In this episode of Excerpts Of Other People’s Output Used For The Aggrandization Of Personal Theories Which Remain Stubbornly Underwritten, I will be quoting a newsletter from Drew Austin, riffing on Kyle Chayka’s “ambient TV” essay; the bolding is my own.
Describing other ambient shows like Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” which combines pleasant food imagery with soothing narration, Chayka writes, “The shows are functionally screen savers, never demanding your attention; they do draw it, but only as much as a tabletop bouquet of flowers.” If minimalism is the dominant aesthetic of the iPhone era—and Chayka has written about that too, calling it AirSpace—maybe this is the reason: We need our built environment to be a blank canvas onto which this always-available digital content can be projected, figuratively if not literally. Anything more baroque runs the risk competing or clashing with the handheld ornamentation we’ve already provided. I want to call this visual Muzak, but it’s more like the opposite, filling the foreground rather than the background. The physical space itself is the Muzak. Last year I wrote an essay about AirPods in which I described the sparse environments of Sweetgreen and Equinox as “pleasant backdrops for solitary device usage.” Always-in headphones complete the transition by giving us an auditory foreground on par with the phone screen’s visual counterpart. But that’s only what we do in public: Once we’re home, as we have been plenty this year, we’re happy to let all of this recede toward the background once again, if only because more of our own devices are competing for the foreground.
There’s a tension in Austin’s description, here, where the device (or the interface, in my own theoretical ontology) oscillates between performing the roles of ground and figure: either it’s the medium through which selected content flows into the perceptual field (the frame around the painting, so to speak, only reduced to a non-ornamental function of support and display whose unnoticedness is perhaps more rhetorically invasive than the gilt filigree’d baroqueisms of the cliched surrounds of old painterly masterpieces), or it’s the (medium-is-the-)message itself, and the content of the content is reduced to the function of passing the time in consumptive solipsism. This seeming binary suggests to me that actually both roles are simultaneous and constant, and there’s a sort of duckrabbit thing going on in both the user experience in question, and our analyses of such.
Furthermore, this perceptual ambivalence is a kind of evolved technological advantage, the killer meta-application: a medium upon which multiple media meet, enabling the rapid shifting of contexts and contents without any sense of discontinuity. Multimediation is not new, of course, but the convergent multitool interface device (i.e. phone and/or laptop plus peripherals, with the big screen in your home counting increasingly as one of the latter) takes the always-on-whatever’s-on of Nineties-era ambient television to the on-everywhere-anything’s-on of the present moment. Barriers to the continuity of content consumption, and to the curation of that content, are dissolving rapidly; the figureground of the screen, as the primary face of the interface constellation, the duckrabbit black-mirror, flips less its own role as background or foreground than our own role as (notional) actor or audience.
Thinking-out-loud, there… but there’s an older and simpler idea from the archives which also expresses itself here, and is the main reason I wanted to snip Austin’s bit above: the interface is the screen on which the Spectacle is projected. Among the functions of the Spectacle is to misdirect our attention from the prestidigitatory provision of the infrastructural metasystem/metamedium behind (or rather beyond) the interface; in an emergent manner (incentivised by accumulation, enabled by externalities), the metasystem colludes in its own self-effacement, and it does so by acting as the channel of the Spectacular. As the man himself said: “That which appears is good; that which is good appears.” That an already Spectacularised society would successfully evolve/produce interfaces which encourage their users to re-relate to them(selves) across multiple contexts—in a manner that not only justifies their constant use, but practically mandates it—should come as no surprise, especially as the tropisms of media technology have always bent toward the profitable, whether that profit is political or crudely commercial (a distinction that this evolution-like structuration also serves to dissolve with time).
The metaphor of graphical IT interfaces has long been the window, but it has never been a window any more than the vistas of landscape painting were windows. The screen modality came first, in which the Spectacle is projected onto the surface of the interface in an ever-more-sophisticated (and hence spectacular) fashion. But while it was long accessible to the very wealthy in the form of portraiture, the mirror modality has been a much more recent arrival for the rest of us; the black mirror reflects our faces in the literal sense, but also in the sense of acting as a space in which we curate a Muzakal backdrop against which to position the portrait of the personality, the fiction of the Self. Duckrabbit, figureground, mirrorscreen… the instability of the interface is a prelude to its integration into the invisiblity of the metasystem beyond, which is the fate of all interfaces over time. The oft-promised world of tiny wearables (or implants) and augmented/virtual realities is as much the fantasy of the metasystem itself as that of its servants; perpetual and place-agnostic provision ex nihilo, even of provision itself. The window externalises everything, even the Self from the self, and does so through a process of aestheticization. Containment—the Janus-faced phenomenon of keepings-out which are also always already keepings-in, and vice versa—is the inevitably fundamental logic of a world predicated on content. Whether the chicken preceded the egg is a question with no satisfactory answer, and thus perhaps not worth asking.