The promise is false.
So what happens if we take the most pure form, and strip it of the quality of pureness? Well, we all get shitty music for sure. It’s like saying that because I can have a Facebook friend, which is as close to befriending the “idea” of a person as possible, it’s supposed to be more pure than actually being with that person. Somehow the equation is missing the catalyst that causes the transformation. And that brings me to the realization that between the idea, or form of a “chair” and the shitty chairs that we create that only embarrass the concept of a chair itself, is execution. It’s not derivations that destroy the pure form of an idea, but the shoddy execution of so many that we begin to doubt the value of the idea itself. In other words, there’s a lot of shitty music out there and sometimes it kills my willingness to bother owning it.
“You’d be hard pressed to come up with an idea so bad that it couldn’t succeed with the right execution. And it would be even harder to imagine a great idea that couldn’t fail if the execution were left to morons. Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.” — Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.
To approach an articulation of an idea, even a mediocre idea that has been well executed, is to interact with the greatest possible “form” that humans can experience in our state of being. If we can’t witness pure form as Plato would describe it, the best we can hope to do is create the purest instance of that idea, or die trying.
The cloud will never represent archetype. And ownership of a derivative will never represent the pureness of form. And that’s how my anxiety over the local ownership vs cloud-based media model began. I so badly desire to stop managing and organizing media myself, but I also desire to experience the quality of the actual object as much as possible. I have no desire to seek out FLAC lossless audio files, start investing in vinyl again, or even think about a home stereo. Ugh. But I also don’t want Pandora’s streaming quality to unwittingly leave me apathetic towards seeking a pure form of audio experience. That’d be like sitting in some art student’s sustainable chair made from bike tubes, or some shit, and thinking that’s it’s an awesome chair. It’s not about cross-breeding a lab and a poodle to get a labradoodle and calling it a dog because it has four legs and a tail. It’s about achieving the closest possible proximity of the idea of “chair” through the elimination of unnecessary derivative.
Possible, but unhelpful derivations of otherwise solid ideas.
Live performance — hopefully that can remain unchanged in my lifetime. Its not derivative. It’s not pure idea. It’s just an idea executed, sometimes, as best as it possibly can be. So for now, anytime I desire a “chair,” I’ll at least be comforted by the understanding that all I have to do is sit down. I need to go to more shows.