WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?
9 MIN READ
I rewatched a great film last night, A Scanner Darkly. The film, an adaptation of the eponymous Phillip K. Dick novel, explores subtlety — something that doesn’t really exist in society anymore. On the surface it’s a “trippy bro, drug film” but below its visually intriguing surface lies uncomfortable questions about mental “illness”, law enforcement overreach, and American corporatism. For this essay, I want to use mental illness and audio as jumping off points into the more abstract topic of spectra. This more abstract concept of continuous vs discrete is an interesting idea to me and has been for some time.
What is mental illness? I am intimately acquainted with anxiety and depression, but PKD’s1 works always evoke imagery more associated with schizophrenia such as paranoia, delusions of grandeur in which the character believes that they are on a special mission or somehow chosen by some supernatural being or force, and of course hallucinations.
How do we know if someone is schizophrenic? The presupposition that question is based on is that people fall into two categories: “schizophrenic” and “not-schizophrenic”. Reality is not so cut and dry. Psychologists are now beginning to talk about schizophrenia as a spectrum, but this introduces additional complexity. With additional complexity comes new problems.
His work seems to suggest that he was intimately familiar with some of the mental states produced by schizophrenia. He hallucinated, claimed to have been possessed by prophets multiple times, and was in psychic contact with aliens. Despite these afflictions, he wrote an incredible number of novels and short stories during his very short career. He earned enough money to not become homeless and destitute. By all accounts, his five marriages and divorces aside, he lived a relatively stable life — which is not a small feat. It seems likely that PKD was on the schizophrenic spectrum but not far enough along it to be called “schizophrenic”.
Despite schizophrenia being a spectrum, we’ve still implicitly drawn a line somewhere along it that delineates between “schizophrenic” and “not schizophrenic”. That line seems to be solid at first glance, everybody knows what “living a stable life” looks like, right? If we zoom in the boundary is much more permeable. Five marriages and divorces are stable, but are six? What about 25? While we’re at it, what about the “enough money to not be homeless” bit? Housing costs are at record highs, if someone is having occasional hallucinations but is able to afford rent they’re not schizophrenic. If the rent goes up and their income stays the same, they get kicked out of their house, are they schizophrenic now?
My hunch is that we’re very uncomfortable with
People that walk this line between two ways of being
The prospect that we might be “a bit schizophrenic”
These two thoughts point a finger at the not-so-solid boundary between the two groups. If there’s not a solid boundary how will we know when we’ve crossed the line? Uncomfortable.
It’s 2011 or so and I’m in my Music Technology I class at Bowling Green State University. I’m sipping some stale coffee out of a cheap, decomposing travel mug despite the fact that it’s about 4PM. My teacher, Dr. Elainie Lillios, is explaining the difference between digital and analog audio, it’s one of the foundational bits of abstractable knowledge that would inform many of my later thought experiments.
Imagine this. A cellist walks on the stage in a spotlit recital hall. They take a seat with the cello in front of them and bring the bow to the strings. As they drag the bow across one of the strings, the friction vibrates the string. The rapidly vibrating string and body of the cello create complex compression and rarefaction patterns in the air near the cello. The waves propagate out from the cello and begin to bounce off of various surfaces in the performance space. A combination of waves from this primary sound, reflections, reflections of reflections, and so on are funneled into your ear canal via the outer architecture of your ear. The waves vibrate the internal structures of the ear which then turn the vibration into nerve signals which are perceived as sound. The bow stops. That’s analog sound. It just is. Compressions and rarefactions and infinitely complex patterns at a resolution that surpasses the “highest resolution”.
Suppose a microphone is set up in the performance space to record and ultimately playback the cellist’s performance. The cellist produces sound in the same way but a microphone receives the vibrations. The microphone transforms the vibrations into electrical voltage, still in the realm of analog. The microphone reaches an audio interface connected to the computer. This is the bridge between worlds. The audio interface must translate the analog voltages into a language the computer understands, finite numbers. This is where lines must be drawn.
The computer cannot store infinite numbers. Depending on the system and its capabilities .01 might be a valid number but it might not be able to store the number .000001. The line must be drawn somewhere. If in reality the wave being recorded is pretty close to .123456789 but our computer can only record numbers up to the resolution of the hundredths place the number will be recorded as .12 which is different from .1234567892. This is digital sound.
Where do you draw the line in your listening habits?
