Writer and technologist Robin Sloan has coined the term “flip-flop” to denote an instance when a digital thing becomes physical, or vice-versa. A new project by Amanda Ghassaei that turns audio files into 3D-printed records.
Sloan defines the “flip-flop” as “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again — maybe more than once.” He gives the examples of carving a statue out of stone and then digitizing the statue with a 3D scanner, turning the real object into a digital version of itself. Another flip-flop could be added by printing the digital file with a 3D printer, ultimately ending up back in the physical realm.
Ghassaei has created a procedure that accomplishes just that. Her program converts an MP3 or other digital audio file into a 3D model of a record, turning the bits of data encoded in the file into virtual vinyl grooves. Then, she prints out a version of that record file with a 3D printer, turning a flip-flop in the process. The replica isn’t perfect — the process only results in a sampling rate a quarter of the typical MP3 — but it is fascinating.
What the piece points to for me is how digital technology is disrupting what we think of as media formats. When vinyl was dominant, MP3s, of course, didn’t exist. Yet the content of these different formats has stayed basically the same — it’s all music, with some quirks in how it’s presented (think of the fetish for records as having more fidelity than any other medium). Now, technology has progressed to the point where we can move between formats more or less at will, consuming the content in any particular form we desire. Not so into MP3s? Get the same thing as a record. Don’t like your book? Get a touchscreen Kindle.
Nostalgia for outdate formats also seems a little irrelevant if no format is really outdated. They’re just waiting to be revived, given new life by fans who just can’t bear to listen to anything but eight-track tapes. I like this new state of things and consider it a step forward because it further privileges content — it’s not about how you experience a work of art, but what the work of art is, how it transcends media rather than is limited by it.