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Thursday, December 15, 2011

99% Invisible

I was listening to Radiolab this week, my all-time favorite podcast, and during their program they showcased an architecture & design podcast called 99% Invisible, hosted and curated by Roman Mars. This podcast is about all the humanmade things in our lives that we use without noticing how they are designed to serve us in the best way possible. There was a story about a journalist who tracked down Nicco, a person who'd left messages in concrete all over San Francisco for the past 50 years, and another story about a man who has chronicled his life in exteme minutiae, and put out a year-end report of statistics for several years now, chronicling items such as how many ice cream flavors he'd eaten in the past year, which restaurant he'd frequented the most often, the person he'd had the most human interactions with, etc. He used the same technique to chronicle his father's life and death, with an eerie effect. Both these stories are fascinating and you can (and should) listen to them at either link above.

However, the story that caught my attention was the one about the sound design of gadgets. Modern electronic conveniences have few mechanical parts, and without those moving parts, there is little or no noise. For example, your cellphone makes tones when you touch the number pad, but  those tones don't result organically from the contact between your finger and the phone. Those noises are programmed in by sound designers like podcast interviewee Jim McKee, to increase the functionality of the phone, so you know that you have succesfully punched in the number. Otherwise the activity would be silent and you might be frustrated by not knowing if you had successfully registered your intended number.

During the podcast, Jim McKee says that the sounds that tend to be the most successful are the ones that resonate with the device, that give the illusion of movement in the device when there isn't any.

And it suddenly occurred to me: that is what poetry does. There's something in me that is soundless and motionless, but present nonetheless, and to show it's there, to prove it to myself, to try and get a handle on it so I can stop pushing those buttons, I'm looking for a sound--some words--that approximate it, or resonate with it, or make my silent incomprehensible inside world integral to my mechanical outside world. Sometimes I'm looking for the words, the noise, so that someone else might feel and identify with that soundless motionless thing too, might know that I too have it in me. I'm searching for movement, sound, and resonance to describe this space inside me where there isn't any of that. I'm looking for the most believable illusion I can find.

And that's all. Carry on.

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