Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: April 2008

24 April 2008

A Window Into The Future Of Sound

The way we listen to music today is not going to last. A bevy of new technologies is set to radically change our relationship to auditory media. novel speaker materials, remarkable advances in recording equipment, and pioneering mind-machine interfaces have perched our culture on the verge of a world we would scarcely recognize: where music can be played back on any surface, where headphones have been replaced by custom isolated open-air audioscapes, and where we don't even need mouths to sing or hands to play our instruments. For your consideration, I present the following major innovations - each of which, sooner or later, will force us to reconsider what we think we know about communication.

SURFACESOUND

The first, like many wonderful discoveries, came from failure - failure by the UK Ministry of Defense to find a suitable material for dampening the sound of their helicopters. Instead, they stumbled upon a unique honeycombed structure that conducts sound with surprising efficiency. Already, the technology as been sold to NXT Sound, named SurfaceSound, and crafted into folding flat-panel speakers (14 mm thick) and "speakerless" automobile interiors and mobile phones.
It has also been fashioned into transparent overlays for computer screens, which can be segregated into as many as SIX isolated sound panes. It's only a matter of time (less than a year, according to NXT's projections) before we have integrated speakers in our greeting cards and digital photo displays, and ultra-thin clip-on speakers for juicing up obsolete non-musical surfaces. One of the most exciting prospects for SurfaceSound is as a responsive natural interface for audio engineering - according to the Discovery News article, it "can be made to vibrate when touched, with individual frequencies tailored to each finger" (a benefit of its capacity to be partitioned). With the ability to place sound-conducting surfaces almost anywhere imaginable, the next challenge for NXT seems simple enough: to make "silent loudspeakers" which can only be heard when the listener is in direct contact with the speaker surface.

AUDIO SPOTLIGHT

It's an end that may already have been achieved, albeit differently, by Holosonic Research Labs. Their incredibly cool Audio Spotlight technology fires a narrow beam of ultrasound that distorts in a predictable pattern through as it travels through air. The result is the sonic equivalent of a laser - an invisible ray of sound that can only be heard by someone standing directly in its path. (Their technical explanatory page can be found here.)
I'll say it again: Audio Spotlight turns the AIR into a loudspeaker that can only be heard by standing INSIDE of it. Sound can be projected like a beam of light, bounced off of surfaces, and manipulated in all kinds of other novel ways. The New York Times called Audio Spotlight "the most radical technological development in acoustics since the coil loudspeaker was invented in 1925," and with good reason:

Headphone museum tours are over, soon to be replaced with isolated audio programs for each display. You can listen to music over open air in the public library. The insane cacophony of public advertisements will be forgotten in favor of more discrete "hotspots" pedestrians will learn to systematically avoid. Performing musicians will be able to broadcast multiple submixes into their audiences to compensate for micro-variations in venue acoustics - or even play several concerts at once, through which listeners can move as they dance from one end of the room to the other. You'll never register a noise complaint against your neighbor's bassy stereo system again. The technology is already being adapted by an impressive array of clients, including

Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, GM, Motorola, and Walt Disney Imagineering (the guys who build the rides). (A full list of current applications can be found here.) It isn't long before our children are digging iPod earbuds out of the attic and querying their internet implants as to what the hell those things are...

EPOC

And when they do, they'll probably be using technology similar to Emotiv Systems' Epoc, a new videogaming interface that replaces handheld controllers with a mind-reading headset.
Combining 100 year old EEG technology with new software algorithms that analyze human brainwave patterns, the Epoc is a glorified biofeedback device, enabling its users to navigate computer interfaces with nothing more than intent. Beyond its immediate gaming applications (headsets will be on the market for $300 this Christmas), Emotiv is exploring numerous applications in robotics, education, and medicine - making it possible, for example, for quadraplegics to operate household devices on their own. I'm giving us a year before progressive musical acts are using these or similar headsets to control electronic music production arrays - heralding the advent of a long-imagined age when artists are able to directly convey their thoughts to an audience.

(A speculative recipe: combining the Epoc with the Audio Spotlight yields the potential for multi-scaped audio arrays that are activated and operated without so much as lifting a finger.)

And if that weren't enough, it is easy to imagine how such a device - apparently already well on the road to ubiquity - might catalyze a radical development of mental acuity in our culture. Having to learn what is currently an uncommon finesse with concentration and intent could well improve the focus and self-control of everyone who uses it...and already, I can hear the next generation marvel with pity and disbelief at our limited attention spans and cognitive agency.

