Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

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The Impermanence of Our Best Efforts

We are going to need some novel words in English to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die.

Slate writer Julie Lee recently wrote a piece with the useful but troubling reminder that, in her words, “our digital lives are too fragile.”  Like all of us, she has noticed that digital platforms are slippery. They constantly change and expect that we will adapt. Lee arrived at this conclusion after a free-access internet site that she used to save her work suddenly put up a full paywall. That meant that she would need to pay to have her pieces held in Evernote’s archive. Lee saw the implications, wondering if it was within her rights to retrieve her work using the site’s prior terms.

On a more prosaic level, I set up a new mobile phone several months ago, only to have it malfunction recently, requiring the service provider to force a complete restart, wiping it clean of all the apps, contacts, and settings I had arranged. These experiences are not unlike discovering that a frequently used organization has suddenly experienced a kind of brain freeze, with the surprising result that they can find no record of any prior contact. If  log-ons fail, a person’s account may go into a limbo made worse because organizations typically reject any effort to set up a new account because “someone else” has your name. If we needed reminders—and we don’t—the capricious digital world can change the terms of service at any time.

We have extended ourselves into this electronic ether perhaps forgetting that organizations eventually want to monetize our use of them. The idea of paying for media access is hardly new. Our grandparents duly paid to receive a morning paper or the most recent issue of Time Magazine. But our implicit contract with a given platform is usually less stable. Platforms in the informational world often start with the tempting bait of free access, usually in exchange for exposure to a modest number of advertisements. But these same sources can easily devolve into a “pay to play” policy, as Lee found out. Even the vital news source of the Associated Press is now asking for donations to support their website, which remains pleasantly packed with accessible content. Will that change in the future if they move stories behind their own paywall?

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Lee’s concerns extend further to creative work that we release into the world in outlets curated by others, and subject to terms of service that may include the withdrawal of access to material that we thought was ours. As digital journalists who have seen their companies vanish can tell us, nothing that enters our world using pixels is necessarily permanent. As I have noted in earlier essays, Apple software usually does not give users or other tech companies anything close to full access.

If the idea was not already with us, we would have had to invent the concept of a library that can function as a long-term repository for ideas and images. There is some comfort in knowing that a hardcopy book launched into the world will have a small chance at permanence on a bookshelf. Libraries eagerly purging their paper documents should think again.

Everybody is Now I.T. Person.  And Most of Us Aren’t Very Good at it.

Those of us who live extensively in the digital realm can be impressively productive. But it is also the case that the amount of time we must take to simply maintain access can be excessive. My gloomy effort at phone recovery took a half day, not unlike the previous day’s similarly futile effort to convince Adobe that I should be able to make a minor change on a homegrown PDF file. It turns out that I needed to pay more for that basic editing privilege.

Notwithstanding the library model, perhaps we are evolving to a new norm of cultural impermanence, where most current content or personal data will be lost or unavailable.  A.I. probably makes this shift more likely, where only the ill-fitting skeletons of borrowed tropes will be thrown into “new” messages to live another day.

Even so, we are going to need some new and novel words to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die. For my part, in this new year I vow to not allow the digital demons to devour hours that could be used more productively.

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Ambient Sound: the Presence We May Not Notice

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Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even when it is having its way with us.

There is always a scenic dimension to the various physical elements that limit or enhance our actions. The funny old aphorism that ‘everybody has to be someplace’ is a reminder that our lives must unfold in some particular space. Sonics are always a part of a scene, even if they are hardly noticed. Pure silence is almost never an option; even a “quiet” place is full of ambient sound that affects the qualities that shape any particular moment. For example, ambient sounds are what transform stilted film dialogue captured on a set into conversations that seem to be happening in real space. Like the visual cues of color and texture, aural cues define where we are: anywhere from a busy playground to a space deep in the woods. More than we might acknowledge, it is ambiance that defines a desert from a busy city street, a cathedral from a conference room, or a busy office from a bedroom.

I was reminded of the importance of ambiance several years ago, when I was working on a chapter about film sound design. Since mics can barely do more than capture dialogue, Foley artists and sound editors recreate sonics that were inadequately captured on location. They add the aural details that make a place real.

In crowded places like midtown Manhattan we often want to escape what has gone beyond ambience and become intense noise. The constant racket of the city is the number one complaint of its residents. And we know that heart rate, irritability and blood pressure rise in very noisy spaces. But I know from experience that some of those same folks transported to the quiet acres of rural forest may also find the stillness pretty creepy. Though not loud, small Eastern Screech Owls at night are dependable producers of the kinds of quiet cries we might expect from ghosts passing through the trees.

Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even while it is having its way with us, increasingly making us anxious, annoyed, impatient or—too infrequently—calmed. Our brains scan the information that we obtain from incidental sounds. And while our ears aren’t as sensitive as many other mammals, they are good enough to detect an oncoming car we still can’t see, or an air leak in a window that is supposedly sealed.

The films Blow Out (1981) and The Conversation (1974) are good explorations of how we rely on incidental sound to make sense of the world. Both show technicians using just ambient sound to solve crimes. More happily, Joni Mitchell subtly embeds one of her signature songs with the soothing ambience of summer crickets.

Sound anchors us to a scene. Experiencing a completely silent environment, as in an anechoic chamber, is unnatural and, for most, unpleasant. A quiet spot is one thing, but we are only too happy to be in the presence of enough sound to blot out the sounds of our own heartbeats.

Americans living near cities and traffic often live within what has become sewers of noise. Tokyo and Mumbai are also bad, but we have our own unique mix. Aircraft noise is often a constant presence. And American reliance on gas engines is even more prominent, with most towns falling short of reining in the constant din from sources ranging from souped up motorcycles and cars, to the horrible pollution of machines we use to manicure green spaces. A recording studio built in most towns must be built like a bank vault in order to keep all of that chaos at bay. One science writer has cleverly imagined that if noise pollution could be seen, its scale would produce a level of filth we would never tolerate.

But the basic point here is simpler. We need to give the tiny sensory organs behind our ears a break, and the chance to hear quieter ambient sounds. That was always a birthright of our species for millennia before the relatively recent mechanical and electrical ages.

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