Fukuyama: All Hail ... Analog?

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Niccolo and Donkey
All Hail ... Analog?

Wall Street Journal

Francis Fukuyama

February 26, 2011

On Dec. 30, Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kan., stopped processing Kodachrome film and the world passed an important if little-heralded milestone: the end of Kodachrome, a beautifully saturated color transparency film that was immortalized by Paul Simon in his 1973 song ("Mama don't take my Kodachrome away"). Kodak had long since ceased its manufacture and the lab shutdown was yet another stage in the slow death of chemical, film-based photography.

Visual and audio reproduction have undergone massive changes as their underlying technologies shifted from analog to digital over the past two decades. It's clear that it is far more convenient to snap photos with a digital point-and-shoot or listen to music on an iPod. But whether the quality of images or music has improved is, however, a highly debatable proposition, one that is contested by legions of enthusiasts who have continued to cling to older technologies not out of Luddite resistance to change, but because they believe the shift to 1's and 0's is actually making things worse.

Photography and music have been hobbies of mine ever since I was a child when I built Dynakits and had my own darkroom. I was introduced to high-end audio by the political theorist Allan Bloom, who back in the early 1980s had what seemed to me a crazily expensive Linn Sondek turntable and a collection of over 2,000 records. I started collecting historical Nikons when I inherited an F2A from my father, and these days I seem to spend as much time thinking about gear as I do analyzing politics for my day job.​

Let's begin with how photography has changed. Ansel Adams's iconic images of the Sierras were taken with an 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera, a wooden contraption with bellows in which the photographer saw his subject upside-down and reversed under a black cloth. Joel Meyerowitz's stunning photographs of Cape Cod were taken with a similar mahogany Deardorff view camera manufactured in the 1930s. These cameras produce negatives that contain up to 100 times the amount of information produced by a contemporary top-of-the-line digital SLR like a Canon EOS 5D or a Nikon D3. View cameras allow photographers to shift and tilt the lens relative to the film plane, which is why they continue to be used by architectural photographers who want to avoid photos of buildings with the converging vertical lines caused by the upward tilt of the lens on a normal camera. And their lenses can be stopped down to f/64 or even f/96, which allows everything to be in crystalline focus from 3 inches away to infinity. (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham were part of a group called "f/64" in celebration of this characteristic.)
Perhaps the most important feature of these older film cameras was their lack of convenience.​

They had to be mounted on tripods; it took many minutes to shoot a single frame; and they were hardly inconspicuous. In contrast to contemporary digital photographers who snap a zillion photos of the same subject and hope that one will turn out well composed, view camera photography is a more painterly activity that forces the photographer to slow down and think ahead carefully about subject, light, framing, time of day, and the like. These skills are in short supply among digital photographers.​

Older cameras were far better built. A few years ago I was given a Leica M3 once owned by my uncle, who joined the U.S. Army to get out of an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. He was sent to Germany where he acquired the Leica around the time I was born. This camera, with its f/2 Summicron, a classic, fast, tack-sharp lens, still takes beautiful pictures. How many digital cameras will still be functioning five years from now, much less 50? Where are you going to buy new batteries and the media to store your photos in 2061?​

The digital revolution produced even worse consequences for music reproduction. When the digital compact disc was introduced in the early 1980s, the marketing types heralded this as "perfect sound forever." The only problem was that early CDs simply didn't sound good: They were thin, harsh and unpleasant to listen to. It turns out that old-fashioned vinyl records, like photographic film, are actually a pretty good way of storing information. Sound is inherently analog; converting sound waves to grooves on a record does not involve the same loss of information as their conversion to digital data.​

If you don't believe this, you've probably never listened to a good-quality record on a high-end turntable. By high-end, we're talking about turntable-tonearm-needle combinations that cost upward of $10,000—that's right, five figures—from manufacturers like VPI, Basis or SME. The highest-priced table currently on the market is the Clearaudio Statement, which retails for $150,000. On such devices, there is hardly any background noise; sound is three-dimensional, detailed and has a liveness that most mass-market CD players or iPods cannot begin to match.

There is no inherent reason why digital music has to sound worse than analog; the problem was all in implementation and standards. About 10 years ago Sony introduced a new digital format, the Super Audio Compact Disc, that could finally hold its own against good quality vinyl records. But SACDs never caught on, and the mass market moved in exactly the opposite direction with the spread of MP3s and iPods. The MP3 is a digital compression technology that throws away a lot of information in order to reduce file size. It's quantity over quality, essentially. Listening to an iPod through a high-end audio system is a painful experience and a big step backward even from the Red Book CD standard by which all musical compact discs have been encoded since the 1980s.​

Today, I've made peace with the digital revolution. There is a company called GigaPan that makes a device that pans a digital camera and stitches together large numbers of images to produce monster photographs with far more resolution than a view camera. A couple of years ago I built myself a music server—a computer dedicated to playing music that currently stores more than 300 gigabytes of losslessly compressed music (that is, better than your average MP3s), which it outputs through a high-quality Benchmark digital-to-analog converter. I can flip through five versions of a Mahler symphony with a mouse click, and honestly find it a lot more convenient and often better-sounding than spinning vinyl on my Oracle turntable.​

Still—while I can now download high-resolution digital music from a company called HDtracks, the experience doesn't begin to compare with shopping at Serenade Records in Washington, a music emporium owned by a pair of brothers from Turkey who knew everything there was to know about historical recordings of classical music. When they retired and Serenade closed, my quality of life took a nose dive.​

Don't believe the marketing hype of the techie types who tell you that newer is always better. Sometimes in technology, as in politics, we regress. This point will be brought home to lots of people when their hard disks crash and they find they've lost all of their photos of baby Tiffany forever. Photos of my children, by contrast, are safely stored in the closet in boxes of Kodachrome slides.​