Man Amplifiers

appeared in the exhibition catalogue »die Idee, das Ding, das Bild, die Rede« publication to the identically named exhibition in Forum Gestaltung / Magdeburg, 5.11.2010 – 21.1.2011 / pages 29–32

Originally, anything that had a visible surface and palpable three dimensions of a realized idea was considered a product. Nowadays, the idea seems to have emancipated itself from the product. In today’s world, insurance or bank offers and services are called “products,” although the only material three-dimensionality, their only “touchable,” is a signed paper in a folder sealing a purchase contract. Yet, even this becomes redundant, if a contract is concluded virtually. Thus, a multitude of traditional words and activities referring to our bodies and things surrounding us lose their fundamental meaning. What we are left with and what unifies the material and virtual definition of the product is the way of product purchase by trade and the fact that we evaluate each product according to beneficial value it adds to our life. It seems that it does not matter anymore whether our life will be changed by an idea in the form of a concept proposal, or by a picture in the form of a virtual application, or by speech as a spoken word of a paid service hotline or by a three dimensional, physically available thing. It is only the consequence for our life which interests us. Present-day companies react to it and, simultaneously and all in the same measure, offer us hardware, software, contents, lifestyles and value systems.

This, in the very sense of the word, not palpable appearance of the product is, after all, only apparently desirable. The virtual product also collides with or correlates to our understanding of the world which we have doubtlessly obtained through our bodies. In this context, entertainment industry makes huge educational efforts with regard to immaterial virtuality. Not only does it try to stop piracy of films and music, but it also, first of all, elucidates that purloining of virtual products must be understood as theft. Usually, the theft of a physical object does not require such establishment of wrongdoing awareness. Already as a child in a sandbox, we learn that “stealing” of products such as a bucket and a spade causes annoyance and the state of “being robbed” makes us sad or angry. Compared with this, our conscience tolerates illegal behavior much easier when it is directed against the virtual world. In this way, borders of our physical perception seem to go parallel to borders of our moral sense. Liquidating a company by a mouse click is an easier and more comfortable option than releasing each single employee at a one-to-one personal meeting. In a physical confrontation with an opposite, may it be a human being or a thing, we feel analogy to our own body, the body which is our archetypal measure of the world.

How does this meaning created by our body come into being? Let’s try to recall it. First, we lie on our back, for example, in a cradle. We are blinded by the light and unable to see properly yet. We feel the presence of other bodies and their warmth. We look up to all faces surrounding us. Our arms move towards the faces. The faces change their expression. Somebody holds our still wobbly head till we are strong enough to hold it ourselves. Then, we kick and roll and begin crawling. We are constantly seeing people standing around us, although it does not concern us at first. Eventually, we try to imitate them and get up. From now on, we run around and discover the world. Talking will get louder when we come closer (Oh, then louder is nearer?).

We touch things and fall down again and again. Somebody helps us back onto our feet saying “Get up!” Getting up makes us bigger. First, bigger than a cat, than bigger than a dog, than bigger than a man sitting down, and, finally, it makes us bigger than our own parents when they stand up. First, we are not able to reach sweets or other interesting things somewhere up there. We discover, first by chance, and then deliberately and searchingly, the meaning of things which help us become even bigger, a chair, maybe, before we even know how this chair is called or that the chair has its own name at all. It simply helps us reach what we want and expands our possibilities. It hurts over and over again when we fall or we are hit by things falling down. Our awareness of solid objects is constantly growing and, in return, objects around us facilitate this process. Gradually, the way in which we experience things will get more and more abstract. We realize that others also fall down, they know what pain is and it helps us understand other people. Later on, we learn to recognize and distinguish control elements such as, for example, arrows next to a lift door. The arrows point towards the sky and we press these arrows pointing upwards when we want to move upwards. Much later on, we understand “getting to the top” as a metaphor of professional career. We get to know what heaven and hell stand for, and “up there” becomes yet another meaning, the meaning which we once discovered with our bodies, but whose sense has freed itself of our bodies.

Products are man amplifiers. Products extend potentials of naked, weak, soft and vulnerable people. We do not have any fur! Ergo, we design clothing. No fangs? Then stones – clubs – weapons! No claws? Hand axes – knives! Soft surfaces? Shoes – suits of armour! Too dark? Fire – light – night vision! Too slow? Animal domestication – horse riding – car! A body part does not function? Body support and control – ortheses! A body part missing? Ersatz – prostheses! Our hands do not carry enough water? Shells – bowls and beakers! Our voices are too quiet for long distances? Hands form a cone – megaphone – telephone! Not enough strength? Lever – machine! For each deficiency, we discover and design a compensating product. We could describe these compensations in the broadest sense as tools. The tool is a part of an act or a thing allowing an action which is performed by a self-determined human being. We have an aim and carry it out by employing tools, products and things.

Yet, this tool concept fails when confronted with demands of heteronomous human beings. And, in this way, a second big source of product design apart from the tool concept, the fetish, reveals itself. In accordance to its definition, the fetish can either radiate strength or gather it in the product. It is a burning lens whose focal point can focus strength from both sides. Ergo, the fetish can be not only a focusing receiver, but also a radiating transmitter, which means the fetish becomes an object of given and received desire. The fetish determines us. The tool accompanies our self-determined action, but the fetish demands a heteronomous ritual: arrangement and positioning of things by specific rules, regular care, maintenance, scheduled spatial and temporal dedication, regard of traditional interaction rules and handling procedures. An unkempt fetish does not work.

A passage from a material fetish to an image is, every now and then, fluent. And so, an iconoclast will be driven by two various motives being unable to say which one of them is more decisive. For one thing, an image as representative (of the other?) should disappear, may it be two- or three-dimensional. For another thing, the iconoclast himself credits it with powers whose impact, in turn, he wants to annihilate by destroying the image. We can observe it in prohibition of images, pulling down of monuments and ritualized burning of flags. By ascribing powers to the image, or by entertaining suspicion of its inherent magic, it becomes a fetish to us.

Both sources of product design, the tool and the fetish, are based on one understanding of the world which also takes its origin in our body. The aforementioned childish falling down and getting up has already taken us pretty far. Once awkward things metamorphose in amplifying – man amplifying – tools by our physical encounter with them and learning associated with it. In this particular context, virtualization cannot replace physicality itself since virtuality is primarily based on physical perception of the world. Only a human being, embedded in his own corporeity, can go beyond watching and understand virtuality participatingly. Thus, the thing fulfils its task and remains the stimulus of our ideas, the source of our physical and self awareness, and of our images.

Apart from their effects, man amplifiers also raise questions. Do we still have to walk if we have cars? Do we have to overcome our fear of darkness if we control the light? These questions are part of our task here. It is still our responsibility to decide what and whether at all we want to amplify something. Our respective answer decides which powers we obtain through things and which ones we must create ourselves.