Opening the black box in consumer culture

Consumer culture maintains an inculcated ignorance of manufacturing and an alienated discomfort with the products that populate our lives. Our conception of manufacturing lingers in a capitalist mythology of the industrial revolution. This vision is irreconcilable with the modes of production familiar to information and service workers. At a time when self-imposed ecological disaster and increasingly apparent social inequities demand a revolution in our relationship to “stuff,” we are left without the means to understand contemporary object-making. So, we turn to science-fiction and futurism—imagining utopias resulting from technological innovation—to envision new relationships to the material world. But do these images and rhetoric make up more than futurist utopian fantasies? Do they drive development of the future technologies and paradigms of production? I’m beginning to see it this way.

Furthermore, I’m finding that in researching tools for mass-customization, even Star Trek, hokey as it is, is a real touchpoint for tech developers. Here’s how some of them imagine the ideal person-product relationship. It appears on command, no materials-acquisition needed, as a result of a massive sub-servient computer. Hmm.


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4 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    Janet, what do you mean by RAZR design?

  2. Lilly says:

    I do think there’s a creative function to pointing to a narrative that guides a lot of design so, in the negative space, you can see alternative narratives to try to design around. I’m at a conference now where they’re talking about social objects and designing objects where the agency of the material thing to push back and resist is a more deliberate focal point of the design — objects that act randomly, objects that change their behavior and learn, etc.

    I wish I could link to the slides, but I can’t find a good link just now.

  3. zelda says:

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say that “we are left without the means to understand contemporary object-making.” Are you arguing that marxist analysis has lost its function as an antidote to the industrialization-as-progress mode of thought? Or are you arguing that sci-fi-inflected fantasies of stuff displace both rational analyses and prior (outdated) fantasies? If the latter, it’s worth considering whether the perniciousness of the fantasy you outline in your second paragraph is in any degree counterbalanced by the necessity for people to imagine things in order to make something (often a quite different something) happen– and often the imaginations of creative or inventive people contain heaps of silly, fantastic, wild drivel. Just like anyone else, except maybe more so.

    Given that there is no way to prescribe socially benign fantasies, the question becomes: what are the best ways to guide invention itself– the actualization process– into useful rather than ultimately destructive channels? How do you get people with fantasies of ultimate power to work on inventing solar devices rather than digging 10 miles into the earth for more oil? How do you get people with fantasies of human dominance to focus on saving the earth rather than finding ways to leave it for Mars or that yet-unfound true blue planet floating somewhere Out There?

  4. Janet says:

    Hey, I’ve always said there wouldn’t be such a thing as a field of Teleportation Physics if it weren’t for Star Trek. And just where do you think the design of your Motorola RAZR comes from anyway?