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Sci Tech    H4'ed 7/30/11

Shades of Gray Going Away

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This is mainly a story about all of the subtleties we are losing in the modern world, but I also tell the tale of why we don't even realize they are gone. You see; studies have shown that human beings' ability to distinguish the shades of gray in our lives is being progressively diminished, so that when something subtle is lost, we barely notice. However; it appears that this ability is important to informed decision making, and sometimes to our very survival, so it would be wise to take stock of what we have lost (or are losing) and its value, before it is too late. In past articles I have spoken about how an over-simplified view of the world has had catastrophic results, such as the economic crisis and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One could now add Fukushima to the list of disasters caused by the incomplete or short-sighted reasoning of the human beings involved in emergency planning. But one could argue that all such incidents are the result of inattention to the subtleties, or the loss of our ability to distinguish shades of gray.

Modern humans have gotten used to a lot of shortcuts, or cheap and dirty solutions, over time - and some born into the era of such things aren't even aware that there was ever anything different. These days, we accept a lot of compromises in quality, for the sake of convenience. But folks in an earlier age tried to incorporate detail and convey information in all the ranges of variation available to them with current technology. Both the background and foreground in photographs became important, in the hands of skilled photographers and cinematographers. There was attention to the highlights, the shadows, and the mid tones. But the dynamic range and resolution or sharpness possible with black and white film is quite substantial. Thousands of shades of gray were present and the grain size was very small. The information contained in a black and white photo easily exceeds that of a digital image in 16 bit grayscale at 1800 dpi. Only now are digital cameras being made, that capture enough pixels in sufficient dynamic range to approach the fidelity of film.

Some classic black and white films have been the victims of a tragic loss of detail, when they were converted to digital formats for distribution on DVDs. Of course; there was a great financial incentive to get those old films converted, because then they could be a source of revenue - instead of an expense for storage. But what I am talking about will be readily apparent if you look at any one of those old films on DVD, if you look at things like the wallpaper or other dimly lit objects in the background. Instead of patterns and objects, you will see swimming splotches that appear unlike anything you will spot in a natural scene. The process of MPEG compression does not respect smooth variations of any kind, so shadows on the wall which appeared life-like and natural on film, become like caricatures in the DVD version. Or worse, they become unrecognizable blotches, with no apparent pattern. The problem is that some of that detail was lost for good, because the film was discarded once the conversions were completed.

Unfortunately, the children of the modern age will never even get to see the genius of people like Ingmar Bergman - who is noted for his play of light and shadows - because the details they put in were not retained. The subtleties have been lost to time, or in the conversion process, with quite a broad range of media. There has been a drive among production professionals to slow the degradation, or to capture and retain more quality. Equipment has improved, better formats and algorithms for compression have been developed, and the technology has matured to where the best fidelity possible is greater. Yet while for years engineers in my own field of audio production have tried diligently to capture more details and subtleties, by having sonically balanced rooms with the finest microphones and pre-amps, and by using 24-bit converters and sampling rates of 96 kHz (or higher), the trend is toward heavily compressed delivery formats - like MP3s or iTunes - which don't preserve some of those subtleties anyway. This has been disheartening for me, as I have always been one of those people who could hear the difference, which is only discernible when listening on the very finest equipment.

However; after reading about a study conducted by psychologists in Germany, I can begin to understand why there is less demand for Hi Fi audio or life-like video, by consumers of the media. The average music consumer can't tell the difference between a high quality production that preserves all the subtleties the artist or producer tried to work into the product, and one which is re-engineered to be as loud and punchy as possible, at the expense of any subtleties that existed in the original performance. And many will feel that the latter product is somehow better, or more perfected. People want their albums to be louder than the competition, when played on the same system. Perhaps even more disturbing is the tendency to try to make everything "perfect' even if that makes the sound quite unnatural, by using pitch correction technologies that fix bad notes, but can create unwanted artifacts in the sound, which a trained ear can easily spot. Sadly; these things are now used almost automatically, and this takes some of the life out of a skillful and emotional performance. When using pitch correction to excess, a lot of the natural expression of a singer or player is lost. The real question is; will anybody notice?

In the late 1960s, professors at the University of TÃ bingen became concerned with the drop in attention and comprehension, among their students. The German Psychological Association joined with the university to undertake a 20 year long study. And that research showed a disturbing trend; the ability to distinguish shades of gray or other subtleties was being lost or eroded over time. 20 years ago the average person could distinguish 350 shades of gray, or green, or blue. Today's young people only see 130 shades of a particular color, and what is required to guarantee perception are especially bright and vivid colors. The same is true for sounds, where 300,000 sounds could be distinguished by the average person 15 years ago, and now our young people can discern only half as many. In addition, more subtle stimuli are falling completely off the map, as only intensely loud, bright, and vivid stimuli are making it through the filters to be perceived at all. Overall levels of enjoyment and aesthetic appreciation have dropped. And the situation appears to be getting steadily worse.

But it is arguable that the greater problem is the erosion of information processing, that the same study discovered. The sad truth is that today's young people have come to live with a level of contradiction that would have been unbearable for their forebears. However; they have come to just accept it, rather than attempting to find a resolution, to the point of ignoring many inconsistencies and contradictions - unless they are glaringly obvious to folks who do distinguish subtleties. This leads to many flaws of logic and to incomplete reasoning processes in general. But for the most part, these too are not perceived, as they fall into the 'blind spot' created by having too few shades of gray. I have criticized people for not paying attention to the subtleties, and wondered how they could just look the other way, rather than doing something to correct what was an obvious problem (at least to me). However; I've come to find out that some people are incapable of distinguishing the shades of gray, which is why they see the same situation terms of black or white distinctions.

If we are to solve the complex problems now facing humanity, we will need to become more mindful of the distinctions between things that appear roughly the same. It is only through enough attention to detail that proper solutions can be devised, which actually serve to reduce or eliminate problems. But incomplete thinking and flawed logic make that task much more difficult, and some of our problems insurmountable. For almost any kind of problem, there are knowledgeable people somewhere who have answers, and a big part of fixing things is to let those people have the chance to use their knowledge to help things. So we need to encourage our leaders to examine things in detail, rather than thinking about things in black and white terms, or using improper logic which pre-empts a more robust solution to problems. It's true that some of the subtleties we once knew are lost forever, but if we are mindful that the shades of gray can contain important information, this can help the situation to improve. We may never get back what we lost, but with a little bit of attention to detail - we can go a long way towards making things better.

2011 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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