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Podcast: Ego-boner!

  • WARNING. THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT OF AN ADULT NATURE.


    Online: there exists no tone of voice, no body language and (unbeknownst to many) no sarcasm font. We are shorn of what makes us human. Instead, our identity is fashioned over time by what we post. Writing on Twitter, Facebook, a website or a forum puts us in the perception management business where reputation comes together post by post. No matter the platform, discussions become opportunities to add to – or subtract from – our reputation as a joker, question poster, thinker or authority.

    On forums or Facebook groups, only a nickname and an avatar ride ahead of us. We are not bound by the real-world accountability that we experience at home or at work. Social media platforms blunt our sense of shame, tempting us to score a quick reputational point by commenting on something with which we have zero experience. We justify this by telling ourselves that we have a decent handle on how it might be. From there, it’s a slippery downward slope.

    The dopamine hit of our first point score causes us to seek out another. We net a reputational boost by responding to another community member’s question about ‘which X?’ with details of our own purchasing decision. That we did so before considering (or asking for) details of the OP’s existing situation or preferences puts our ego firmly behind the wheel.

    If our self-reflection remains parked as we continue to frequently post to a Facebook group or forum, we might find ourself “engaging in narcissistic activity in the hope of receiving praise”. That’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition of an ego-boner. We might dissect a reviewer’s opinion paragraph by paragraph to score multiple reputational points — we’ve never published a cogent 1500-word argument of our own (complete with grammar- and spell-check) but just look at that member(ship) grow! If in doubt, we’ll play the man, not the ball, our ego choosing to publicly pour scorn on his thinking instead of seizing the teachable moment.

    Feeling emboldened, we might take on a storied product designer to question his (or her) engineering expertise, reframing his design compromises as errors of judgment despite our complete lack of experience in designing a product and bringing it to market. A few of us will take this to the extreme by becoming self-appointed wardens of Internet opinions. We justify our critiquing of others’ work as a means to keep dishonesty at bay. Spread enough fear about corruption and our warden work is recast as a readymade antidote. We may have never walked in another man’s shoes but that won’t stop us from trying to correct his world view, only affording his reasoning merit if and only if it is backed by a white paper or measurements — irrespective of whether measurements are even possible. (We’ll get to that in a bit).

    If push comes to shove, we’ll venture a conspiracy theory to get us off any judgemental hook: that the engineer is a hack; that he has disregarded science in pursuit of a quick buck; or – always a crowd-pleaser – that his white paper is full of pseudoscience. With our words playing to the proclivities of the herd (that everything we hear can be measured), we have the potential to score big, each thread respondent praising us for our honesty, thus enlarging our ego-boner and generating a smaller ego-boner of his own.

    Too many dicks on the dancefloor can have serious ramifications for (reader/viewer) comment-driven communities. For every member seduced by the rewards of ego-bonerism, each subsequent reputational-boosting post must be at least as strong, as brave, or as extreme as the last. Left unchecked and undiluted by the majority of the more rational and less ego-driven community members, the pursuit of ego-bonerism can cause some sub-sections of online groups to swing towards an extreme position where the only other opinion, the way their myopia sees it, is the polar opposite. It’s either black or its white. Grey be gone! If you use an Android smartphone, you’re an Apple hater. Type on a Macbook? You’re a Windows hater! Write subjective reviews? You’re a measurement hater! Own an Audio Precision APx555 audio analyser? You hate listening to music.

    Now we’re back in the hifi world where online extremism reached a new low in 2020. It’s not hard to find “only measurements matter” comments in Facebook groups or forums — the audiophile world’s take on scientism whose purveyors engage in “the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values” [Source: Wikipedia]. They hold their book aloft as a form of higher truth and will bring it down on the heads of anyone who says otherwise for peak intellectual intolerance (see header image) and/or conspiracy theory extension. For they have been seduced by an emotional truth: that it feels good to think that only measurements matter.

    Many dismayed at this approach have inverted its phase to produce an equally objectionable form of intellectual extremism: that measurements don’t matter at all. Another emotional truth. It feels good to think that measurements are irrelevant. “We don’t listen to measurements” is this idealist’s calling card.

    For some, it goes further still. The extra layer of online identity afforded by self-appointed extremist group membership has given rise to its own set of mutually-exclusive tribalist labels: if you’re not an objectivist then you must be a subjectivist. Talk about divisive. Extremist viewpoints afford the beholder a simpler view of a complex world – and maybe make it easier to live with – but how does one talk to anyone self-identifying as such when their chosen label marks them out as someone who only sees the audio world as black or white?

