It Toggles the Mind

January 06th, 2014 | Category: Essays

Twenty years ago, Arthur Kroker described the predominant spirit of the times as a “spasm” (1993). What Bruce Sterling (1998) describes as “that violently oscillating 1990s 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.” The feeling has expanded to the point where detached irony is our default emotional setting. David Foster Wallace called it “Total Noise” (quoted in Gleick, 2011, p. 403): 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” (Wallace, 2012, p. 301). It’s information anxiety coupled with complete boredom (Gleick, 2011). What happened to the chasm between those two extremes?

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

On again.
Off again.
Always two things
One thing instantly replaces

It was the language
of the Future.

— Laurie Anderson, United States

Constructing sameness is an essential intellectual activity that goes unobserved. — Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think

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. N. Katherine Hayles (1999) describes the concept, writing, “It calls into play 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” (p. 17; cf. Tenner, 2003, p. xii). Skeuomorphs meditate the liminal space between uncomfortable shifts and an uncertain future, translating the unknown into the terms of the known.

Translation is always an amalgam of hope and nostalgia, combining the yearning for home with the urge to press forward into new territories. — Matthew Battles, The Sovereignties of Invention

Just like a cramped muscle, the solution to Kroker’s metaphorical spasm is to stretch it out. In the most general sense, my central research question concerns the process by which we mediate our lives with our technologies. What I call The Medium Picture is that process, what it helps, hides, and hinders. A medium is literally a “middle, intermediary state” (Gleick, 2011, p. 153), and that is the place I’ve been investigating. Skeuomorphs bridge the threshold, 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. But every new contrivance augments some choices at the expense of others. What we lose is often unbeknownst to us.

… multifunctional lidless eyes watching, 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

With his finger ever on the flickering pulse, William Gibson (2012) 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)” (p. 51). That binary belies a bulging, unexplored midsection. The space between that switch from one extreme to the other, that is what The Medium Picture is about.


Anderson, Laurie. (1984). United States. New York: Harper & Row, p. 22.

Battles, Matthew. (2012). The Sovereignties of Invention. New York: Red Lemonade, p. 84.

Braidotti, Rosi. (1994). Nomadic Subjects. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 43.

Douglas, Mary. (1986). How Institutions Think. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, p. 60.

Gibson, William. (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam.

Gleick, James. (2011). The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon.

Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How We Became Post-Human. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kroker, Arthur. (1993). Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Sterling, Bruce. (1998, October 4). Viridian Design. San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Tenner, Edward. (2003). Our Own Devices. New York: Knopf.

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