Noise and Subjectivities

What role does noise have in the historiography of design? In her book The Universe and the Teacup, science writer and radio commenter K.C. Cole wrote “one person’s data is another person’s noise.” Famously, in Silence, avant-garde composer John Cage tells us that noise is simply sound (or media) to which we are unaccustomed.

Noise is anything extraneous that prevents us from encountering what we think we want or deserve to experience. It has much to do with the shape of design writing, too. Writing about the end of Emigre magazine, which coincided with the peak of popular design blogs, design critic Rick Poynor observes, “design blogs generate a lot of noise and they sure do love their own hype… They are places for chatter.”

Hype, noise, chatter? When compared with content in magazines like Emigre —heck yeah. But in considering the design blog as a genre in its own right, perhaps not. In a 2016 interview, Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) comments on noise and its roles in climate change, politics, and ultimately, ourselves. I consider these connections and sift through threads of design writing, noise, and data. A web is forming. 

Indeed, design blogs may generate noise with hundreds of comments on a single post. Much of this carried over from internet chat rooms, yet culturally they also descended from letters to magazine editors. Constructing such a letter with a desktop or laptop computer (or typewriter) differs from tapping out website comments. One could take six months (or more) to see daylight in print; the other appears almost instantly in a feed or next to flickering advertisements. The latter are created and read and seen among cacophonies.

These born-online minor design texts are social artifacts that endure through, and with, noise. Whether or not they hold meaning is subjective, as “what noise is and what noise is not, is a social matter,” writes Rosa Menkman in her descriptions of noise artifacts in The Glitch Moment(um). Do these data mean anything nestled in layers of commentary, fuzz, and silence, among glossy remarks, or tucked behind deep-seated convictions?