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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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson recaps the event that lead up to the massive cholera outbreak in London: how it began, how it spread at an exponential rate, and how it eventually was ended.

When given the excruciating details that Johnson lays out, it is apparent that the situation was ripe for such an immense outbreak, though those living in those conditions where not aware. A few poignant comments that Johnson made directly relate to the way viral media reacts exponentially:

“Epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity.”

When looking at the channels in which viral media travel, namely Youtube or Twitter, the people that create the media, who share it, and who expound upon it are the average population. There is no specific demographic, or type of personality that is more prone to viral media (though it is true that more often than not those who are savvy with the technologies required tend to be younger). Everyone’s interest is different, but no longer is media constrained to traditional boundaries.

“Desire in this case is a matter of ends, not means: the organisms wants a certain environment because the settling allows it to reproduce more effectively than other environments…”

This makes me look at the people who post media specifically with the hopes and intentions for something to go viral. For example, lets take a look at something from a few years ago, the Balloon Boy Hoax:

This was the video that was meant to go viral. And it did, on both traditional and nontraditional media channels. They found the perfect environment for that video, normal people who would be worried for another human being and capatilized on it. Here’s the video from when they announced that it was a hoax:

And as we now know, that whole incedent did not bode well for Falcon’s father.

Furthermore, an important point that Johnson makes regarding the ultimate discovery of the cause of Cholera was how many people, despite the evidence, clung to what was deemed the “miasma” theory, liking the pungent smells of the city to some type of disease that had to be airborne. Despite’s Snow’s evidence on the contrary, arguing that the cause was actually contaminated water, the medical community at the time continued to cling to their beliefs.

“Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work. In the case of miasma, that something involves a convergence of multiple forces, all coming together to prop up a theory that should have died out decades before.

What strikes me about viral media, especially as it relates to something like news stories or events broadcast on Youtube or Twitter is the propensity for people to believe almost anything, despite actual proof. How we have created an environment ripe for disbelief, with hoaxes all over the internet. And yet we still choose to disseminate information that we know may or may not be true.

At the same time, we are torn in situations where viral media gets to important events first. What about the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed? Twitter followers discovered it first. Though we didn’t get an actual statement till long after, the point remained and the news went viral anyways. Or how about the recent riots in London?

While I was in San Diego for Comic-Con International this past summer, though I was surrounded by technology, I didn’t have my computer with me, so I was at the same time cut off from a lot of my daily news. After hearing the buzz after it was announced that there would be a Jurassic Park 4, I decided to hop on Twitter on my phone. In trending topics, #jurassicpark was number 1. Right below that was #oslo. Not knowing anything about #oslo, I soon discovered the shootings that were occurring, right as I was watching. While I couldn’t understand many of the tweets on the subject, people were sending in pictures taken on phones of bodies floating in the river. It wasn’t until almost a day later that any news came to US broadcast, and I never saw any of those pictures.

It begs an interesting question, how Youtube and Twitter play in creating viral media. Often we look at viral media as the cute, the humorous, or even the dumb, but it can be so much more. There are equal advantages and disadvantages to receiving our news as one would an epidemic.