Why “Worse is Better” .. a point many pundits miss

The old teeth gnashing about the prevalence of “good enough” technology is making the rounds again, for some reason. This is an issue that comes up from time to time in the tech world, and it’s always an interesting discussion.

It’s no secret that I’m on the side of “Worse is (often) Better”. I’ve ranted repeatedly about this both in person and in various online forums. I’ve talked about “good enough often is” so many times with colleagues and the like I’m sick of even having the argument anymore.

But the biggest reason why “good enough often is” can be summed up by the reasons why mp3s became the success they are today. To a trained ear, the format has some limitations, and even my crappy hearing can sometimes tell the difference. It certainly is inferior to the technical quality of the average CD.

However, in my world I’m never in a position to actually HEAR the difference unless I’m listening for it. Most of my music listening takes place either in transit from place to place (be it by car, bus/train, or other conveyance), or as background in my home. In either place, I’m in an “imperfect environment” anyway, so “good enough” is just that. Even if I had lossless files playing on a THX-certified player with a $300 headset, I’d still be in a noisy environment, with the 60db of traffic noise around me dulling my low-frequency hearing into oblivion.

“Good enough is” precisely because most of the time we’re not in a laboratory. Most human beings spend their days in environments (be they work or play) that are never going to be “perfect listening rooms”, so using an audio format that is lossy doesn’t matter.

You can look at every other situation were “Worse is Better” and come to the same conclusion. Large laptops (“desktop replacements”) are not as powerful and have inferior displays to desktop machines, but are more portable.  Netbooks are desirable over than large laptops to some, precisely because a large laptop is cumbersome to balance on your knee on the bus, even though netbooks are typically slower and have inferior ergonomics than larger laptops: tablets are even “better/worse”, as are smartphones. Monoaural audio devices like Bluetooth headsets often have slightly better range and are not insignificantly cheaper than their stereo counterparts, even though the monoaural Bluetooth profile offers less fidelity.

The trick is finding the tipping point where worse gets better. There’s a saying in the photography community that says “the best camera is the one you have when the shot appears,” an axiom that proves how wrong I was about smartphone cameras (synopsis of that opinion: they’re shite, always will be, and therefore worthless). Even the crappy camera on my original Palm Treo 650 (“1.2 megapixels”, but that makes it sound better than it really was) was “the one I had when the shot appears” in more than one occasion. Flipping through iPhoto I find a lot of really good pictures I’ve taken with whatever camera I happen to have in my hands.. which usually is a smartphone. Meanwhile, my $1200 digital SLR kit sits collecting dust in my closet.

Are the photos technically inferior to what I can do with the digital SLR? Most certainly. I can complain all day about the “noise” in the camera phone photos, the sloppy focus, the lack of depth of field, and even the quantization errors in the often sloppy JPEG encoding. But I have the shot, where I wouldn’t have the shot if I had to find my DSLR, take it out, warm it up, and shoot.

But the greater point? I have to “switch gears” to even notice the imperfections in the photos. After they’ve been printed on my (“good enough”) inkjet printer and housed in a small frame, I still get a lot of enjoyment out of many of the photos I’ve taken of events and loved ones with.. well, quite shitty cameras. Old 110 film was “good enough” for many in the 70’s, even though it was inferior in most ways to 126 film (and not to mention crap compared to 35mm).

I guess in this regard I should have looked to my own career path as an example, and I didn’t.  VoIP, be it Skype or whatever, is a great example of how “worse is better” has played out.  The “old telephone network” was engineered for robustness.  In our post-Bell System world, we view it as way over-engineered.  VoIP is, in many ways, way worse.  The audio quality can be inferior, it requires a reasonably well engineered network (or at minimum “over-engineered” bandwidth) (contrast that to conventional dialtone, which works at insane distances over very poor quality cable), and is very ‘portable’.  Oh, and because of a lot of competition in the sphere and the economics of the product, essentially free.

“Worse is better” only because the people who define “worst” as solely being some artificial (and often just perceived) advantage a legacy technology has.  Vinyl records are far inferior at technical sound reproduction than any digital method with a reasonable sample rate, period.  End of story.  There’s no arguing that from a purely scientific stance.  Even high bitrate lossy codecs can provide more accurate sound reproduction than vinyl, at a significantly reduced “cost” and at lower maintenance.

Vinyl may “sound better” (and I’d argue that as well), but it isn’t technically superior in any scientifically measurable way.  The irony: those who think that presence is a desirable trait in audio (mostly because they don’t have any high-frequency hearing anymore) and don’t like “brilliance” think vinyl is subjectively superior to both CDs and MP3s.  But that’s only because they’re applying the “worse is better” ideal.  Poor fidelity reproduction is better than precisely, scientifically engineered reproduction.

And that’s the point.  The point is that the word “worst” is misapplied.  It’s not really worse.  It’s just the rules of what’s required is redefined by each generation of user.  Modern music listeners are willing to sacrifice a small amount of fidelity for considerably more portability and accessibility.   Music isn’t something they listen to in their living room turned listening room.  It’s become a part of their daily life.   Many non-geeks now have digital music libraries that far exceed even what an audiophile would have had 40 years ago, in both quantity of “albums” and the genres it spans.

“Survival of the fittest” is a much better way of wording “worse is better.”  Fitness is defined by the environment: smarter but ugly can often win over dumb and beautiful.