Guest Post: Lossy Formats

Photograph of Sound Recording Equipment from t...
Photograph of Sound Recording Equipment from the Division of Motion Pictures, 1941 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)
From the pen of +Timothy Barr comes an excellent piece on formats in debate and sound recording. Enjoy!
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- Steve


Debate Formats: Lossy and Lossless
Timothy Barr
Doctoral Student
University of Pittsburgh

“Lossy compression” is a term used to describe a variety of encoding methods for digital files. They are “lossy” because in the compression, some of the file’s information is lost. Perhaps the best known filetype of this kind is the MP3. In an interview about his his recently published book MP3: The Meaning of a Format, sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne describes how we become accustomed to this compression:

“If you heard an unprocessed voice in a music recording, you would think it was wrong, because it didn't have dynamic range compression, it isn't heavily edited, there isn't any artificial reverberation added. It would sound strange to most listeners.”

This is because of a particular type of method for compression known as “transform coding”. In this method, certain types of information are chosen to be discarded because it is understood that this information does not greatly affect the perception of the end-user. For example, since MP3s were designed for the record industry, there was a lot of dynamic range compression that was not thought to reduce the quality in a significant way. This is probably true when you’re listening to a pop song. But if you want to hear the nuances of a Karajan performance, MP3 might discard exactly what is most valuable about that particular recording. For that, you might want something like a FLAC. Both formats have distinct advantages and disadvantages, and they therefore have different uses.

I believe that there is an analogy here to debate formats. How judges record debates, and all the communal standards that inflect and influence such recording, effectively delimit the possibilities for argument by competitive debaters. If judges only record certain aspects or types of argument or rely upon certain types of “metadata” to guide them through a debater’s reasoning, the debaters will quickly learn to conform to this encoding process, recognizing that the judges will have to recall the debate to adjudicate upon it. Anything that does not make it into the judge’s memory is effectively not part of the debate. What this means can be illustrated by comparing two widely different debate traditions: American policy debate, also known as cross-examination, CX, or NDT/CEDA debate, and Worlds debate, also known as the WUDC debating format and the British Parliamentary style.

Policy debate can be thought of as a highly compressed, lossy debate format. This allows for large packets of information to be made within tight time constraints. It has recently become the norm that at varsity level collegiate debating, the negative is allowed to have up to four “conditional worlds”--they can defend the status quo, two counterplans, and offer a Kritik of the Affirmative. The advocacy of these worlds is allowed to contradict. So a team is allowed to argue that the Affirmative should be voted down because they support capitalism, and also because they go over the fiscal cliff. Which “world” the Neg goes for is sometimes not determined until the 2NC, the final negative speech.

Such high compression of arguments is only possible because of a highly technical and shared vocabulary. Knowing the technical meanings of disads, Ks, conditionality, the difference between international, multi-actor and durable fiat or intrinsicness and severance, and how to straight turn an opponent’s argument are prerequisites for being able to communicate quickly and effectively so much information. The technical terms are often themselves the products of theoretical arguments in the debate community that have taken on more or less stable meanings. It is the stability of the meanings of these terms which produces the “lossiness” too--you must assume there is a positive meaning to a disad that your judge understands. You are arguing to the “flow”, the written record of the debate, which also uses these terms. The flow is like the memory of the debate. If something is not going to be recorded on it, it will not be judged as relevant. The transform coding ignores the “information” that cannot be fit within the flow.

There are those who challenge this tradition within the policy debating community. The argue against “flowcentrism” and appeal to the judge for an alternative way of thinking about debate, often in ways that would not “lose” the performative elements of the debate, the ways that race, sexuality, and gender are implicated in the debate space, and the alternative views of debate that are excluded by a “flowcentric” model.

Worlds debate, on the other hand, is a less theoretical and less technical format of debate. There is much in the tradition of Worlds-debating that also would recommend a broad way of recording and remembering debates. Much of debating strategy falls outside of what could be construed as the “illative core” of the arguments. Jokes, turns of phrase, gesture, timing, arrangement, order, illustration--these are all important parts of a debater’s strategy. If reduced to a note like DISAD. for US HEG, more than a “flourish” is lost.

The analogy is useful when thinking about debate pedagogy. In a lossy format, it is important to equip students with the technical vocabulary necessary to compete, to advance their research skills, to teach them strategies of economizing, and to develop strategy that is takes advantage of the compressed recording of debates. If a debate format were to aspire to be low-loss or near-lossless, the pedagogy would look different. Debaters must learn to attend to all elements of a debate, finely honing their listening skills. They must learn that nothing is useless or meaningless. Gesture, tone, timing--they are all potential advantages in a competitive debate.

This of course necessitates a first move from the judging community. The broader the range of elements in a debate that are attended to and the more diverse views in the judging pool, the more quickly debaters will learn that there is no easily ascertainable “trick” to winning. Though at first a pull-back from even the little standardization that exists in judging Worlds debates might seem to make the tournament situation less fair or even impossible, it would ultimately make Worlds debating pedagogy more rigorous. Such a standard might resemble a phrase like: Say good things. The indeterminacy of such a “standard” would bring us closer to how argumentative discourse circulates outside of tournament debating. There is never a final arbiter. There is always more to listen to.

So how can Worlds debating concretely move towards “losslessness”?

An already-existing support for high-quality compression is the filming and public posting of debates. By making a debate a public text, the conversation that surrounds it is not cut off by the decision. There is perhaps even an argument for publishing videos to the web without including any information about the decision (as is the case when a debate is used as a judge test). Elements of the debate that may appear relevant to new audiences are preserved, and can continue to be commented upon, argued about, attended to. This would require that there be a general understanding that no judge’s perspective is the truth of the debate.

The consensus judging model also supports this in principle, but the tendency to “roll” other judges and the concern with technical considerations (e.g. what constitutes a knife) refer judgment to some disembodied standard. It is risky to stand firmly in the practice of phronesis without recourse to law--but this is what makes Worlds debating a powerful pedagogy. It is its promise and its praxis.

Ultimately, every debate format will be “lossy”--language is constituted by a fundamental lack. But to paraphrase a (translated) quote from Borges: Something is always lost in translation, but something is also always gained. Worlds debating should look to emphasize the gain in the translation.

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