Almost every interaction we have with images in modern life is governed by an established aesthetic hierarchy. High definition (HD) is seen as an end-goal. Anything less is viewed as a compromise on quality or a blow to legitimacy. This non-negotiable standard is by design. What we deem technologically and visually better is not neutral nor natural. In fact, the normalising of HD and high resolution as the metric of quality can be traced back to the very deliberate decisions of corporate technical demonstrations of the early 1970s.1 Television manufacturers presented resolution quality as an iterative phenomenon destined to expand to an extraordinary level of detail, one which promised to enhance the experience of the consumer. From there, HD became a means to measure the expense, professional merit and even cinematic character of video and images on screen.
This has had an arguably insidious influence on how gallerists, film festival programmers, and online event organisers, determine what is, on a basic level, worthy of consideration. Even a great video in low definition, without adequate explanation, risks a negative reflection of reputation and polish.
Now, each next-gen phone release promises a higher and higher resolution for displaying images and video, with ever-‘improving’ cameras that push the envelope for the creation of HD content. Our televisions broadcast on both standard and high definition digital frequencies, with newer hardware and software offering the best visuals. Documents, images, and videos attached to emails may preview in a lower resolution, but a download should promise a fully featured HD copy when saved to your hard drive. Movies in cinemas are usually screened in 2K or 4K—resolutions that look impressive when scaled to large-format screens.
High quality image standards are so imposed upon the 21st century that even the choice of definition for our content becomes a caveat. Artists and creators who actively pursue aesthetic themes of nostalgia or resolution-transgression in their works still feel an obligation to abide by the highest fidelity for a finished piece. For pirates at home, the content we torrent is often grouped, organised, and supplied in order of quality: here, no surprise, HD is ‘best’, but lower resolution offerings are also given as a quick-fix salve for those who can’t bear to wait for the seeders to seed.
In truth, the option of deciding the level of detail or resolution we watch something in is most often left to the behind-the-scenes machinations of our technologies and infrastructures. Most websites automatically select the highest possible resolution your internet can manage, only presenting lower quality images when the upload and download speeds falter. Combined with an impatient need for online instantaneity, this reinforces that lower definition images are of lower quality. They are merely a back-up, concealing information and detail; they are tolerable at best, but never desired.
We encounter these ‘degraded’ videos, which struggle to shuffle their blocky pixels into crisp, flat details, more frequently than not. And yet, instead of seeing their specific value, (or the beauty in these so-called low-quality images), we frame them as incomplete, signalling not their worth but their potential to be clearer and better. Without ever questioning the mathematical devices and formulae, or the influence of corporate technological demonstrations, we have come to accept the imposition of the standards of HD, such that these resolutions and qualities are unshakeably linear and stratified. 240p should be at the bottom, 720 and 1080p are baseline HD, and 4K, and then 8K (and any future multiples of thousands) should be at the top.
This goes for content creation, too. A quick search of TikTokker tips implores users of the app not to film their videos using TikTok’s in-built camera, which locks the resolution at a native 720p (still high!). They should—for reasons of professionalism or for growing a following or for clarity—capture their one- to sixty-second content on a DSLR, if available. When every YouTube breakout star promises viewers that we could be them if we simply put in the work, they specifically tell us how they started shooting films on a shitty camera and that it’s taken them years of self-commodification and merchandising to be finally able to afford professional equipment.2 We should, of course, remain wary of what they are trying to say. Yes, it is true that anyone can shoot a film, or a video, or anything on a terrible camera, but, to be taken seriously, one must envision graduation from their medium to a ‘better’ one.3
The character of image definition as an insidious and normative structure to aspire to and uphold extends even to streaming. But, for every live stream on Twitch, or movie on Netflix, or Zoom conference call, the quality and detail of the data we are streaming should be a conscious thought beyond the simple mantra ‘higher is better.’ Media technologies and their relentless innovation have long been denounced by theorists and pundits who recognise this capitalistic fixation with updates, obsolescence and progress. But, in more recent years, the emphasis has shifted away from iterative physical hardware and instead to the seemingly magical airiness of streaming services. The marketing of these content platforms as luxuriously intangible has distracted from the very corporeal and social dangers of their existence.
In Laura Marks’ recent piece for Afterimage, the sheer size of the streaming carbon footprint is exposed.4 Marks asks us to let the stream become real, to wonder what the data feels like: ‘Staring at that red dial while your Netflix feed refreshes, do you get a kind of queasy feeling? As Spotify floods your audioscape all the waking day, does that algorithmic vapor make you wheeze?’ The cloud and its ability to deliver content is not as immaterial as its promoters might claim. The specific energy costs of streaming seem hard to quantify, but they are staggering.5 The idea of a monumental stream of content seems somewhat inevitable, with gushing flows of data pouring into every gap.
Digital media masks materiality in a complex way. It tries to hide the evidence of digital structures, objects, code and numbers by scaling up definition until the resolution flattens and crisps images, so they resemble something inscrutable, and, in many cases the faux filmic.6 In fact, the digital image has always traded commercially on the implied existence of analogue material underneath the surface of digital artifice.
