A Now Worth Knowing

 “We are surrounded by multifunctional lidless eyes that are watching us, outside in and inside out; our technology has produced the vision of microscopic giants and intergalactic midgets, freezing time out of the picture, contracting space to a spasm.” – Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects

“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in and the now we’re experiencing. It is all around us at all times, yet only visible when we stop to notice. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:

Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience.

“Ambience” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it?” He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure? How far flat can we press the extremes of our world?

Canadian theorist Arthur Kroker once described the mediated spirit of the 1990s as a “spasm”: everything floating and flickering, oscillating and isolating, what Bruce Sterling describes as a “state when you feel totally hyper and nauseatingly bored. That gnawing sense that we’re on the road to nowhere at a million miles an hour.” Since the 1990s, the feeling has expanded via media technology: ubiquitous networks and screens, social media, mobile devices. In response to this environment, a weird detached irony has become our default emotional setting. David Foster Wallace called it “Total Noise”: an all-consuming cultural state that “tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric.” It’s information anxiety coupled with complete boredom. What happened to the chasm between those two extremes? I won’t resist the academic tendency to turn binaries into the opposite ends of a spectrum. We have to in order to make room in the space between them.

In her song, “The Language of the Future,” Laurie Anderson says,

Always two things
Current runs through bodies
and then it doesn’t.
It was a language of sounds,
of noise,
of switching,
of signals.
           It was the language of the rabbit,
                                                 the caribou,
                                                 the penguin,
                                                 the beaver.

A language of the past.
Current runs through bodies
and then it doesn’t
On again.
Off again.
Always two things
One thing instantly replaces

It was the language
of the Future.

Anderson calls this toggling of opposites a “system of pairing.” Similarly, William Gibson writes, parenthetically, “(This perpetual toggling between nothing being new under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension of my work).” That binary belies a bulging, unexplored midsection. The space between that switch from one extreme to the other consumes an important aspect of technological mediation and our current state of being.

For example, a skeuomorph is a design element that remains only as an allusion to a previous form, like a digital recording that includes the clicks and pops of a record player, woodgrain wallpaper, the desktop metaphor, or even the digital page: It’s obsolete except in signifying what it supplants. As theorized by N. Katherine Hayles, the skeuomorph exploits “a psychodynamic that finds the new more acceptable when it recalls the old that it is in the process of displacing and finds the traditional more comfortable when it is presented in a context that reminds us we can escape from it into the new.” Skeuomorphs mediate the space between a familiar past and an uncertain future, bridging the new and the old, translating the unknown into the terms of the known by reimagining it in a reassuringly familiar guise. Skeuomorphs bridge the space between the extremes, obscuring the transition, and that is their purpose when it comes to adapting people to new technologies. They soften the blow of the inevitable upgrade, “reduce the ‘cognitive load’,” as McCullough puts it. But every new contrivance augments some choices at the expense of others. What we lose is often unknown to us.

We find our mediated selves by pulling these extremes apart. If skeumorphs smooth out the edges of the extreme, the in-between is all smooth and soft. As with a cramped muscle, the solution to Kroker’s metaphorical spasm is to stretch it out. All the way out.

“City Wall,” Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, 2007.

“It’s John Cage’s birthday,” writes Laurie Anderson on September 5, 2003 in her book Nothing in My Pockets (Dis Voir, 2009), “We listen to Cage reading from his own work. He tells the famous story about when he was in an anechoic chamber, a completely silent room. And he heard two sounds. One was high and one low. As it turned out, the high sound was his nervous system, and the low sound was his blood.” These are two more extremes we live in between. Two more extremes with ambience in between.

“Ambience points to the here and now,” Tim Morton continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning.” Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place, the here we’re in and the now we’re experiencing, bringing the background into the fore. Ambience takes the extremes of anxiety and boredom — of nothing changed and everything new — and stretches them into an inhabitable environment, into a now worth knowing.