I’ve always found it to be a deeply disturbing aspect of my generation (Y) that we seem to be nostalgic before we’ve even finished experiencing. Nostalgia, conventionally understood, is a regressive attempt to escape the dull, demanding and/or disturbing present and return to a safer past preserved, wax-like, as a scene in a snow-globe. It should be the domain of those whose ‘wonder years’ have long since past – we are meant to be nostalgic for our youth, not whilst we are in our youth.
The time between experience and nostalgia for this experience has been radically foreshortened, leading to a change in the temporal structure of nostalgia itself: premature nostalgia. Whereas nostalgia conventionally happens long after the flux of experience to which it looks back on fondly, a structure of feeling that belongs to the twilight years and looks back on decades-old experience through the vicissitudes of time and memory, inevitably warping and idealising such experience, premature nostalgia is instead a pre-emptive nostalgia in which the present and near-future is barricaded through reference to a recent past.
Let me try and explain this more specifically, through reference to a passage from Randolph Bourne’s essay ‘Youth’, from 1913, which crystallised my thinking on this subject when I read it:
From the state of “the little child, to whom the sky is a roof of blue, the world a screen of opaque and disconnected facts, the home a thing eternal, and ‘being good’ just simple obedience to unquestioned authority,” one steps suddenly into that “vast world of adult perception, pierced deep by flaring search-lights of partial understanding.”
The child has an utter sense of security; childhood is unconscious even that it is alive. It has neither fears nor anxieties, because it is incorrigibly poetical. It idealises everything that it touches.
What Bourne identifies here is that childhood itself is a state of utter certainty and genuine idyll - every experience in childhood is experienced as authentically ideal, in which contingency plays no role. Youth, Bourne argues, is that part of life in which we come to experience contingency itself, not only in terms of the limitations of our options but also that our understanding is ‘partial’ and unrealised, as are ourselves.
For Bourne, this is a thrilling prospect – “Life becomes in a moment a process of seeking and searching”, of ‘finding oneself’ as we might say. But perhaps what my generation have experienced is a quantitatively and qualitatively greater level of contingency to previous generations – though this is disputable – in which various options for certainty and order are categorically absent – the self is no longer ordered or found in traditional gender, work, ethnic or class roles but instead, as many have argued, is now a never-ending entrepreneurial project. Couple this with the scale and pace of change within the world into which the young person is thrust from the “warm fireside” of childhood and we can begin to get a sense of how, today, the thrill of finding oneself in youth looks more like a daunting, incompletable and perhaps crippling task.
As such, whilst only still in our 20s, when we really should be living life to the fullest, we become nostalgics, longing precisely for the ontological security of childhood that Bourne outlines. This conforms to the understanding of nostalgia as a means of coping with change by withdrawing from it, but crucially it shifts the target of nostalgia and the time in which we are nostalgic backwards a whole life stage – from nostalgia’s object as youth from the perspective of old age to nostalgia’s object as childhood from the perspective of youth.
I think this – admittedly sketchy – understanding of premature nostalgia provides the beginning of how we might understand the related ersatz nostalgia of something like Hipstamatic and Instagram, in which young people attempt to give the sheen of childhood to current experience. But whilst today’s premature nostalgia is perhaps understandable given the difficult conditions young people face, what remains in doubt is whether it is really an effective coping strategy (if nostalgia ever is). More urgent, though, is the problem it poses for Randolph Bourne’s original celebration (itself problematic, mind) of youth as a force for perpetual renewal – premature nostalgia, that is, might prematurely atrophy the force of youth as a time for questioning and remaking the conditions of experience itself.
We can view domestic and work space as an battlefield between media objects and furniture – and over the course of this long campaign, there have been a number of strategies devised to end the conflict.
