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The Shape of Things

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Vilem FlusserEdit

The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [1993 | 1999 trans.]Edit

Vilem Flusser's work on design is announced in the introduction as unlike anything ever seen before in design theory or criticism: "There is no naive faith in science, no hero-worship, no corporate 'we', none of the underwriting of the myth of individual genius that so often passes for understanding when writers on design are concerned" (9). Rather, his work is a rumination on the history, semantics and ethics of design and design practice. The book is composed of short essays.

In his first essay, Flusser lays out the groundwork for understanding "design". To design is to deceive, to trick nature (as a lever tricks gravity). For the Greeks and the Romans, words like design, machine, techne, technology, ars, and art all had shared meanings and relational qualities. It was "modern bourgeois culture [that] made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and 'hard', the other aesthetic, evaluative and 'soft'" (18). Design serves as the possible cultural formative to bring them back together (perhaps like "media" does for the media theorists Eva Horn writes of in "There Are No Media"). We diminish design because to acknowledge means to draw attention to our culture as our own trickery--and yet, we cannot be fooled out of thinking death is real. Thus the value of art and technology fade as we accept the finality of death, and design draws our disenchanted attention to our chicanery. Good (moral) design, as Flusser suggests in his second essay cannot be functional, and functional cannot be moral.

Flusser suggests that the designer's way of seeing is linked to prescience (the second eye of the soul) and has useful overlaps with Heidegger and Latour. Discussing Galileo, Flusser writes: "He tried one formula after another until the problem of heavy bodies falling worked out. Thus the theory of geometry (and the theory of mechanics) is a design that we force upon phenomena in order to get ahold of them" (40). This concept is fundamentally anti-platonic, refuting the notion that Ideals/Facts exist that we are able to ascertain through the abstraction of science. Rather, "so-called laws of nature are out invention" (41). And yet geometry lets us reduce everything to equations, which can be computed and rendered again for our eyes. Thus, no wonder phenomena "seem to be as they are instead of looking the way we wish them to be" (41).

His essay on the factory is similarly paradoxical, as Flusser charts the 3 technological revolutions and how they have changed our culture and architecture. As Flusser notes, the question of the relationship between man and tool is fundamentally an architectural one. When homo faber has only hands, his factory is everywhere--it is afforded no special location. But when we move from hands to tools, man becomes the center of a wheel of tools that are arrayed out from him. The second revolution, from tool to machine, displaces man as the machine takes center stage, managing networks of human existence; human architecture must be subordinated to machines. With the 3rd revolution, in robots, again the terms change, as we become functions of robots and robots become functions of us ("the human being can only want what the robot can do" [48]). Future robots, small or microscopic, will work everywhere, and the only human factory will be the school in which we learn how to manage our robots. (this history of man is the history of manufactoring)

Other sections of note include:

Why do Typewriters go Click (all the world stutters because it has been made for calculation which must be broken up into pieces--but then again, computers can reprocess all numerical data into other forms of color, sounds, etc., so we should all love to calculate)

The Ethics of Industrial Design (who is responsible in the design network? We must ask questions of responsibility | Holocaust | Gulf War fighter pilot)

Design as Theology (eastern vs. western notions of design)

The Non-Thing 2--a continuation, in some sense, of the Factory essay. Man was once defined by his capacity handle, to grasp and possess (hence the cycle of nature-culture-waste). But information, Flusser argues, is a non-thing, and we will soon see the day when information is liberated from silicon, when software runs without hardware (we can imagine what Kirschenbaum would say!). Information could be neither consumed nor possessed, nor ever turned into waste, and therefore it would be a world without forgetting. But in this world with nothing at hand, there is nothing for hands to do. Fingertips become the most important parts of the body: "To play with symbols, to program, one has to press keys [...] Fingertips are needed to press keys" (92). Fingertips become organs of choice unfettered from labor and free to merely make decisions (rather than enact them...that is left to robots). Yet we are not totally free...because we are conditioned by buttons, we are limited to the choices available in the program (the revolver to the head example). Flusser suggests that the future will be about those who can program and those who are programmed (but then again Flusser reminds us, the programmers are merely metaprograms, making choices determined by programs...and then again, the options are so numerous that we will never reach their limits). And here's where Flusser gets into something that could be called media archaeology, IF we understand it to be the material conditions of the archaeology of knowledge. Would it be possible that a philosophy of the body is the only antidote (the only thing left to a world of programmed totalitaianism?)

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