Monthly Archives: September 2016

Nuance and trade-offs

“You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that!”

— John Von Neumann

Many aesthetic complaints are about missing nuance. A show about crime scene investigation fails to capture what the job is really like. A fast food burger doesn’t taste like a burger from home.

But the elements that make a particular experience useful on a local scale don’t necessarily make it useful on a global scale. CSI might contain the same basic premise as the real thing — forensic analysis of trace evidence — but it trades veracity for coolness and compelling drama. The writers have to balance the audience’s suspension of disbelief against its attention span. The fast food burger might contain the same beef patty, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, and bun as the home-cooked version, but it trades complexity and freshness — not to mention the one of a kind context of one’s own kitchen and family — for consistency and affordability.

Kitchens make bad assembly lines. The territory doesn’t fit into a glove compartment. To mass produce a representation of reality or a complex sensory experience, some elements have to go. To make chords and maps widely useful, trade-offs are necessary.

One might assume elements that didn’t scale, can’t scale. But the given trade-off is not necessarily the best one possible. That an element is missing may only be an artifact of the technological moment. For example, the fast food of the 1960s was subject to a very different trade-off window than the fast food of now, both in terms of quality and variety. Furthermore, the tendency of television audiences to tolerate — or even prefer — psychological realism and technical details has steadily risen since the advent of police procedurals.

Knowledge of better trade-offs — ones that hold on to as many desired elements as possible — is not centrally or evenly distributed. When presented with a chord or map, I might notice it lacks what I believe to be an essential element. It feels wrong because I believe the trade-off was unnecessary. This assumes I know the conditions of the trade — the window the elements must fit through. Here is an opportunity for aesthetic vigilantism.

True, nuances are hard to articulate — but that’s the challenge. In doing so, the shape of the trade-off window must be respected. Specifying it might cause me to retract my complaint, once I see how it isn’t actionable. Or, if it still seems like an oversight, I can use whatever platform available to me to identify what is missing.

Unfortunately, nuance can feel sacred to some people, effectively blocking better trade-offs. The complainant may want others to have the better experience they envision while simultaneously resisting the sacrifices necessary to mass produce it.

Sometimes nuance provides only very marginal value. Consuming it anyway can act as a costly (and entirely symbolic) display of respect. In these cases, trying to efficiently “get the gist” is a sacredness violation. This tendency is evident in the belief that there are essential subtleties in fictional stories (and other types of art, such as poetry) that cannot be summarized or compressed. Thus the tendency to frown on reading the Cliff’s Notes versions. But, somewhat ironically, knowledge of facts and concepts can be obtained from summaries without shame.

What is the ideal result of absorbing every single nicety? One possibility is magical thinking: if the nuances in question are a particularly good illustration of an underrepresented aspect of the human experience (or of an ignored or oppressed group), then submitting to them fully may be considered a form of tribute — regardless of whether anyone who has had that experience or is from that group ever learns that the full submission took place.

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