Perhaps the most canonical one is the ‘furniturisation’ of media themselves – radio is the paradigmatic case here. Whereas radio sets in the 1920s were quite visibly technical objects – displaying an array of wires, valves and controls – reflecting manufacturers and users’ early obsession with the radio as a marvel of science and modernity and a device for tinkering, increasingly radios became ‘encased’ or enclosed as the system of broadcasting became dominant. Manufacturers shifted to designs that promoted radio as an essential domestic technology, with sets designed as household furniture, literally black-boxing the technical object within a cabinet.
Despite re-arranging domestic space themselves (the radio as the new fireplace), radios were domesticated as non-threatening bits of furniture in an attempt to contain the kinds of anxieties that they shipped into the home with them, given that they linked listeners and the private sphere to a giant network of public communication.
Submerging radio as just another consumer durable, a piece of domestic equipment, was a solution, then, that managed the tension between the ‘familiar and the strange’ as Roger Silverstone and Leslie Haddon argue, acknowledging the fact that radio has completely reworked the home whilst attempting to smooth this fact over, to make media liveable, homely.
Today, the same battle takes shape more as a question of function, but its basic contours are much the same. The New York Times piece ‘Furniture Meets the Digital Age’, is a good overview of how today’s designers are grappling with the task of how to ‘domesticate’ current digital technology, but it also provides a critical insight into the more subtle cultural currents underlying this type of work.
It begins by quoting designer Philippe Starck who argues that digital media initiate a process of ‘dematerialization’ in which products shrink but at the same time take on more functions. Dematerialisation, by this definition then, is the dual operation of miniaturisation and convergence. Starck takes this teleology to its exhaustion point with his reference to ‘bionic’ products – I guess he’s thinking of something like an MP3 player wet-wired into our brain, playing tunes straight into our inner ear.
The problem with Starck’s musings is, of course, that digital devices and especially their supporting peripherals (cables, power cords, cases, keyboards, etc) still take up a lot of space – which is precisely what the NYT piece is really about, how furniture designers are ‘accomodating’ the proliferation of gadgets in the home, office and study whilst at the same time trying to adhere to this notion of dematerialisation.
What is interesting, then, is that in the designs profiled, the rhetoric of dematerialisation is reinscribed at the level of appearance – designers have basically accepted the ideology driving contemporary technology: prima facie. In other words, obscure everything behind the sleek, appealing, flat, glass screen interface.
Without getting too conspiracy theorist, we can see this design principle at work across a number of technologies – the ‘flat-screen’ TV, which is about squeezing out depth whilst simultaneously increasing width and height, so that we end up living in a world of 2D objects. Or the iPad and iPhone, whose Retina™ display makes it apparently impossible to distinguish pixels from real life, let alone pixels from one another.
“When a screen becomes this good … it’s simply you and the things you care about”, the new iPad ad tells us – this is the fantasy of ‘immediacy’ (outlined by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin as the logic of media in which the mediation disappears so that content appears unmediated) taken to its logical end, becoming inscribed within the aesthetic and shape of the device itself, thin and dominated by glass and touch. In a promo video, Apple marketer Michael Tchao describes device perfectly in line with Bolter and Grusin’s definition:
We believe technology is at its very best when its invisible, when you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with. An iPad is the perfect expression of that idea, it’s just this magical pane of glass that can become anything you want it to be.
This is technology as tabula rasa – the blank slate for our desires, fully obscuring the workings of the sociotechnical system that produces such a product. Touch devices operate on a logic of ‘intuition’ – everyone can touch, so we feel like we are in control. This is despite the fact that Apple devices are also mobile walled gardens, in which control of the very form of control itself is technically instantiated and mandated through myriad restrictions on things like app development and purchases, iOS usage and access control.
But back to the furniture designers, who are grappling with how we use and where to put these newly thin and mobile devices – one strategy they have devised is to “have our products accommodate that technology” in, as the article notes, an excessively literal sense.
Here, you get things like the ‘iCon Bed’ equipped with speakers and a docking station for iPod and iPad. This sad looking, retro-futuristic experiment will soon look as out-dated as the AM radio embedded in my grandparent’s wood-panelled bedhead.