The trick is to eliminate the process of getting what we still perceive as videos or films from their storage, and allowing them to appear, as if through magic, onto our screens. This strangeness is a tacitly agreed upon palimpsest, where analogue film and digital streaming flatten the material, beguiling the viewer into an endlessly consumptive malaise, mistaking the instantaneity of hyper quality content, for the elimination of physical consequence.
The arrival of 4K streaming, video games, and TikToks, stealthily engages our treasuring of older media, while bypassing the ethical questions we should be asking, such as: how much energy is this activity burning, or, why is 4K better?
The truth is, it might not be. Even if you accept the assertion that exponential increases in the number of pixels available is a good thing, to the naked eye the difference between 1080 and 4K, (or 4K and 8K), can only be detected once a screen reaches a certain size. Even then, a litany of other details might contribute to what we agree looks ‘better’ on screen. The promise of ‘truer’ blacks, brighter colours, and higher fidelity, radically increase the saleability of what 4K and higher modes claim to do. But at what cost? These enhancements to screens all consume more energy, and therefore demand further scrutiny.
As we soon will move to a 5G network, the capacity to stream 4K video will become easier and easier, and thus more normalised. This progression has already been compounded by the massive uptake in working-from-home and leisure streaming during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A possible solution to this problem, (the one favoured by Marks), is to create a visible and alternative aesthetic demand, or desire for low-resolution images. If more people watch video in standard definitions and lower, then, simply put, the amount of energy required to stream this data is less. Taking the fight for the planet to the sociological battlefront of low-res appreciation is an interesting challenge to the ubiquity of ‘HD=good’ and deserves further consideration. There is also evidence that young, internet savvy consumers and ‘makers’ of media have an interest in non-industry approved standards of quality.
A recent TikTok trend associated with #glitch has users generating a mirage wherein the resolution is so low that the details of an image form a kind of double exposure. The effect is called datamoshing, where the act of decoding a compressed video file is used to create effects of distortion and manipulation. On TikTok, it is frequently used for visual gags, like making it appear that a fork, or other sharp object, is penetrating something that does not invite that kind of attack. A fork stabbed into someone’s thigh suddenly recalibrates to form a waffle. Where does the waffle begin? Where does the thigh begin? You could think of this feature as hope for a low-res aesthetic future: a creative and subversive use of low-quality effects, with a substantial online legacy, to generate a kind of magic trick that is both clever and satisfying to watch.
However, as the trend grew, so did the demand to learn how the effect was created. And the answer? An app that partly engages the datamoshing process, but also renders out a video that is in TikTok’s native 720p. The result is something that appears low resolution, but again, even if invisibly, adheres to technological standards in order to qualify for exhibition. How then do we consciously and thoughtfully celebrate and comprehend lower quality images, if we are overwhelmed with apps and camera effects that simply generate a (sneakily high definition) simulacra of a low-quality image? The answer is not yet available to us, as the hierarchy of quality, and the primacy of HD continues to govern our digital livelihoods. Yet through this art, maybe we can hack nostalgia and deploy mimicry to afford ourselves the opportunity to finally consider the idea of quality critically.
Beauty is to be found in the impression of something blockier, less definite or clear. We can hijack the analogue and digital past to demonstrate transgressive content that bears no resemblance to contemporary over-detailed, faux-cinematic usages of high resolution. And, in the moment that we fake our own past, rendering old ideas in new definitions, perhaps we can imbue them with a social and ecological context as well. For the first time, we can recalibrate our normalised desire for more detail and definition, to work against itself by drawing on our pangs of nostalgia.
- Lena Ewertsson, ‘Is Seeing Believing? The Experimental Production of Technical Standards for HDTV’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society, 4.3 (2010), pp. 383–418
- Videos like this one are all too common on YouTube. Here the message is that HD isn’t important, only storytelling matters. However, even this cringeworthy motivational how-to concedes that HD is eventually expected. This acquisition of expensive and high end gear is justified as a legitimising move. ‘Gear doesn’t matter’, until you have enough fame and capital for it to match with your level of professionalism.
- This undermines the aspirations laid out in Hito Steyerl’s ‘In Defense of the Poor Image‘ (2009) that the poor image presents an opportunity for democratisation, collective action and the specific material value of images not represented by the current standards of high definition. Here instead, we find that the goalposts haven’t stopped moving. The pleasures and power of the poor image, still exist exclusively in relation to the promise of an eventual high definition image.
- Laura U. Marks, ‘Let’s Deal with the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media’, Afterimage, 47. 2 (June 1, 2020), pp. 46–52
- Marks estimates that over 1% of greenhouse emissions can already be attributed to streaming. For context, though 1% seems small, it should be considered against other major sources of pollution—for example, agriculture in 2018 was responsible for approximately 9.9% of greenhouse gas emissions. Marks further cites a report that calculates 51% of the world’s electricity consumption will be attributable to communications technologies by 2030. In other words, streaming to devices, and video conferencing, among other forms of communication streaming, will soon be the lion’s share of energy use in the world.
- This is what Vivian Sobchak recognises as lamentable, in ‘Nostalgia for a Digital Object‘: that digital media, worthy of its own specific kind of attention and address, should instead become a convenient replacement for analogue film. ‘It is a shame,’ she writes, ‘that [QuickTime] movies were called “movies”: so named, their extinction as a specifically computer graphic form of aesthetic expression was virtually pre-ordained.’