This is Not a Chair

September 27, 2011

My junior year of high school, l I took a logic course what I realize now to be a wonderful professor. On the first day of class, he took a chair and put on top of his desk in the middle of the room.

“Is this a chair?” he asked.

Of course, the students answered, “Of course, duh”.

“So what if I told you this was not a chair?” he responded. People were confused. The conversation went on for about a week. Each day he would put the chair on the desk and ask us, “Prove to me that this is not a chair”.

No one ever got it. But we were in high school.

Reading Fuller’s Media Ecologies, I’m immediately reminded of this experiment, and what he was actually trying to get us to do.

The chair was the mass-produced standard object. It was made for the sole purpose of supporting someone while they were sitting. While it was on top of the desk, it could not perform its intended purpose, so therefore, it could not exist in the normal understanding of a “chair”. Which begs further questions. If a chair has no back, is it still a chair (when most call it a stool)? If it has three legs and can no longer support a human body, is it still a chair? Or if someone placed papers on top of it, would it be a table?

Dr. Ferrar – you would be so proud.

But with the rapid emergence of technology, that argument can be so much more. From a philosophical perspective, the fallacy lies in the language: what one person views as a chair, another views as a stool. There is a difference between a futon, a sofa, and a chair though they still have the same basic purpose. This is even further construed when you take into account that those words are translated differently in multiple languages, meaning what might be a futon to you or me is really a sofa in Switzerland (bear in mind, this is not a substantiated statement. I actually have no idea how to say futon in Switzerland, nor what it really translates to).

Technology has inherently made most aspects of our lives modular: so much is built to serve more than one purpose. Fuller writes:

What arises when two or more standard processes with their own regimes, codes, modes of use and deportment, systems of transduction, and so on, become conjoined? (99)

The iPhone was revolutionary because it was more than the preconceived notion of a phone. It was a computer, a gaming device, a camera, and so much more. Now, when we hear the word phone, the mind jumps to the picture of the “smartphone”. Those who do not have smartphones are sneered at as being outdated and inefficient.

Inefficiency is the problem that technology has begun to solve. Fuller argues,

The standard object is a result of operations in matter made possible by the ruse of abstraction: misplaced concreteness (103).

The standard object suffers from the ruse of abstraction, but at a much more rapidly changing environment. The iPhone is the new phone. While a classic phone that just makes calls is still considered a phone, it is rarely viewed as such.

So where does that leave the poor chair? Is it inefficient if it sits atop a desk? In certain situations. Our value system has changed, and continues to change so drastically with the exponential growth in available networks and tools. Everything, as Fuller agrees, takes on a collective value (106). But there is something still inherently beautiful in it’s simplicity. It serves its desired purpose in its original design. But it can also be so much more. The new philosophical question is, should it really be more than a chair? Fuller argues, “…solutions create problems, local stabilizations or the development of the concrete” (107).  It is both inspiring and frightening at the same time.

Image from Flickr User designklein under Creative Commons License.
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4 Responses to “This is Not a Chair”

  1. Your point about the smartphone replacing the typical phone standar object idea is quite interesting. The simple idea that a standard object may be defined differently throughout varying points in history while still retaining a core similarity is also quite fascinating. Fuller’s idea of misplaced concreteness has encouraged me to stop thinking beyond the originally defined purposes for an object and start to view these as limitations for future uses. Ultimately, I think this questioning is what leads to innovation and increased efficiency–which you pointed out very well.
    I do question though–when does something become a standard object? At what point of creation? In class we discussed the idea of foursquare being a standard object, while pleaserobme.com was a subversion of this original concept. If pleaserobme came first, or was more heavily integrated, would it also be a standard object? Is the idea of a standard object solely defined by original intention? As the smartphone grows in popularity, does it become the new standard object idea for a phone, or does the smartphone become its own standard object?

    It’s doubtful any of these questions can be clarified too heavily, but have been points I’ve been pondering since beginning Media Ecologies.

    • creativetaboo said

      That is the question of all questions: when does something become a standard object?

      I would honestly like to think that if technological ingenuity and innovation continues at this rate that it might be too rapid for there to be such thing as a “standard object” Rather, we have something closer to a collaborative community where objects are created with the full intention for them to be remixed and added upon.

      But here’s to hoping.

  2. technopaul said

    I think that the smartphone have become the standard object in the field of mobile phones. When a company goes out to create a new phone they start with the idea of what the standard object of a phone is, multifunctional, multitasking, fast, and light. All these ideas are pulled together and altered, based on perception, to form a new phone.

    In the general phone category I do not know which idea of a phone is the standard object. Because when I think of a phone I also think of smartphones, but I also think of my house or work phones. Most house phones that are in use only make phone calls, but there are very few or no mobile phones that exist that still only make phone calls. I have heard of houses getting rid of landlines in favor of all mobile phones.

    • creativetaboo said

      Homes that do not have land-lines are becoming increasingly common. It’s in this definition that I think Fuller’s definition of a standard object gets a little fuzzy: I own an iPhone, and therefore when I think of the phone I think of an iPhone first and foremost. However, I may have a friend with a Motorola flip phone, and to them, that would be the image of the standard object. My grandmother would see neither and picture the phone that is still connected with a cord. So with technology where it is, where does that leave us?

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