Furniture Software

If you go back to 1917, you'll find the seeds of ambient music in a strange set of instrumental pieces by French composer Erik Satie he coined as “furniture music.” Here's how he describes it in the manuscript notes:

[Furniture] music completes one’s property. It’s new; it isn’t tiring; it’s French; it won’t wear out; it isn’t boring!

Rather than an artistic statement, Satie included what could only be considered as a parody of a sales pitch. This was sonic upholstery that he was selling. But, as composer Stephen Whittington comments, that was the point (source):

[I]n order to fulfill its function, furniture music must not attract undue attention to itself and must offer no encouragement to those who might attempt to listen to it. It provides musical ‘objects’ for use, not ‘works’ for interpretation.

Furniture music, in other words, was supposed to serve as a sonic utility humming in the background, not as a work of art to be admired. Apocryphal stories about the debut performance (during the intermission of another performance) tell of Satie berating the audience for sitting down to pay attention to his furniture music. They were supposed to get up and go about themselves as any other intermission.

I am reminded of Satie's furniture music because of a recent piece on the Are.na blog from David Reinfurt and Eric Li (source). Therein they explore how the principles underlying ambient music could provide an alternative path for software to take:

What if you took these ideas and applied them to software? Software might create a social network that exists quietly in the background, rather than commanding your attention via shrill notifications or gamifying the experience with rewards such as likes. This software might not ask you to perform as much as it would facilitate awareness. It might reveal affinities and foster concentration. (After all, it’s easier to concentrate in a library than in a shopping mall.) This might be a place for collective research, a place to think in public.

It's odd to think of software existing quietly in the background. But so many things already do this all the time — especially furniture. A chair does not beckon for your attention, asking you to sit on it all day. It just sits there in your living room, patiently waiting for when you want to use it. That's what made Satie's furniture music so scandalous. Music was supposed to actively listened to. That's why you went to a concert. So what exactly was music that was supposed to be ignored? What we now know as ambient music.

There are a lot of software projects out there working towards creating ambient places that reveal affinities and foster concentration. I am optimistic for a world of software that is more like furniture and less like Skinner boxes.