Most writers of science fiction have foreseen human communication becoming more sophisticated and realistic. Brave New World has the feelies; 1984 has telescreens; every spaceship seems to have a colossal video wall on which the Emperor Zorquon can appear in Dolby surround sound to threaten the crew with unspeakable things. But more interesting than the media everybody predicted are those nobody did: the text message, twitter.com, the Facebook status update, YouTube. All these are the opposite of the High-Definition experience. They are low-bandwidth, low-effort media — what Malcolm McLaren calls Lo-Fi. And that’s precisely why people like them — for they combine low demands of the message creator with low expectations in the recipient.
Old forms of communication have pre-existing standards attached. Take the phone call, for instance. I cannot call a friend and simply ask ‘free this evening? No?’ without first spending five minutes discursively chatting about their bloody trip to Marrakech. A text message imposes no such expectations: being limited to 160 characters, it is a glorious excuse to be slightly rude. In this way, the text message stands in the same relation to a phone call as a postcard does to a letter. The format demands — and hence excuses — brevity.
With no history, these Lo-Fi media allow for great inventiveness. New York teenagers, irritated to find the word ‘cool’ rendered as ‘book’ by their handset’s predictive text, simply reassigned the meaning of the word. If a young New Yorker says ‘book’, it means ‘that’s cool’.
The limited reproductive quality of YouTube is similarly liberating. If I try to make a 30-minute film on a camcorder, it will stand in stark contrast to the quality I expect on television. On YouTube three minutes of Zapruder-style camera-shake looks fine. Here, as with McLaren’s punk, inattention to craft skills can seem a virtue not a flaw. Whether you have produced a daily comedy diary (search for ‘Ze Frank’) or have amusingly re-subtitled the last days of Hitler (search ‘Hitler Sheffield Utd’), it’s somehow funnier for looking home-made.
This love of Lo-Fi is important to understand because billions have been spent by people who don’t understand it. Mobile operators have spent millions trying to get us to attach pictures to text messages — only to find we can’t be bothered. A large US adult entertainment concern is rumoured to have canned a large investment in HD pornographic films (in too high a resolution, it seems, the Playboy Channel becomes the Discovery Channel). And eBay paid $2.6 billion for Skype partly in the fanciful belief that traders want to talk to each other; yet just because I want to buy a Panama hat from Bananaman (212) doesn’t mean I want to be his best friend.
Often we use media not to reduce emotional distance but to increase it; tongue-tied dating teenagers understandably prefer to text than to speak. Which is not to say a text can’t go wrong, as I heard last month. If the girl of your dreams texts to say that, now sensible to your affections, she would consider a closer acquaintance, you may reply by inviting her to lunch in your local pub. But before hurriedly texting back ‘fancy getting food in the crown’ you might first check want to check that predictive text is switched off.
Rory Sutherland Is Vice-chairman Of Ogilvy Group UK.