More savvy designers understand the constraints of the system of innovation and obsolescence they are working with and against in the first place (as one notes in the article, as soon as a new charging system is devised, the iCon becomes obsolete) – such baldly accomodating measures are also bound to fail though because they display a kind of technologised hypermediacy (the obverse of immediacy, Bolter and Grusin argue, which amounts to a fascination with the opacity of the medium itself) in which everyday objects are re-made as space ports for gadgets.
What’s fascinating is how this trend almost exactly overlaps with the history of radio and television before it – as I noted with radio, in the period of novelty and dissemination, the technology itself is the source of fascination and so is elevated visually in the design. But after the object has become familiar, a new type of ‘accommodation’ takes place which is more about subsuming it into the patterns, rhythms and spaces of everyday life, which it more subtly begins to work over.
This second movement is evident in the work of designers profiled later in the NYT piece who, we are told, are “producing furniture that isn’t about incorporating gadgets, but rather about adapting to the way people use them at home”. Take the CB2 ‘Andes’ bed, whose attached nightstand has built in cord management – so the cords disappear whilst you charge your iPhone each night next to where you sleep (a nod to the fact smart phones are such proximal devices that they are never more than a few metres away from us, day and night).
The difference between the Andes and the iCon is small, but important – the latter is about showing off the device, whereas the former is about hiding its nasty looking bits (cords). The piece quotes ‘director of future technology’ for Herman Miller, Ryan Anderson on this point: “Seeing a beautiful piece of furniture in a beautiful space littered with cords and cables is not a great experience … Making them discrete is important.”
So whilst we’ve established that today’s design narrative almost unconsciously follows the strategy of accommodation of prior technologies, which moves from visible novelty to furniturised embedding, what is perhaps new is that an added trend has been layered onto this second movement which only intensifies the submergence – the notion of ‘dematerialisation’. Take this section of the article:
Harry Allen, an industrial and interior designer, noted, in many ways, “the physical world is disappearing.”
You can see it in desks like the Dyvel Table, an elegant glass-and-wood piece that has done away with drawers altogether. Or in the way lightweight flat-screen TVs and iPods have all but eliminated the need for big entertainment units.
“What’s interesting, from a design standpoint,” Mr. Allen said, “is that the computer gets rid of so many things. You don’t need clocks because they’re on our phone. You don’t need file cabinets because they’re on our phone. A lot of things that used to take up room, like records and books, you don’t need.”
Designers like Allen are arguing that miniaturisation and convergence, two contested and contestable logics of digital innovation, are initiating a process of dematerialisation which designers should do nothing but help usher through.
The designs that emerge from this sentiment go beyond encasing or hiding new devices and their peripherals to fully reworking what we understand to be the array of media objects in our homes, which now become clean, empty neo-modernist spaces. Consider the section profiling industrial designer Karim Rashid:
Long before Ikea announced that it was making its Billy bookcase deeper because so many people were using it to hold everything but books, Mr. Rashid ditched all the bookcases in his home, along with his books, CDs and DVDs, as part of his own effort to dematerialize.
Mr. Rashid envisions a world in which furnishings “will start speaking or feeling the technology,” and cites possible near-future advances like upholstery that reacts to temperature, tiny speakers built into seating, and wallpaper embedded with liquid crystals that turn a wall into a giant TV screen. “That’s the epitome of dematerializing,” he said.
Still, “it’s amazing how little there is out there,” he added with puzzlement. “It’s almost like the domestic environment is the last to change.”
This dream of utter dematerialisation – which could only be a designer’s dream, whose mentality looks always for the minimal (and thus least expensive) point of convergence between form and function – is matched by such futurist delusions as Corning’s ‘A Day Made of Glass’, in which the world becomes an ultra-transparent, haptic fantasyland of touch-sensitive, multi-functional glassware (software+glass) embedded throughout every conceivable space. Functionality and fun are augmented, questions of power, privacy and literacy are sidelined.