(More on this here: Discovery Channel)

AUDEO

The Epoc's clever decryption of brainwave semantics has its limitations, however. One significant "drawback" (if that term can even be applied to such a stunning advancement) is that it cannot read your brain with enough precision to decode speech. You'll still have to move your mouth to talk...

...UNLESS, that is, you're using Ambient Corporation's Audeo, a neckband-mounted microchip that relays nerve impulses on their way to the focal cords to a computer, where they are translated into an audible computerized voice.
Although the device can currently recognize fewer than 200 words, Ambient is working to release an improved model by the end of the year that recognizes individualphonemes and has a functionally limitless vocabulary. Michael Callahan, Ambient'stwenty-four year old co-founder, recently placed the first public "voiceless phone call" at a recent technology conference (You can find the video embedded in The New Scientist's recent article). In support of my generation-of-techno-yogis hypothesis, Callahan says that making clean electrical signals that the Audeo can understand requires the specific, deliberate imagining of voicing each word - something he calls "a level above thinking."

It's an innovation whose significance extends beyond the obvious enabling-speech-in-the-mute. Private telephone calls will be made in public, by people who look like they're listening to you. Ventriloquism through invisible wallspeakers and audio beams will further challenge our confidence in human perception. Maybe our hyper-attentive descendents will be able to deliver two different speeches at once. (Most of us already know how to talk without thinking...all it would require is to also talk whilethinking. It's like riding a bike.)

But for me, fettered as I am by my unilingual peasantry, one application takes the cake: linguistic software could be packed into that auxiliary computer, finally realizing something not too distant from the long-fantasized Universal Translator.

It's not technomusical telepathy, but it's close. We're getting there. Yes, indeed: the future is singing quite a tune.

(Written for iggli.com.)

16 April 2008

Painting While Dancing, Part 4: The Danger of Creativity

Icarus Falling, by Paul Ambroise Stoldtz, 1743

Painting is dangerous.

We don't typically think of painting as dangerous, because we imagine the landscape print in our motel room to have emerged uncomplicatedly from the sweatless brow of some middle-aged homebody with a neat row of clean brushes and a comfortable desk chair. We are the children of Late Capitalism, recognizing product over process. Our physicists are busy looking not for fundamental relationships in the universe, but fundamental particles. We seem not to really grasp the wisdom in statements like, "Happiness is a journey, not a destination." Machines build things for us.

Through clever modern chemistry, being an artist is almost totally non-toxic. You don't even have to get your hands dirty; just use an electronic stylus and tablet, and you can do more with pixels than you ever could have with messier media. And you can do it sitting down.

Even the treacherous borderlands of the mind have been neutered, packaged, labeled, and thus contained. Psychedelia is trite. Been there, done that - our chain retailers advertise with swirling floral blooms and rippling waves of color with an otherworldly richness that puts every Boomer album cover to shame.

Maybe acid did break our parents' chromosomes...or maybe we, like the kids of those Brazilian shamans, have just been innoculated to these deeper weirdnesses by growing up inside of them. Maybe consumer culture just gives us too much to experience, and we've grown even thicker shades to wear as we parade into the Light.

Aliens, angels, ascended masters? Oh yeah, my buddy channels them. Bilocation? I did that, once. We're living in a world that is rending the minds of our parents to tatters, and it's No Big Deal. The extraordinary is, like, so totally ordinary.

But I don't blame any of us for blinding ourselves to the incredible intensity of our age. After all, we're dealing with what Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum - the deep unknown at the heart of the world that is so beyond our ken that we could not survive the knowledge. We cower from the face of God for good reason: that creative Source is a burning brightness of which fire is only a cool, pale imitation. History can be read as the story of one daring soul after another throwing itself into the flame, hoping to capture a spark. Our lineage is one of suicide missions, artists and scientists sacrificing themselves for the greater knowledge and experience of the collective.

I believe that the danger of creativity never really went away - it just moved, leaving a sediment of the once-extraordinary behind as it rolled outward like cooling lava into the sea. We live on what was once the boiling coitus of elements - now the terra firma, solid and predictable terrain. Genius and Madness are neighbors because they move fast enough to stay ahead of everyone else, snapping up beachfront property as fast as it is made. (Madness just builds a slightly shoddier house, slightly closer to the tide.) And playing around on the edges is inherently dangerous. In any form, creativity challenges preconceptions, digests conventions, and throws us to burn and drown in the intensely unfamiliar. It changes who we are. "Being creative" is agreeing to an adventure from which nobody has ever, ever returned.

