Sunday, February 8, 2009

High Definition

These days, everything is supposed to be High Definition—television, radio, cameras, lip gloss, etc. If you can't see every pore on an actor's face, you aren't getting the "full experience." So say the marketers, because they're the ones pushing this whole High Def craze.

I say it's all nonsense. High Def, in almost any field, just complicates things and rarely enhances the "experience" of anything you do. There is a certain optimal "definition" for any art form, and if you exceed it, you aren't getting any additional benefit.

Let's look just at video: Most of us were raised on ordinary Low Def television screens, 480 lines of resolution, first in black and white (if you are old enough), and then in color. You could argue that color was a significant advance, because most of us see in color, so it makes the image more lifelike.

But do you really get more out of a television program in color than you do in black and white? The experience as you remember it (like a movie you saw long ago) is really no different. You remember what happened in the movie, not the colors. (Do you remember if Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was in black-and-white or color? I don't, but I vividly remember scenes from the movie.)

Likewise, there is really no difference in your memory of a movie seen on a small Low Def screen vs. a big High Def screen. It's the story you remember—that is, what happened and what was said.

The fact is, your brain and eyeball are Low Def devices. They don't really process all those millions of pixels, only the broad outline of what is happening. What is processed and stored in your brain—the consciousness and memory of what happened—is as Low Def as you can get. You remember only the essentials, mainly the portions of the scene that were important to you at the time.

It is totally pointless to have an output device that far exceeds the resolution of the input device. For example, if the resolution of your eye is X dots per square inch but the resolution of a video monitor is 10X dots per inch, all that extra resolution is wasted on your eye.

A High Res monitor could be useful for a static display such as a computer screen, where you might glance at different parts of the screen, but it is meaningless for movies and dramas where an active story is being told. In that case, images pass quickly across the screen and the filmmaker is supposed to be directing you to what is important. If you become aware of the pores on the actor's face, it means that the story itself has lost you.

Think of the great movies of the past, like Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Would they be any more powerful if filmed in High Def than they are when you see them on a tiny black and white screen? I think they would be LESS powerful.

The same applies to almost every other art form. Do you get any more out of a song if you hear it in rich bass-boosted Dolby stereo than if you heard it on a scratchy AM radio? Arguably, the sound is richer and more layered at the time, but your memories of it aren't: You remember the tune, the words and the musical theme in the background, that it!

The function of art, in any form, is to distill the human experience into a few broad strokes. All great art simplifies reality so we can more clearly understand it. High Def goes in the opposite direction: making art more complicated. To make art work in a new High Def medium, you actually have to obscure the definition—say, by blurring all but the most important part of the image. The job of the artist is essentially to get rid of all that definition that technology has given him.

Who is behind the High Def conspiracy? Of course, it is the people trying to sell you the latest Thing You Don't Need. They have to sell you something, and if you already have everything they sold you last year, then they'll have to create a new imaginary need for you to fill this year. "You're not getting the full experience until you see it in High Definition." Baloney!

It is no mystery that crappy television in Low Def is just going to turn into crappy television in High Def. More pixels don't add quality of any kind.


  1. I feel as though you and I are the only ones who share this opinion!

    - Zac

  2. Again, it just goes to show that you're not a visual person. I remember colours in movies quite vividly. That is not to say I don't like black and white - they have their own merits, and some films, imho, are better in black in white. But to say that colour makes no difference is laughable.

    High definition does not make as much of a difference, but it does make some. What makes even more difference is that refresh rate of the screen. The higher it is, the easier the image is on the eyes, for sure. If you have sensitive enough eyes to notice, that is - and many people do.

  3. I personally do enjoy HD and I especially enjoy it when I watch travelogues. That's not to say I need it though, I just like it. I do know that for many individuals it makes no difference at all. I work in satellite tv tech support and have to reassure people all day long that the "best" tv, cables, picture, etc. is the one they prefer personally. And unless they have some kind of electronic digital reader eyes the performance of their equipment is probably higher than the capabilities of their vision anyway. Period.