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.