Today, the most novel feature of new technology is ordinariness.
The logo for the Dutch videogame studio Guerrilla Games is an object lesson in mixed metaphor: an orange "G" contorted into the chevron shape of a military rank insignia. Guerrilla insurgencies are often organized and sometimes even state-based, but they are hardly represented by the formal emblem of command and control military structure. Guerrilla warfare is irregular, asymmetrical, and lithe. It ambushes and sabotages, seeing itself as a noble defense of the many against the oppression of the few.
Guerrilla Games's managing director Hermen Hulst is a hulking blonde with a square jaw and a name that deserves to run an insurgency. He's taken the stage in front of his studio's big logo at the PlayStation 4 launch announcement in New York City, a kind of meta-marketing effort at which the electronics giant announces but doesn't quite reveal their "next generation" videogame console.
Hulst is anything but a guerrilla. His studio has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment since 2005, during which time it has exclusively produced sequels to one title: Killzone, a first-person shooter set in a science fictional future in which human descendants have mutated to adapt to life on the harsh planet Helghan. It is a game in which burly dudes in body armor discharge big guns at shadowy men with superhuman powers in orange-eyed gasmasks. It is a game that makes you want to use the word "motherfucking" unnecessarily when you talk about it.
Hulst has taken the stage to announce the latest specimen in the franchise his studio is destined to iterate forever. Its title, Killzone: Shadow Fall, feels almost computer generated, as if chosen from a thousand candidates for the most absurdly, mind-numbingly plausible phrase to be rendered in riveted-metal or orange stenciling on a shiny, black box.
Shadow Fall is set in a sprawling, futuristic city. Like everything in this PlayStation 4 presser, it looks gorgeous: glass and metal spires, floating island-ships, fluorescing aqua ribbon-windows flanking skyscrapers that rise from waterfalls. Hulst explains that in this chapter of Helghast lore, the city has been divided by a security wall, making the game feel "like Cold War Berlin."
The first of many boring game walkaround videos plays behind Hulst. A flyover of the environment. A player-character in a bulky suit. He (always he) maneuvers through a crowd before an explosion initiates a barrage of gunfire. A helicopter-like vehicle. Some sort of metal rope. The metal rope looks nice, I guess, if you're into metal rope. In any case, it's nothing like Cold War Berlin, no more than Transformers is like the Rwandan genocide.
As it turns out, Hulst isn't the only "guerrilla" executive shilling mainstream pulp as faux-politics. Sucker Punch game director Nate Fox comes out swinging like Sean Penn, decrying the rise of the police state in contemporary America and Britain. "Our security comes at a high price: our freedom," he moralized, waiting a beat before proposing an exit from such dystopia: "what if a handful of people developed superhuman abilities?" You can look forward to the results in inFamous: Second Son, yet another sequel in yet another franchise.
Meanwhile, as two of its invited developers use police state metaphors to introduce their titles, Sony officials announce a slew of me-too "social" features -- including a "Share" button on every controller -- meant to connect the console to the myriad corporate surveillance services that have become today's norm.
Other promises of novelty seem all too familiar, including the console's continued obsession with visual verisimilitude. Even the irascible French writer/designer David Cage equated emotional depth with visual resolution, promising that this time the hardware could finally provide it. His evidence? The empty, chestnut eyes of an old man's disembodied head. Drive Club creator Matt Southern argued that better racing games demand more accurate seat upholstery leather grain simulation. Blizzard, Bungie, and Square Enix showed projects they'd already announced, confirming that the PS4 would serve as a decent enough host for high-gloss, big budget videogames. Sony made its own concessions, adding enough digital download, streaming, social, and touch-control features to lightly tick the boxes of current trends so as not to terrify its shareholders for a quarter or two.
It's easy to feel disappointed by Sony's ambitions, but perhaps that's the wrong attitude. What if the real delusion can be found in our expectation for something "revolutionary" in Sony's announcement rather than in their having failed to deliver such revolution? What if the problem is not the lack of novelty, but our assumption that novelty ought to be imparted in the first place? Perhaps the best thing about the PS4 is that there's nothing very special about it.
Alexis MadrigalWhat's novel about novelty anyway? It seems like a tautological question. We get excited about newness for the novelty of it. In order to see or do something we previously couldn't. In order to do the same things better or faster or cheaper. Novelty excites us because it promises something fresh. Novelty is the product of innovation, that favored value of our contemporary technological lives.
But innovation installs a trap for itself: it must continue endlessly. Like its parent economic growth, innovation must be ceaseless to be coherent. If a medium or a technology can simply be improved to a point beyond which further improvements become incremental or invisible, then it risks plateauing, ceding ground to another one capable of imparting even newer newness.
Over the past decade in particular, innovation in consumer electronics has become a cultural affair as much as a technical one. Internal details and outer capacities that a previous generation would have found only in esoteric enthusiast publications now produce mainstream headlines. Even the announcements themselves, previously limited to industrial and retail audiences, have become cultural events. An Apple product reveal shares more in common with a televised awards ceremony than it does with a corporate sales conference.
Of course, inevitably, everything plateaus. The new MacBooks or iPhones or PlayStations become less surprising, and yet our expectations rise with each iteration. At such a juncture, innovation becomes less about generating creativity, originality, ingenuity, and other related virtues and more about calling a set of reasonable if tepid decisions "innovative" in order to produce the rhetorical force of novelty absent its earnest payload. Innovation is often a simulation of innovation. Yet, nobody wants to run the headline, "Consumer Electronics Company Announces Slightly Revised Version of Popular Product" -- nor to have it run about them.
But we need not assume that the era technical innovation has concluded to recognize that the rhetoric of innovation may exert a cognitive and cultural burden that is too onerous to bear. In order for a technology to become widespread and familiar enough to have broad influence, it must begin to disappear. We must use it more than we talk about it.
This is the paradox the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan described with a notion borrowed from Gestalt psychology: figure and ground. The figure is what we notice, the medium or technology we see and use, think and talk about. But that medium cannot exist in a vacuum; it works inside a context, or a ground. Understanding a technology requires an examination of both facets. McLuhan's famous quip "the medium is the message" also invokes the figure/ground idea: instead of focusing on the "content" of a medium, like a television program or an app or a videogame, we ought to consider the technological forms that deliver that message.