Here we see the logical extension of the current sentiment, in which the attempt to ‘accommodate’ technology is folded into the idea of dematerialisation so that the device becomes the surface itself – a pristine fusion of technology and furniture which completely gets rid of the pesky need for peripherals (like paper, cords and stationery) which always complicate and disrupt this binary. This is where the NYT article ends in a more humble way too, with Jonas Damon’s ‘Alarm Dock’ for Areaware: a block of wood with an iPhone docking port on its side, so that the iPhone screen becomes the nightstand alarm clock. “Yes, it’s simply and retro-looking,” the article ends, “But it also acknowledges a new truth: the device itself has become the furniture”.
This breathless trend toward dematerialisation, in which furniture and technology collapse, is not, however, an unstoppable teleology – it can be questioned and moreover, there are contradictions embedded in it.
The most glaring is that both old and new things do not disappear, in all senses of the ‘material’ (physical, economic, political) – for one, the new devices themselves are still supported by a vast infrastructure that expands from the power cord into the wall and spins out into a whole industrial and economic system. ‘Dematerialisation’ is really about getting us to forget this much more consequential materiality in favour of a consumptive moment of utter transparency.
What we can see happening then, instead of an actual dematerialisation of technology (which is by definition impossible), is a ‘space-shifting’ of bulk into the hidden spaces of the furniture, the home itself and by extension outside the home at all – places like factories and electricity and telecommunications networks. Consider data centres, for instance, which hold all that stuff available to us on ‘the cloud’ – the term itself is an absolute contradiction: data is not wispy, it does not float, it is materialised in massive storehouses that require massive densities of energy and emit astonishing amounts of greenhouse gas.
And in terms of old, we can also see what that Karim Rashid and Corning’s concept of dematerialisation both fail to recognise is the sediment of prior devices and their associated practices that continue to permeate domestic and work spaces – the ‘domestic environment is the last to change’, much to Rashid’s chagrin because people still have books, CDs and all the other shit he dreams of doing away with, and have neither the capacity or the will to throw them away in a pathological de-cluttering frenzy.
Designers, however, are doing this for us – they are scripting dematerialisation into the furniture itself. And that’s the rub – dematerialisation is not some inherent feature of technological progress, it is instead a design principle – we might even say an ideology – of technologies and the furniture that supports them, which brings certain things into visibility whilst obscuring many others, which favours one form of everyday practice whilst erasing others.
The Dyvel Table by Silva/Bradshaw, for instance, does away with drawers because, apparently, “For many people, computers have all but eliminated the need for paper file storage” – in other words, this table tells you that paper (let alone stationery) is redundant and more or less forces you to discard and upgrade to a fully ‘digital’ workspace. It also embed a logic of ‘visibility’ at the same time – everyone should be able to see your possessions and work, nothing should be tucked away.
But funnily enough, the promo photo for the table itself shows a journal on the pristine surface and books in the double-glass ‘storage in plain air’ layer of the table – and anyone who has ever participated in the myth of the ‘paperless office’ knows how stubborn prior technological forms are – things start to accrue at the margins again, until printed articles, letters and paperwork pile up again inevitably on one’s desk, glass or otherwise.
The promise of technology and furniture collapsing into one another is the perennial ideology of domestic media, but thankfully domestic space will always be a matter of contest, clutter and co-habitation.
The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.
…the world we live in is temporary and [in Britain] is built on 12,000 years of past history, and the world we look around at and think is permanent, the buildings, the shops, the houses, the streets, the motorways, is actually so ephemeral, and lies like a thin crust on top of a much, much deeper story.
– Neil Oliver, SBS historian and broadcaster, on Afternoons, 774 ABC Melbourne, 2.35pm, 16/3/2012
For decades, camera advertisements have foregrounded the quotidian, amateur aspects of the technology – in an effort to attract as broader a market base as possible, companies like Kodak pioneered a commercial discourse focused on simplicity, portability, pleasure and above all, automation – “you press the button, we do the rest”. In this regard, camera audiences were trained into a style of photography that was above all, ordinary – the family snapshot, friends at a party, a simple holiday landscape – anything that could be easily arranged in front of the lens and easily captured behind it.