The deep blue pigment bygone painters used for sea and sky was cobalt - it drove them insane with chemical poisoning. Nature photographers have a bad habit of being eaten by wild animals or falling off of cliffs. The most gifted musicians seem especially likely to drown or overdose. It's a common myth across ancient cultures from Africa to Athens that the best artists inherit their talent through deals with water spirits - deals eventually repaid with blood.

(For more on this mysterious phenomenon, I encourage you to read up on the Saturn Return and the 27 Club.)

The Muse - actually an entire coterie of entities that the Greeks held responsible for inspiring every creative act - is a lunar, feminine archetype. The muses were water nymphs, legendary for blinding those arrogant enough to challenge them.

Honest artists admit that they can claim no ownership of their creative work - that it emerges through them, and not from them. And like the biological creative passion of our sexual inheritance, artistic creativity drives us into all kinds of self-destructive recklessness in order to satisfy its own expansive urge. The Muse does not care about you, except as a means to an end. The island on which we perch our traditions is literally built from the bones of artists and scientists.

I think about this a lot, when painting at concerts in front of a heart-rattling beam of sound. I may not have to worry about carcinogenic paints devouring my brain, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like I make my living like a deep sea creature on periphery of a hydrothermal vent, somehow surviving on the narrow ledge between crushing pressure and unbelievable heat, thriving off the rich intersection of extremes. Those benthic creatures lay root at the sweetspot where the ocean carries sustenance directly into their blood - and I plant myself right where a wall of tidal music energy is sieved through my energetic body into crystalline patterns of paint. These images are the love child of the audience's and performers' energies feeding back over a massive electrified circuit, leaving cross-sectional deposits in opaque pigment on a black board - a kind of spectrograph of the evening's collective resonance, deformed and amplified by the matrix of my interpretation.

And this is matter-of-fact science. Chemist Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for his theory of dissipative structures - the gist of which is that order emerges when so much energy flows through a system that it must reorganize into a higher level of complexity. If it can't keep up with the surge, it is totally destroyed.

Necessity is the mother of invention, just as whirlpools form because the river's current is constrained by the lay of the riverbed. Life is the floret that pushes forth from the equal and opposite vectors of structure and chaos. And so, like Robert Johnson (a member of the 27 Club), I find the soul of my artwork at the crossroads. That's about as deep a truth as I have ever known: that creativity lives in between things, balanced on the head of a pin, spilling from the broken crust of opposing forces.

Putting in my earplugs comes with a sense of frontier glee akin to what I imagine a welder feels when lowering the mask: the pride of having to wear protective equipment so I can play on the turbulent edge of knowing. I didn't think to bring any on my first night out painting, and my ears rang afterward for an entire day. Working on fine art in a crowd of hundreds of drunk dancers requires a special awareness of the space around me, should any teetering reveler pitch over into my easel or elbows. Keeping a dance party schedule means getting to sleep at hours that can't be good for my health. After five consecutive nights of painting, my legs begged for days to wobble out from beneath me.

And even in this supposedly enlightened age, I still have to work in a cloud of noxious fumes if I want to use gold or silver paint. (It's funny: When I was a child, I acted in a public service announcement declaring the dangers of huffing paint. I was the "bad kid" who didn't learn his lesson from the hospitalization of his friends...and now here I am huffing paint every week, only barely against my will.) My burning nostrils connect me to every artist who ever chose beauty over practicality.

I like to think that this job is somehow a mythological gauntlet or trial, that the frightful intensity is a door to greatness. Surely, these four-hour performance painting sessions are growing more muscle in my legs, cultivating my ability to improvise and listen, and teaching me how to conduct myself like a professional. Maybe one of these days I'll come out of the kiln with the strength and coherence that can only be found in fire. Maybe this is just what I need, in a culture that has abandoned its rites of passage.

In the meantime, however, I'm glad that performance painting doesn't require me to dive any deeper into the creative maelstrom than I already do. Sustainable artistry requires compromise, comfort, and care. It demands that artists be responsible enough to keep a little distance from the turbulent shores of the Godhead. Get too close and you'll be consumed, erasing any further gifts you might have transmitted. If you care at all about keeping yourself alive and sane for long enough to do something more than a single incandescent opus, remember that the womb has teeth. The sun is on fire. You can't breathe underwater. And painting is dangerous.

"What gives light, must endure burning."
- Viktor Frankl

(Written for iggli.com)