Tuesday, December 23, 2003

In praise of soft edges

I've been sitting in a well-lit room, in a well-lit house, reading Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. How superfluous is all the light we live in!

I only really needed some light to illuminate the page. A pool of light would've been sufficient. But the whole house, every room, unseen and unused, is brightly lit. How comforting, to be in this sea of light! Especially in when light means safety, whether for reasons of nature or nurture. Still: is this endless incandescence really necessary, let alone desirable?

I'm suddenly nostalgic for something I've scarcely ever had to live: carrying light with me around in a dark house. We have personal computing, but not personal lighting... Perhaps here is the one reason why fancy home control technology might be worth having: if lights softly sensed my presence, and a smooth pool of light followed as a moved around the house, I would feel more centered in the space. I would have a sense of the spaces moving around me, rather than simply being a unit moving through a machine for living in.

A gradual response would be essential - not sharp ON and OFF. (That's half of the reason why we just leave lights on; the other is that light switches are so often on the wrong side of the room.) Many meeting rooms in modern office buildings have presence sensors, but they are brutally binary: when they have not sensed movement for a while, the lights go simply all switch off in a most disconcerting way. A slow fad to black would be much easier on the nerves.

The same goes for computer displays - screens will suddenly switch off, or pop back from power-save mode. Or take clock radios: the ones I encounter in hotel rooms go from silence to set volume in a sudden crack, fracturing sleep. Or telephones: it's a rare phone that starts ringing softly, and gradually increases its volume if ignored. Sudden movement activates fight/flight responses at the reptilian base of our brains; prompting an unexpected surge of adrenaline isn't a good way for technology to endear itself.

Shadows may not be for everyone, or every culture. However, softer edges between the various states of the technologies that serve us would surely smooth the jagged edges of our lives.

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