A Rant on Limitations

In the lo-fi arts, it is common to say that limitations serve as a source of inspiration. It’s such a common phrase that it’s become nearly as hollow as saying that less is more. This paradoxical expression basically means that less can be good despite not being more. Less is good only if it’s like more. If you flip the expression around into more is less, which Barry Schwartz does when arguing against freedom of choice, it actually means the same thing. Less is always worse.

It’s a truism to point out the ideological connection with a capitalist focus on eternal growth. Much less obvious, is how this belief permeats so many artistic, scientific and journalistic accounts of lo-fi computing. There’s a strong  focus on limitations when it comes to lo-fi computers, but not when it comes to hi-tech stuff. There’s a fetish with lo-fi limitations that I think we can all recognize, and therefore there is also a fetish with the hi-fi unlimited. Right?


We should probably talk about verbs rather than nouns. Saying that certain characteristics are limitations or not… well… says who? All systems have limitations, depending on how/who/when/where you ask the question. Can you imagine something that is actually unlimited? Invisible? Isn’t it actually the “limitations” that gives character to something? A piano without the limitation of discrete notes? Well, now that’s just not a piano anymore, is it?

But anyway – the real question is: how are those characteristics limiting? Can it be limiting to only have squarewaves and 3 oscillators? Yes, of course. And can it be limiting to have 3 million custom waveforms and 12 million super oscillators and a frictionless interface between man and machine? Yes, that too can be limiting. It can be too much. It can push is into making the familiar, because it requires a mega fresh brain to get out of the path dependence. It’s much easier to have an interface that suggests unfamiliar ways.

A lot of artists show love and respect for the technologies they use. In the digital art, not so much. For digital artists, the tools are mostly commercial products, and it’s not exactly arty to celebrate a commodity (unless, you know, you have a conceptual reason to do so). Computers are hidden in art galleries, screens are turned away from the audience at laptop gigs, and so on.


We’re also quite obsessed with critical and transgressive uses of these technologies. We imagine that we’re doing something that we’re not supposed to do, and call it critical uses or hacking or appropriation or something like that.

Smells like humanist spirit. As if we’re in control, eh?

8-bit artists, on the other hand, are often positioned in a much more posthuman way. As slaves of technology. Underdogs. We often portray ourselves as suffering artists – or even handicapped – who make stuff despite technology. And yet, that once again reinforces the idea that hi-fi tech is somehow less limiting than old tech. But here’s a few reasons why a lot of old tech is superior:

* Fast, reliable, sturdy. It’s not your work laptop that you have to be super careful with. It doesn’t take 1 minute to boot or shut down. It doesn’t break if you check your luggage in. It’s fixable and still cheap to buy.

* Super control. For me as a musician, I can do almost anything that the platform allows me to do. That’s not at all the case with hi-fi platforms, that hides most of it potential.

* Aesthetically, you can work with instant genrefication. If you keep it simple, your song/picture/animation is instantly recognized as 8-bit/retro. This can be negative, but also positive. No need to worry about aesthetics. Just let the machine provide it for you.

(this post was revived from the 2012-archives)

4 Responses to “A Rant on Limitations”

  1. FTC Says:

    good one

  2. boomlinde Says:

    Great read!
    I think that with consumer tech, people have been conditioned to think about them in quantifiable terms. For computer hardware, stressing the importance of things like resolution, color depth, integer size, triangles per second, bytes of RAM, CPU cycles per second etc. provide a means for producers to sell you a new product on a basis that can’t be argued. It’s very simple, old-fashioned marketing that seems to work. No need to sell an experience or a lifestyle (although it helps!) when the consumers already know that 1024×768 is higher than 800×600.

    At the same time, this creates a sense of progress among users that is based almost entirely on that simplified model of what is important in a computer. Even die-hard lo-fi artists seem to play by these numbers in saying things like “the limitations spark my creativity”, as if creativity itself is insignificant as far as limitations go. However useless the state-of-the-art alternatives are to them in their art, they will recognize the old machines they work with as being more limited because of the simple maths that define progress.

  3. goto80 Says:

    I guess it’s easy to slip into quantification with all kinds of digital technology, in many contexts. Not just people selling consumer tech. Let’s remember all the music composers who fell into the gear hole and said “I just need x to have my perfect setup and then finish my new album” and then we never heard from them again. Rip.

    I like that you bring up the advertising style. Modern computer advertising is indeed rational and boring. There is no need to explain the fantasy of “only your imagination is the limit” because that’s like common sense these days. Hehe.

    Otoh, Apple can charge high prices not because of rational arguments but because of branding and design. More qualitative than quantitative. They are removing features and possibilities to create frictionless interfaces for ye common user. We’ll probably see even more of this in the future.

    The attitude towards the technology we use is complicated and problematic, imo. When we describe them as “old” or “lo-fi” it’s already too late. So how could we describe them in a better way? If time & quant is not relevant, then what is? Please answer instantly and correctly.

  4. boomlinde Says:

    I think that old is fair since it’s true for almost anything by some interpretations, and it doesn’t necessarily imply that one agrees with any of the negative connotations of the word, but perhaps referring to an technological artifact as “old” is about as relevant as referring to jellyfish as “dumb” in that it might be true in a specific sense of the word, but in the end mostly irrelevant to its function. “Simple” might say more about its function?

    There are a lot of people in classified ads selling their “surdator” (for non-swedes, “surf computer”) — a computer the sellers obviously regard as junk themselves, but in trying to recover some of the investment they made some 10 years ago they sell them as machines that are useful for surfing the web. Maybe the term could be adopted for any piece of technology in general that doesn’t meet what consumers have come to expect of it but might be valuable in some other sense. A surf TV doesn’t have a digital decoder. A surf stove has to be lit with matches. A surf car has to be started with a choke. A surf web browser doesn’t do HTML5. A surf drum machine doesn’t have a realistic cowbell. That is definitely the most correct answer I can give you!

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