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Artificial Recordings and Unrealistic Standards

August 8th, 2012
music, beauty

Do we have an unrealistic standard of beauty, fed by processed media images? The people we see on magazine covers, for example, have all been very carefully lit, made up, and their pictures postprocessed until they look better than anyone you're going to meet in person. [1] Next to that unobtainable standard doesn't everyone feel inadequate?

This is not specific to visual recordings of people, however. Any recorded experience can be tweaked, through selection, preparation, and processing, to improve it far beyond what you would encounter otherwise. If you go outside and take some pictures of the world, they won't look nearly as good as what you'd see in a glossy coffee-table book. If you bring a recording device to a contra dance you'll get a good approximation of what a dancer might hear but it won't match the quality of a CD. Are professional photographers instilling an unrealistic expectation of the natural world? Are recording engineers creating an impossibly high standard of musical performance?

Book plots provide far more purpose and direction than our lives really have. Food photography looks loads better than the real thing. Composed melodies are generally much better than improvised ones. My writing here is more coherent, better reasoned, and more carefully phrased than most things I'll say in person. Storing and playing back experiences allows editing, which gives potentially a lot of opportunity for someone to make them much more enjoyable.

Looking back at the motivating question, is enhancing recordings net negative? In some circumstances? How do we compare the harm to the self esteem of musicians that comes from constantly hearing error-free performances with the benefit to everyone of getting to hear better music? The harm of unrealistically raising our comedy expectations to the point that our friends are less funny with the benefit of funnier shows? In general, the harm to live anything with the benefit of better recordings?


[1] People usually complain about the processing but ignore selection, which also has a huge effect. I suspect more of the difference between an image of a person in an advertisement and your typical person comes from the initial step of choosing only the most attractive [2] potential models than comes from all the later steps combined.

[2] I've been told I should be saying "conventionally attractive" here, but I don't see the benefit. People clearly have distinct but highly correlated attractiveness preferences, and attempting to rename "attractive" to "conventionally attractive" doesn't change that.

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