Low Fidelity culture

A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?

Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome.  Very low fi indeed.   It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun.  The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.  It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.”  This is the kind of lab where you really only feel  comfortable in full body armor. 

Addy’s right.  The paradox is palpable.  On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision.  On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does. 

We have seen this paradox before.  Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand.  There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful.  (I hadn’t seen it before.)

The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

I think there are three drivers of this paradox. 

The first is a simple nostalgia.  That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency.  Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well.   The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident.  Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well.  And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost. 

The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness.  As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s.  There almost no moving parts on my iPad.  It operates with silent precision.  So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts. 

Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory.  They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow.  Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it.  This is candor we can believe in.

Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka  KiddieCorder.  Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision.  (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.)  Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth.  In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical.  It grounds us.  It lets us back in.  Most important, it flatters us.  (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)

Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now.  The new tech world may be  rational, exact, dependable, reproducible.  But the cultural effects are entirely opposite.  They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle.  Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over.  It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control.  We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control.  We have many players and an immense number of plays.  Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once. 

In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories.  We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics.  And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants.  I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable.  I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?” 

This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory.  This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.  


Dugdale, Addy.  2010.  Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech.  Fast Company.  June 10. here.

Frauenfelder, Mark.  2010.  Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.  New York: Portfolio. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it.  This Blog.  November 6.  here.

10 thoughts on “Low Fidelity culture

  1. Alex

    Hi Grant,

    I have a few thoughts I want to jam together here, and I’m likely unsuccessful at making it coherent … apologies.

    I wonder too if part of the appeal of low tech is that, on average, we aren’t really that technologically advanced, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You’ve mentioned your iPad numerous times, and while I don’t own one, I do think they are a fascinating device. But isn’t part of the appeal of an iPad not what it is, but what it ISN’T? It ISN’T an ultrafast supercomputer used to simulate nuclear reactions, it ISN’T a high-powered laptop for the road warriors out there, and it ISN’T even a really good tool for doing extensive word processing (at least Apple isn’t selling it that way). You can’t really use the iPad as a total replacement for a laptop or desktop, and it’s currently not a phone (or video phone).

    What the iPad does do is basic, low fidelity things. You can entertain yourself, and you can communicate with others via written word. Sure it’s all electronic, but that’s just a medium. The basic fulfillment is the same as low fidelity equivalents, albeit much more conveniently packaged.

    Back to your blog post, maybe the appeal of low fidelity culture is that it’s actually closer to where we all are at heart. The 50’s, 60’s and 70’s promised us a future as magical as the mythological past, heck the 80’s and 90’s did too (remember this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrFgRAcr0jg).

    But the world isn’t so different as everyone keeps telling us. I want to throw out the line from the movie Spy Game:

    Robert Redford: “Technology gets better everyday. That’s fine. But most of the time all you need is a stick of gum, a pocket knife and a smile.”

    Brad Pitt: “That’s disappointing.”

    It might be disappointing, but it’s not really that surprising is it?

  2. DanT

    Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age explained why the richest people in the future would use all-natural, hand-made things (the lowest available tech). Once synthetics and power are free, the value in any product is the labor to produce it. By wearing non-synthetics and eating organically grown food, you display wealth.

    This book was written in 1995, so you could say the trend toward low-tech is progress towards making this fiction a reality.

  3. Mary Walker

    Another example: the ever growing popularity of steampunk. Each month that goes by, I come across another reference to steampunk moving further into the mainstream.

    speaking of steampunk, go admire the rock band Abney Park’s website — a monument to steampunk tropes (as are their on-stage personas):


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  5. Simon Steinhardt

    Hey Grant, thanks for another excellent post. I agree on all three fronts, although I think nostalgia and groundedness go hand in hand: we look at the past fondly because it’s stable, certain, and most importantly because we survived it — none of which are true about the future (yet).

    I thought I’d throw in another possible explanation: novelty/disruption.
    We’re now three or four generations deep into an age of counterculture, where the concept of “thinking differently” transcended the fields of science (turn of the 17th/18th centuries), engineering (18th/19th) and art (19th/20th), loosening social mores to enable differentiation from mainstream culture. We’re still “thinking outside the box,” which means we’re still thinking *about* the box and trying to run in the opposite direction.

    It seems like every day there is a major new technological innovation, and everyone is talking about it. The future is old news. The future is pop. Lady Gaga is all about the future, the hordes of Apple fans are all about the future, and anyone who wants to separate from the pack need only immerse themselves in the seemingly-bizarre past to find their individuality.

    Another thought, taking sort of an Occam’s razor tack, is that we’re simply shopping our cultural closet. Why go out and buy an expensive new idea when we’re sitting on a huge stockpile of cheap old ones, readily accessible thanks to the persistence of media?

    No matter the explanation, it will be interesting to see whether this trend follows the path of acceleration that culture and technology are on. For the meantime, I’ll continue rocking my 4th-gen, black-and-white-screened iPod, hoping it regains its cultural cachet before it dies.

  6. Jessica

    Love this article. But I’m a little confused by your last sentence. Please correct me if the digital age has sapped my critical thinking skills.

    I feel like something’s missing here.

    “We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very [X] like this past.”

    Thanks, Grant!

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  8. Chris D

    I wonder how much of this revolves around the concept of “craftsmanship”? It’s very difficult for the Average Joe to appreciate the craft that goes into something like programming. They might appreciate the exterior design of something like the iPad, but how many people consider the craft behind things that are not visual or tactile? To compensate, are people in the digital world participating in projects “by hand” because the craftsmanship is so much easier to recognize? (even to the creator!)

    I also have to wonder if there’s some current fascination with the “hobbyist”? Hobbies are probably early on the list of things people change or alter in a difficult economy. I wonder if a lot of the low-tech activities we see, and the way they are presented, somehow touch our longing for hobbies we fantasize about?

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