This is a familiar history, one that has been told before -and today there is a parallel story about how the everyday-ness of the camera has been hyper-extended in the networked, convergent, digital technology of camera phones – the phone as a constant companion becomes the lo-res lens onto all sorts of spontaneous yet affected social scenes and ambient images, moments which are shared just as quickly as they were taken via uploads to social networks, the ordinary picture becoming truly ubiquitous, inescapable.
Clearly, this presents a problem for camera manufacturers – whose old market has been swept away by phone manufacturers. And the solution, at least for Olympus, is telling – a wholesale rejection and inversion of the rhetoric which has fueled camera advertising for a century. After an unbranded guerrilla marketing campaign that used statements like “If your camera also sends text messages, that will explain why your photos are rubbish”, Olympus has now produced print and outdoor ads with the tagline: “Anything But Ordinary”. Backed into a corner by camera phones, Olympus has resorted to a slightly conspiracist tone that also explicitly critiques the amateur assemblage that camera manufacturers have staked their fortunes on for so long. But not without a degree of ambivalence and anxiety, it must be noted, as this quote from the press release looking for consumer-participants in the campaign evinces:
“Not everyone who loves photography wants to be a professional photographer. We’re searching for savvy amateur photographers; real people who all have a different view point on what real photography means to them,” said Kristie Radtke, Product Manager, PEN and DSLR at Olympus Australia.
“Olympus’ Anything But Ordinary campaign is set to celebrate the unexpected, the out of the ordinary and the absolutely unpredictable. We are calling on everyday Australians to give us their take on ‘Anything But Ordinary’.”
“We are calling on everyday Australians to give us their take on ‘Anything But Ordinary’” – could the sense of contradiction be any clearer? Note also the gesture towards ‘savvy amateur photographers’ – Olympus really are having a bet both ways here. And that’s what makes this campaign so interesting – it is not directed at professionals at all: the cameras in question are not (D)SLR models but just point-and-shoot digitals, and the target base is the exact same ones that with a casual approach to photography, have most likely indeed welcomed the convenience of the camera phone and long forgotten about the free-standing camera, digital or not – why would you when you have to go through all the wired hassle of connecting cords and importing from memory cards just so you can post your Bali snaps to Facebook?
Olympus’ answer is that you should care about image quality, and not just image quality but also the inherent aesthetic value of photographs themselves – and how framing, exposure, lens and lighting decisions can create the kinds of striking, ‘extraordinary’ images that the campaign showcases:
Perhaps that is the ‘magical’, ‘aspirational’ promise of this campaign – “buy this camera and all of a sudden you’ll be able to take beautiful pictures”. But there is a inescapable contradiction here – camera audiences have never been trained in this style of photography. God knows how Stephen Humpleby, an “amateur experimental photographer and a bus driver from Perth”, managed to take that amazing shot of rainbow orbs – someone taught to take a life of snapshots by decades of camera advertising, training manuals and social convention isn’t going to magically acquire the formal and technical skills required to take pictures that are anything but ordinary.
ou press the button, we do the rest
Journeys ‘home’ are, in the imagination, often travels in time as well as space – journeys to the past. But places go on without you. A nostalgia, or a set of expectations that does not take account of that deprives others of their agency, denies their ongoing histories. It converts their coeval, different space into a moment in your time. In a move that is a form of colonisation, it holds others still.
… the nature of nostalgia has undergone a genuine change. It was once a by-product of passed time, of memories being remodelled and hung for display. It seems now to be included in their purchase price. Instant historicisation: there is a compulsion to a sense of nostalgia for moments in the very second they are taking place. Cardboard histories, if we could only harness this.
I’m just passing this one through another few mediations. A friend sent me this photo of a photo of me skateboarding from our childhood. I particularly like his thumb on the bottom corner and way the glossy paper has reflected the iPhone’s flash. The temporality of this image is tentacular.
