Compressed Civilization

Łukasz Knasiecki


Main thesis:

  • Advancement of digital civilization enforces the digitization of cultural achievements of the analog civilization.
  • Limited storage capacities of digital media and limited bandwidth of the Internet force the use of lossy compression for audio-visual content; as audio-visual materials circulate in the digital world they become progressively more compressed, and lose more and more data.
  • Large percentage of audio-visual content in the digital world is drastically and permanently deformed; users don’t realize that.
  • The digital civilization, which uses mostly data which has been doubly simplified (digitized, compressed) creates a society which reacts only to clear, simple messages.
  1. The digital and the analog civilizations.

    The digital civilization has almost entirely superseded its analog forbearer. All data, from numbers and text, through images, sound, to video are written and stored in digital format.

  2. First loss (painful, though unavoidable) – digitization.

    To fit analog data into digital world it is necessary to digitize the data, that is turn it into a stream of ones and zeros. The process is painful, because it requires a certain amount of data (depending on digitization’s resolution) to be lost. The process, however, is necessary in order that the data, though castrated, exist in the new reality. On the upside, the digital world offers the possibility of lossless duplication of the digitized data, and so a theoretical chance that the data might live eternally, unchanged.

  3. Second loss – compression.

    And so the digital media offer us an ideal world – where what once entered might live eternally, in perfect health. Ones and zeros are not affected by passing of time, and always look pretty and fixed. There is, however, a problem, inscribed permanently into the essence of the limited space which without doubt the digital world is – the problem of storage capacity. Digital world grows continuously, every second thousands of new CDs, DVDs, disk arrays are created… all this isn’t enough though to fit the ever-growing data.

    To limit the scope of the problem compression is used, in lossless and lossy variants. Lossless compression, based on classic mathematical algorithms ideally fits the essence of the digital medium, using binary algorithms to compress binary data without loss.

    But to thicken the data even more, lossy compression (from now on referred to as compression) was invented. Though it isn’t suitable for numbers or text, it is perfect for sound and images. The basic idea of compression is to simplify the data in a way least noticeable to the user, while saving as much space as possible. Image file formats (JPG), sound (MP3), or video (MPG) have become so common, that many people don’t realize that the data in these files has been compressed (simplified).

  4. Main problems with compression.

    1. Problem 1 – is what I see…?

      The main problem with lossy compression is, of course, that it is impossible to recreate the data in its original form, from before compression. A question comes up: is what I see (hear) really what it was at the beginning? How many times has this picture already been compressed? Is the lack of detail in the background intended, or is it a result of compression? It is IMPOSSIBLE to answer these questions.

    2. Problem 2 – manipulation

      Conspiracy theorists might get great mileage out of lossy compression. Because, if we get an image or sound which has been compressed, someone must have selected the material which has been rejected. He or she did it instead of us. Would we also like to cut out the blurry background for the sake of sharp first layer? Was he/she guided purely by aesthetics? Maybe he/she wanted to hide something?

    3. Problem 3 — compression as a standard (new and improved!)

      Because the industry approaches the idea of lossy compression in quite a lighthearted manner (the idea “more of lesser quality” is one of the cornerstones of the consumer society), compression enters out homes unnoticed under guise of technical innovation.

      • Example 1 – MINI DV

        Problem of faulty color compression in MINI-DV and DV camcorders (slides).

      • Example 2 – DVD

        It is widely accepted that DVD is superior to VHS. Problems of loss of detail in movies distributed on DVDs, inability to publish artistic and experimental works on DVDs, where every cell is an important element of the work and any interference with it (through compression) is inadmissible. Facts – any well made VHS copy offers definitely better, more plastic picture than its DVD version. (slides)

  5. Future outlooks.

    Fast advancements in digital technologies, and the increasing capacity of digital media, are a good omen for the compressed world. Increasing capacity of the media will allow to reduce the compression factor (for compression will never disappear, there will never be enough available space) and with it, the quality of audio-video materials in the digital world will increase. But it will not help materials from our days, compressed for our current needs. Many of them already exist only in digital form, highly compressed and permanently crippled.

  6. Compressed civilization.

    An interesting question arises: how does a society change, when its data is continuously simplified? Doesn’t the prevalence of compression fit perfectly with the promotion of uniform fashions and world-views in the global society, simple and clear, without subtleties and shades, which are lost, like in digital compression? Are we stepping into a world where people react only to simple and direct messages, pushing all plurality and difference into non-existence?