A curiosity emerges at this stage — why is this not a huge issue for society? It is for some misguided people. There is an occasionally fluctuating interest from certain groups of people in achieving higher audio fidelity via vinyl records which is almost entirely a nonsensical pursuit3. Most people don’t care at all.
Arguably the most popular streaming service, Spotify, streams music at an average of the very low fidelity bitrate of 96kbps. Even the “very high” quality setting will still provide the listener with compressed audio. As a culture, this is where we have “drawn the line”. As a society, the masses implicitly decided that compressed audio at 96kbps was “good enough” or at least good enough to not cancel Spotify over.
In order to talk about something we must kill it, or at least deprive it of the thing that makes it alive. A word does many things. The most interesting thing it does in terms of this essay is it determines what is and is not, it divides. “Schizophrenic” implies the existence of “not schizophrenic”.
Reality is probably different. A better (but maybe still not perfect) model for representing reality is a “spectrum”. Schizophrenia is probably, in reality, better represented as a spectrum. Autism is a spectrum. Gender is a spectrum. Sexuality is a spectrum. How much ones enjoys PKD books is a spectrum.
Digitization of audio, as demonstrated in the example above, divides. In a system that can only represent tenths, the system will make some kind of determination as to what a signal coming in at .05 should be recorded as. If truncation is employed, it’s 0, if rounding, it’s .1, both are only approximations of reality.
While we can admit that the spectrum is a more realistic way of viewing reality, we must ultimately live in the world of language. A lot of thinking is done via language and it’s one of the necessary prerequisites for having a society. Since language divides, we must each decide where to draw the line on each concept. Our capacity for higher granularity in our line drawing will be determined by our ability to think between existing concepts and resist the strong pull of dogmatism4. Ultimately a critical mass of society will determine what “is” and “is not” along various spectra. Matt Walsh’s recent documentary What Is a Woman?, although at times mean spirited, pokes at this “spectrum” vs “is/is not” divide in thinking. I wonder if the large push for more gradations of gender and sexuality lately is a philosophical reaction to the hyper digital environment we live in. Maybe at some instinctual level, we know that the computer’s sleight of hand in representing continuous reality as 1s and 0s is at some level incorrect and we as a society feel the need to assert our God given infinite-ness.
Although I don’t have any strong conclusions for this essay, it’s more of an interesting thought I’ve been having, I’m experimenting with the following ideas:
Language approximates reality
Approximation kills the thing that makes reality real
If there’s black and white and we represent this as a spectrum, there’s a bunch of gray in the middle. If I spend the rest of my life naming as many small gradations of gray between black and white as I can, there will be a finite number of grays that I’ve named and an infinite number of grays I haven’t named. I will have statistically accomplished very little.
Things should only be named if there’s a reason to define them around is/is not. That reason is determined by the interest of the masses in naming something.
We retain some kind of identifier for our total individuality by having more-or-less unique names that we’re referred to by. I don’t personally know any other Josh C. Simmonses. People can refer to me by this name and other people that know who they’re referring to have a good idea of the patterns which that name represents.
Yes I’m avoiding saying “Dick’s” and I’ll continue to do so. ↩
This is an oversimplification but suffices for this example. The true measurement of the wave at any point in time would be impossible to represent as a number, unless we could represent infinite numbers, the measurement would always potentially be slightly off. ↩
Vinyl enthusiasts claim to be “obsessed with audio quality” and will spend the money to create a setup around achieving this. Most of these audiophile bros are flush in disposable income but devoid of an understanding of why they are paying an exorbitant amount of money for audio quality that’s no different from what can be reproduced on the computer. Firstly, the audio pressed onto vinyl is almost always digitized, i.e., the band records the songs onto the computer in a studio. The infinite analog waves are capped at whatever resolution the computer can handle — which may be good, but is finite. Third Man Records and a very small handful of largely unknown studios are able to record with a fully analog signal path but records by these studios represent an infinitesimally small portion of the market. Almost all records have been tainted by some kind of digitization at some point during the recording process. Secondly, let’s say you buy an album from Third Man Records. You get it home and throw it on your turntable. Unless you’ve sunk some serious cash into your playback equipment, the analog signal from the record is probably being converted into a digital signal at some point along the playback audio path. You end up with digitized audio again but this time you’re out a couple grand and there’s an annoying crackling sound that plays with the music. ↩
Other than the fact that it’s long-winded, pedantic, and probably boring, this is another reason most people won’t like this blog: it often reaches conclusions that suggest paths between or outside of existing dogmas. ↩