Technology as ornamentation

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Norman Mailer did say, but cannot find where he said it, that technology is erotic; which is an uncomfortable word for us repressed English-males. It’s like the word porn; another uncomfortable word. But of course there is train-porn, watch-porn (I recall a two years of study accompanied by a group of wonderful fellow students who loved to eat and socialise together but were periodically terrorised by a conversation about watch collecting – which made train-spotting appear marginally exciting – apologies to those who find meaning in SeaMaster4738.45Chronodigimatics or whatever they were) and car-porn (see Top Gear’s intelligent looking audience for further puzzlement). Having watched a couple speak vicariously to each other through their iPhone’s Faceache updates all the way round and up to the till at Carlisle’s SuperDrug there is much hyperpathology (a word I’ve just created) at work; hence here is Richard Lane’s wonderful treatise on what I term the newest and most acceptable form of train-spotting:

“In the modern age, how functional are the technological objects that surround us? Have they penetrated our everyday practices to make a substantive difference to the way we lead our lives, or is this difference one of the surface effect, ornamentation?

Baudrillard announces in The System of Objects that in many respects it is the baroque that is the truly inaugurating moment of the modern age. In other words, there is no true development of the technological object, just a kind of abstraction (objects become mere lifestyle accessories), which Baudrillard equates with the architectural style of ornamentation that prevailed in Europe from the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries. In the contemporary world, the object is now taken over by the imaginary. Thus automatism “…opens the door to a whole world of functional delusion, to the entire range of manufactured objects in which a role is played by irrational complexity, obsessive detail, eccentric technicity or gratuitous formalism” (1977: 113).

To say technological objects exist as ornamentation at whatever level is not to say that they don’t have a function; in fact, the opposite is the case. In the baroque world of technology, an object fulfils all the criteria for its usefulness simply by functioning in the abstract sense. For example, a more powerful computer may be used for the same simple word processing that was performed on an older machine that costs a lot less money. The machine’s “power” is abstract in that it is not really tested out or used in any meaningful way. So we no longer have the question “What does it do?” but instead the question “Does it work?” This latter is what can be called “hyperfunctionality”, because other questions follow, such can be called a “hyperfunctionality”, because other questions follow, such as “Does it work faster than the last model?”, even if speed of operation has nothing to do with any real performance output or gain.

In hyperfunctionality, the technological object is not practical, but obsessional; not utilitarian, but functional (always in an abstract sense); the object or gadget no longer serves the world, performing some useful task – it serves us: our dreams desires of what objects can and should do (1997: 114).

Baudrillard’s word for this “empty functionalism” is the French word machin, meaning “thingumajig”, “thingumabob”, “whatsit” or, as translator of The System of Objects more satisfactorily puts it, “gizmo” (1997: 114).

Automatism now has the human subject as the ideal to be striving towards, and the human subject becomes the next barrier to the development of the technological object…”

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