As an example, look at our music. There was a time back in the 70s and 80s when anybody serious about music was at least a bit of an audiophile. Anybody who loved music loved it even more when it sounded great. And people who were serious about music, which was a lot of people, did what they could within their budget to buy the best listening experience they could afford.
I am not a very materialistic person; I drive my wife crazy at Christmas and my birthday because I really don’t want things. But when I was younger I wanted better speakers. I remember that perhaps the happiest purchase I ever made was the day I got my first pair of Boston Acoustics speakers. I sat in front of them all day listening to my favorite albums. I heard things in the music I had not noticed before with cheaper speakers. I was hooked as an audiophile.
But our music world started changing with technology. First came cassette tapes. To an audiophile cassette tapes were crap. After that came CDs which had the potential to be great for new music that was mixed directly for the CD format. But CDs did a lousy job of capturing older album music unless that music was mixed again from the original source (and thus the whole genre of re-mastered CDs).
Then along came the iPod and internet download music files and the music world was turned on its head. Every audiophile groaned because MP3 files are generally of much lower quality than any original music source. The process of converting music to a new format will, by definition, chop off the highs and the lows, robbing the recording of the nuance and crispness of the original.
Worse than that, the iPod came with crappy earbuds that further degraded our music experience. But let’s face it – an iPod let you listen to your own music collection in an airport or on an airplane, and so we adapted to accepting inferior music for the sake of convenience. Next, the industry took another huge left turn and everything went to online streaming services like Spotify. The quality is nowhere near as good as a quality CD, but who can resist the fact that there are millions of songs to listen to? And we listen to these songs on our computers or with bad earbuds or with tiny Bluetooth speakers. The audiophile in me cries for the good old days.
The same thing has happened to video. There was a time in the 90s when we all went out and got the best large screen we could afford with the best resolution. Even for people like me who didn’t watch a lot of TV, seeing my first football game on an HD TV was impressive.
But now streaming video technology is luring us away from that quality and into watching video on our computer screens, on tiny cellphone screens, or on tablets and laptops. And we will suffer through some really crappy video and audio quality to watch the latest funny cat video on YouTube.
I just find it interesting how marketing has changed over the years. In the old days the expensive marketing went to lure us to upgrade – get better stereos, better speakers, better TVs. But today we are lured to accept much lower quality content on NetFlix, YouTube, and Spotify, and we do it because the range of content available makes us give up quality for quantity.
I expect that after we have all gotten used to this new world where we can watch anything, anywhere, at any time, eventually the desire for quality will creep back into the conversation. For now, we (and I include me) are happy enough with the huge selection of music and video available to us that we will tolerate a poor experience for the joy of watching things that used to be impossible to find. I notice that there are already young people who grew up with ubiquitous video and music who are rediscovering the beauty in the old stereo systems. So perhaps over time we will realize what has been lost and the move back towards quality will start all over again.