Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Death Of The Author

The image at the top of this post is David Greene’s Log Plug (one of a pair with his Rock Plug), a typically arch conflation of technology and the bucolic. Below it is a familiar contemporary version of exactly the same thing, a mobile phone mast disguised as a tree.

I was struck by the apposite way that this illustrates something I have written about before, which is the difference between art and technology, or more particularly the difference in how we experience products of art and products of technology.

The latest issue of architecture magazine Verb contains an excellent interview with architect and geographer John May who, amongst other things, manages to express this split much more eloquently than I have managed so far. His interview touches on the perceived difference between products of culture (e.g. architecture) and products of technology (e.g. engineering).

As May points out, products of technology are assumed to work in a quite straightforward, philosophically unproblematic way. That is until they ‘break’. Then they get fixed or, more likely replaced. Art and architecture on the other hand are never assumed to be either working or not working, functioning or broken. As products of culture their ‘success’ is subject to debate and negotiation, always qualified and always in progress. This is an important distinction and like most underlying values is all the more powerful for its insidious common sense.

John May points out that our assumptions about technology (and in particular the simple opposition that it is either working or not working) are naïve and simplistic. Following Paul Virilio’s notion that a ship brings with it the possibility of a shipwreck, May clouds the sense of whether technology is ever doing something as simple as working. Just as it might be working in one way for instance it may also be not working, or even causing catastrophic damage, in another. An example of this might be my new mobile phone. It is without doubt very good at picking up emails but it may also be very good at corroding my brain. Its eventual disposal will also contribute to enormous environmental problems. In what sense then could it be said to ‘work’ well? To ask this question is to sound almost infantile but is important in being able to articulate our relationship to technology.

Subtler still is the way that technology assumes a natural place within our culture, making a self-justifying space for itself. This relationship is complex and hard to unpick. Technologies greatest trick is to appear as if from nowhere, authorless and therefore untraceable. This is how engineering escapes our gaze. Whilst the architect stands in the middle of the room shouting about his/her creation – I did this! – the producers of engineering and infrastucture melt into the air, untraceable, unknowable, evading our critical judgement. We do not know how to criticise technology beyond a slightly baffled shrug or a luddite resignation that it is bound to go wrong. Beyond this we are lost, unable to assess technology as a cultural product, or to critically judge its impact on our lives.


The Sesquipedalist said...

I like this, but I disagree with you entirely. You've been rubbing shoulder with too many architects for too long. I can't help feeling that you're coming at technology criticism from an architect's point of view. Have you ever read any technologists criticising technology? I recommend Joel Spolsky - one of the keenest, sharpest critics of today anywhere and he writes fantastically about hardware and software. Try this on how many ways there are to turn off Windows and this on a criticism of a mobile phone for an intro. You don't have to be a geek like me to admire his writing.
I don't know what he thinks about architecture, but he may well just expect it to be there, in the background, and "work" (whatever that may mean for his relationship to architecture), without having to even notice it.
I challenge you to rewrite the article from the other angle.

Charles Holland said...

Always good to be told you are completely wrong! Strangely liberating actually. Seriously I think you raise some very valid criticisms although I still think that on some level technology somehow eludes a questioning of where it comes from, what is motivating it, who made it. the technocratic is a self-justifying discourse, one immune from questions of external validation. i am basing this on some of my own experiences too in teaching differences between say architecture and engineering where architects spent hours wrestling with the why question,and engineering only with the how question. obviously some mixing it up might benefit both. But it is true that i spend too much time with architects and there are some questionable assertions made in that post. i shall read your suggestions with interest.

The Sesquipedalist said...

Well, I don't think you're completely wrong - I think the idea that technology can do harm as well as good is interesting. I'd just really like to see this written "from the other side" and I've been trying to think how I'd do it myself. Maybe I'll even have a go next week! Have a nice weekend :)

Eireann said...

this is useful and interesting. I'll be back to read it again (several times). Thank you!