    Our polarisation becomes complete when we find ourselves compelled to correct anyone not adhering to our view of the world. To the extremist, pointing at anyone not buying their black or white position is the Christmas of ego-boners. “Someone is wrong on the Internet and people need to know,” they reason. The thought to ignore and move never gets a look-in.

    It takes pragmatists to remind us that shades of grey exist and that the world beyond social media remains far more complex (and far more human) than the hive mind can hold; that measurements are no more useless to every audiophile than they are essential to every audiophile; that each of us is a combination of subjectivist and objectivist. More on that in a moment.

    Audio engineers bringing products to market – the experts in their field – consistently remind us that measurements are a crucial part of their process but that they rarely, if ever, provide the complete picture. Only through subjective listening can audio engineers finalise their designs. Their cumulative message is that measurements alert them to possible mistakes (or compromises) but rarely indicate how something will sound in its entirety.

    If this were not true – if measurements were reliable predictors of all nuances and minor deltas heard (and pursued) by our kind – we’d see engineers designing without listening and consumers buying without listening. If everything that we hear were measurable then pre-purchase auditions would be redundant, an amplifier or DAC wouldn’t ‘see’ music until it was set up in the home and I’d be forced to more frequently explain that I’ve insufficient hubris to tell you what (or what not to) buy. “My highest recommendation”? Nope. But even this idealist fantasy fails to factor in how an audio component exists as part of a system – a chain of components – and that most are measured in isolation.

    This grey-zone sentiment was echoed by SoundStage!’s Doug Schneider in his October 2020 editorial “More measurements. Here’s why…”. Schneider enthuses about measurements’ utility to readers who place (subjectively!) high value on their publication but backs away from them being a reliable barometer of what we might hear at home: “As we’ve found out in the 25 years we’ve been publishing, although there’s broad consensus in the engineering and scientific communities about which measurements are valuable, how that measuring should be performed, and what good and bad measurement outcomes look like in terms of well-engineered, technically proficient products, there’s little consensus about how that translates to what we hear, especially when the differences in measured performance are minute.”

    What stops us from doing measurements at Darko.Audio? The first answer is ‘time’ – I think my time is best spent making videos that attract new people to the hi-fi world. The second answer is money. An Audio Precision sells fo tens of thousands of dollars and what measurements could I take that haven’t already been carried out by SoundStage! or Stereophile. The third reason is an inability to interpret the results and the fourth is how to solve the conundrum of maintaining proper separation between measurements and subjective listening.

    That the measurement taker must interpret his results reminds so-called objectivists that not even they can outrun subjectivism. That run is slowed further when deciding what to measure, how to measure it and how to present the results — all subjective choices. Websites and magazines measuring gear and simultaneously publishing subjective listening reports by the same author reduce the run to a crawl. Stereophile and Hifi News’ editorial policy of separating John Atkinson’s and Paul Miller’s measurements from the staff writer’s subjective review keep the former from infecting the latter.

    We know from what we read on Stereophile or Hifi News that it’s entirely possible for a product to present with measurable flaws that don’t compromise the subjective enjoyment of its sound. This doesn’t mean we should throw the Audio Precision out of the window but that the measurement process needs improving, refining. Equally, stories of audio engineers designing gear purely by ear make for good promotional copy (but are rarely true).

    And as pointed out by one of Darko.Audio’s Facebook commenters, being an audiophile isn’t just about owning things, showing off what we own or ‘examining’ the gear we hope to have one day, it’s also about self-reflection. I’ll add that looking inwards to examine how we each assess sound quality or engineering prowess is as important as how we communicate those attitudes. For the more avid social media or forum poster wanting to be seen as an expert or an authority, self-awareness is critical.

    Without it, the polarisation of opinion found within Internet discourse will only worsen. Someone holding the view that ‘everything that we hear is measurable’ will find it near-impossible to converse with someone else not upholding that view — because all discussions about what we hear (including the placebo effect or confirmation bias) but taking place in lieu of first-hand experience can be reduced to this issue.

    As Sam Harris mentions in his Making Sense podcast (above), fifteen years of social media have shattered our shared reality. We live in echo chambers, our views reinforced again and again by content selected by algorithms in order to maintain our engagement with the platform. The heat generated by the friction surrounding the extent of measurements’ utility can be felt at every turn in Facebook groups and on Twitter. This heat keeps forum flame wars burning. Generating an ego-boner is now more attractive than simply ignoring what we don’t agree with.

    And yet this argumentative friction is the online hi-fi world’s biggest failure — a point of shame for a group of hobbyists who claim so fervently that they’d like to see newer, younger blood among its ranks but who are too caught up in policing the opinions of others to see the contradiction.

    You can listen to Michael Lavorgna and I discuss these issues and more in the latest episode of the Darko.Audio podcast (with the caveat that you should sit this one out if you are easily triggered).

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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