I’m currently reading a profile of Jaron Lanier in The New Yorker – a guy notable in the 80s for championing virtual reality and somewhat infamous today for his attacks on social media in his You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. His whole epistemology is caught up in a typically humanistic, dualist conception of people on the one side and technology (or ‘machines’) on the other, which I’m not going to challenge now as I want to get to a different point. So, technologies, Lanier argues, should work as instruments (it’s interesting, as an aside, to note that he populates his house with hundreds of esoteric musical instruments) to facilitate people’s creativity, for they otherwise work in some way to oppress us. As the article points out, he certainly isn’t a Luddite, he’s just unhappy with the current direction of technology.
Today, I’ve also been reading Miller and Slater’s The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach from 2000. Early on, they argue that notions of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘virtual reality’ are too abstract to capture the embedded, everyday quality of the net that they see in their fieldwork. Published at the fin de siècle, their work sits at an interesting turning point in the historiography of networked media, at the tipping point where 90s cybertheory and feverish theorisations of hypertext had just about worn out.
What I find interesting, holding these two articles up against each other, is firstly, the parallelism in corporate development of the internet and theory, and secondly, how a kind of inversion has taken place.
On the first point, today it is de rigueur to affirm the mutually constitutive nature of the online and offline world; Miller and Slater’s pronouncements are the ground zero of sociological studies of new media. Tellingly, however, digital giants such as Google and Facebook push this rhetoric as fiercely as any academic: as users, we are encouraged and at times blackmailed into merging our ‘real identity’ as closely as possible with that of our online selves. I won’t ever forgot the switch from Myspace to Facebook, where I had to enter my full name for the first time in creating a profile. Myspace still retained the residual playfulness of earlier online spaces such as bulletin boards and chatrooms, where people could pseudonymously or anonymously try on identities and opinions – this devolved to fifteen year-olds jokingly listing our salary as ’100k+’ on Myspace, but a sense of play still remained. Today, however, full names, details, relationships, etc. are mapped out, all the better for such sites to mine your personal data to sell to marketers and to market back to you more effectively.
This critique is nothing new; we all know and participate in it daily. What I think is more interesting is the second point I wanted to mention, that of a kind of inversion. Lanier’s lament over social media, from the article, concerns “the way it mediates social contact” and how it is made up of “privatized spy-agencies” (he cites Facebook’s facial recognition software). In all, he argues that this will (or has) lead to shallow, “fakey-fakey” social interactions. He argues virtual reality is a more enriched alternative, in which people can communicate through multi-sensory means and fashion avatars and forms of interaction that are much deeper, more stimulating and playful. What this leads to, I think, is the notion that the ‘virtual reality’ of today’s media is in fact social media; it is a perfected and ever-perfecting ‘simulation’ of our social lives which is nonetheless superficial and ‘depthless’. Virtual Reality proper, on the other hand, now becomes a more embedded, humanistic field in the guise of something like Microsoft’s Kinect, which Lanier helped develop. It offers forms of creativity and interaction which cannot be reduced to form fields or brief, 100 character missives to everyone and no one. Or again, the obsession with self that some see as marking cyberspaces is recapitulated in social media – but instead of clocking up hours crafting an elaborate, fanciful personae on some MUD, one now devotes oneself to (re)creating as perfect an image of oneself as possible. Lovink and Rossiter:
Personal exhibition on Web 2.0 social networks resembles the discovery of sexuality. Anxiety over masturbation meets digital narcissism (obsessive touching up of personal profiles) and digital voyeurism (compulsive viewing of other’s profiles, their list of friends, secrets, etc.)
Of course, this inversion only holds if you indeed accept the correlations that Lanier argues for; namely that social media is shallow and VR is rich and playful. Regardless, it’s an interesting state of affairs we seem to have reached, not least because a seemingly dead and much-derided, socially and economically, technology is being held up as a better way forward.