Opinion: following yesterday's column on how disruptive technology for emerging markets will affect the high-end tech giants, Justin McGuirk asks why contemporary design critics are obsessed with analysing technology.
That is where this story should probably end, but I feel compelled to say a word about why I wrote it in the first place. As this is being published in web space rather than in meat space, with its finite pages and word quotas, there's no reason why it can't go on.
Here's the question: why are design critics today writing about technology? Why am I, an art historian by training, writing about the Indian tablet computer market? Why are former editors of design magazines jetting off to attend summer school at the Google campus? Why are critics who would once have been satisfied writing about buildings, chairs, Anglepoise lamps, typewriters and other shapely, worldly objects now writing about black-glass oblongs with the same rounded corners and the same greasy finger smears?
Why are we writing about operating systems, user interfaces and “disruptive innovation”? Why, for that matter, is the V&A museum - with its medieval silverware and plaster casts of the Laocoön Group - hosting a talk by the founder of a technology company producing cheap tablet computers?
There are at least three reasons that I can think of:
1. Design is not furniture
Furniture was interesting in the early twentieth century when it was imbued with ideology and notions of progress. It was still interesting in the mid-century when it gave vent to a burgeoning middle class' sense of taste. Now that those same manufacturers have abandoned the middle class to become a luxury industry, Ikea is left to cater to the majority and there is nothing in between. This makes furniture a microcosm of the economy at large, where the rich get richer and the rest get by. That ought to be interesting, except that good taste prevailed where it counts: at the bottom of the market.
Meanwhile, "consumer products" is a dirty word. In the 1950s and 1960s, washing machines and blenders were socially liberating – they saved us time and drudgery in the kitchen that we could spend in leisure. That has long-since stopped being the case, to the point where even consumers are painfully aware of their own disposable culture, built-in obsolescence and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. One cannot endorse such products without either being a stooge or a whore, and so one is left to marvel ironically at their functional overkill.
We make an exception for a certain kind of technology product because we recognise its massive potential for social transformation – for good or ill – and we succumb to (or are terrified by) that promise. We are addicted to one form of social media or another, and so is everyone we know, and thus we suddenly get that image in The Matrix where humanity is collectively plugged into the machine while supine in the goo. Still, the Arab Spring et cetera.
The truth is that technology feels more alive to us than it did in the days when we dreamed of flying cars because we're witnessing mind-boggling advances on an annual basis now, in our very hands and not in the pages of some pulp comic. The pace of change dazzles us and so critics court geekdom for insights into the new commodity fetishism because, frankly, commodity fetishism allows us to put you on the couch while we play Dr Freud. So we scan the horizon for signs that technology will liberate us even as it enslaves us.
2. The real innovation is happening at the level of code
We don't understand code and we have no desire to, we just know it's happening there, somewhere behind our blackened reflections. Technology, in other words, is where it's at. Critics are desperate to be where it's at. The tangible things are dematerialising. The clocks, calculators and calendars, the maps, books and cameras have been swallowed up by the black mirror. As the artist Michael Craig-Martin said to me recently, "I spent 50 years painting everyday objects, now I just paint the iPhone – and it's not a very interesting object."
He's right. It's a cipher, the black monolith that film director Stanley Kubrick foresaw. It is a design critic's nightmare – the object that is forever evolving and growing more intelligent, more powerful, without appearing to change at all. It is disempowering to those trained in aesthetics and connoisseurship, yet it is empowering in opening up new worlds of human experience beyond what can be appreciated "in the round".
Our interaction with the device and our experience of new forms of communication are there for the analysis, even though that's not really what appeals to us. The attraction is the sightline they offer to a higher stratum of power, which leads me to my next point.
3. Tech is where the money is
The financial clout of the tech giants like Apple and Samsung makes Olivetti – let alone Cassina, Knoll, Braun, Vitra and the other industrial leaders of design's mid-century heyday – seem like minnows. That means technology is too important to leave to the technology journalists.
Reading the tech press is like watching rabbits caught in the headlights. They may have bought into Silicon Valley's technological determinism, but that doesn't mean we have to. In fact, the Californian Ideology - whereby network technologies drive libertarianism, roll back the power of government and allow a handful of entrepreneurs to amass untold fortunes - is hardly a suitable replacement for the crumbling welfare state.
The design critic's traditional role is to reveal how objects express the spirit of the age. This depends on understanding technological change, naturally, but it cannot be done without recourse to the question of taste and that slippery customer, beauty. The reason tech journalists fail to present the whole picture is because they invoke Apple's success in relation to innovation, market share and profit, when really the answer is beauty.
The problem here is that beauty is what tech journalists call "design", whereas design critics are constantly trying to redeem the discipline from such skin-deep designations. Design, we keep insisting, is not style, it is not the shell, it is the totality, the performance, the very thing itself. Beauty is too easily undermined from within, and thus an Apple computer's beauty must be both internal and external.
So Apple's success is in "design", not just in taste. If Apple's success lies anywhere, it might be in overcoming taste altogether. It has imposed such a universal aesthetic that you would have to be a prude, a radical or a programmer to reject it. Real programmers, you see, don’t buy Apple because they know the guts are indistinguishable from other computers’ and because anyway they prefer a more open software "architecture". Only true initiates, it seems, can exercise their own taste.
Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.