Technological Multiplicity and the Obscene

(the ‘scene’; Wagner’s Ring Cycle)


Growing advancements, amplification, and social integration with technology have supported increasingly ill-defined and obscure power structures. This departure from clearly defined boundaries and codes of ethics require designers to engage with their subjects by reversing traditional designer-client relationships, taking on the role of the student, and inhabiting their subjects’ cultural frame of reference.

Legitimacy and Clarity of Power:

The growing acceptance and integration of technology has moved power into the hands of more people. This lack of a centralized and unified power in favor of more disseminated forms brings into question the legitimacy of power in general.

Zigmut Bauman argues the transition of power is being made from the ‘scene’ to the ‘obscene’ by the movement towards a less clearly defined and legitimate power. Bauman describes the ‘scene of power’ as as space for the performance and reification of social codes “…where mystery plays and morality tales are repeatedly staged… rehearsing for public consumption the unshakable and eternal truths of the human condition.” Furthermore, the increasing reliance and integration of technology furthers what Jean Baudrillard describes as the ‘obscene’, or ‘loss of scene’, whereby the multiplicity of information lacks the traditional hierarchy of importance. “Obscenity begins precisely when there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication” (Baudrillard, 130).

Power struggles tend to be waged as legitimacy wars. In a globalized world where information is hyper-apparent and yet difficult to parse, we are constantly questioning power-relations. Niel Postman delves into the history of power relations, illustrating the clear regard for authority in the Middle Ages. During this period, people “…believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what.” This ‘scene’ of power was clearly defined by the church and the monarchy. While there were certainly many mysteries to life in the Middle Ages, there was consensus in rigid obedience, and never was the structure of power in question. “Having power means that the other side is being forced into obedience. If that force is legitimate, it does not feel like coercion, obedience can be safely expected, and resistance is an exception” (Bauman, 284). Boundaries in this paradigm are clear, and suffering was to be expected and accepted. Postman argues that today we instead believe in the authority of scientific progress. Within this paradigm, the very notion of unquestioning acceptance goes against the fundamentals of the scientific method.

“…the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us.”

This transition towards the obscene can be illustrated through the invention of the microscope. Where once our understandings of boundaries were mitigated by the boundaries of what is visible to the naked eye, the microscope allowed us to peer into the worlds inside worlds, leaving us wondering if we are all not gods of some kind. This advancement in technology marks a significant physical separation that we have undergone by adding an infinite set of invisible layers between our understanding of ourselves. When we made the move away from the singular power structure of the church and an isolated cultural worldview, through advancements such as the microscope or the printing press, we lost a unified moral framework from which we could determine consensus around what was good and evil. “In a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise” (Postman).

Amplification of Technology – At What Cost?

An element of this dissolving singularity, Postman would argue, is the progression towards infinite expansion rather than for cohesion. Technological proliferation may produce a more efficient culture, but likely not a happier culture as individuals become increasingly socially isolated. Boyd confesses having a hunch that the “…stream of social information gives people a fake sense of intimacy.” Furthermore, Evans states that the proliferation and dependence on technology “further de-contextualizes human experience by emphasizing information over understanding”. This power allows us the freedom, but at the risk of losing the strength of physical interpersonal relationships, memory, and nuanced social cues. Postman points out that technological advancement is “always a Faustian bargain: Technolgy giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure”. As designers and entrepreneurs, we must take on a more dynamic and dialectic response to negotiating the technological boundaries that are in constant flux.

Democracy Must be Dynamic and Dialectic.

Democracy must take on a dynamic and dialectic mode of representation if it hopes to maintain the perception of legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The Supreme Court is mandated to interpret the Constitution relevant to modern context. If the people are to believe that their elected officials have their vested interests in mind, they must have trust that there is a certain public armature that is willing to support their interests. More importantly, the perception must be that this power is flowing primarily in one direction; from the people towards the representatives. However, our perception of this flow of power is increasingly in constant upheaval, teetering on the edge of legitimacy, and therefore very often constituting the ‘obscene’. For privacy to function in this a democracy the representative, or armature of the people must be dynamic in understanding a multiplicity of ways in which people now interact socially and technologically. Dourish suggests that “privacy regulation is a dynamic, dialectic, negotiated affair. Technology itself does not directly support or interfere with personal privacy; rather it destabilizes the delicate and complex web of regulatory practices.” What results should be a balancing act, not a set of rules that are to be applied across the board. We must engage in the dynamic process according to our modern context; “when there is a definitive; there’s always an exception to the definitive that makes sense” (Dourish)

What This Means for the Role of the Designer?

As designers and policy-makers we must contextually understand these changing boundaries from multiple perspectives, and in an ever-changing way. “‘Ours are times of transition’ means: the old structures are falling apart or dismantled, while no alternative structures of equal institutional hold are about to be put in their place. It is as if the moulds in which human relationships had been poured to acquire shape have now been thrown, themselves, into a melting pot” (Bauman, 284). Without these traditional moulds, the patterns and boundaries of relationships “become as suspicious as they are uncertain and vulnerable, “open to becoming “endlessly disaggregated, remixed and redistributed” like nodes.

Postmodern psychology has proposed that there is no ego, that we’re made up of a multiplicity of elements. In fact, “This fluid multiplicity of personality is what gives us our flexibility and resilience” (Evans). The more boundaries we uncover, the more ‘Rococo’, obscene, or ill-defined our integration with technology becomes, the more we must rely on both the micro and the macro perspectives. Because our awareness has expanded to include many divergent cultures and value systems at once, we must keep an eye on a peripheral view by considering sustainability, the true value of resources, and the meaning of scale in everything we design. However, for maximal beneficial social impact, we must first consider the context in which we are working at the most local level. This flies in the face of traditional modes of thought around “creative genius” and “visionary thinking”. While there will always be acceptance of autocratic design as part of the traditional methods of top-down economic business models, these types of methods will never engage in supporting or empowering financially, geographically, or socially outlying communities. Despite thinking the recent perception that access to choice leads to better quality of life, this is essentially the myth of democracy; that ‘free markets’ and more options do anything but strengthen the passive role of the consumer. Evans states that “we are given the illusion of liberty, but that is simply the freedom to choose between brands of mass-produced products.” While the freedom to participate in choices within the dominant globalized value system is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s dangerous to presume that it’s an empowering act. As designers we can do a better job of understanding the unique cultural frameworks of clients, reversing the traditional model of student-teacher towards a student-co-creator relationship.


The ‘obscene’; Waaaaaaat?


by Cheyenne and Ben  :-)