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Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet

Dissent Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet
Richard Coyne

Richard Coyne is an architect, media theorist, designer and teacher. His research and work revolves primarily around the spheres of media design, electronic media, information technology and design theory.

In his preface to the book, Coyne defines the nature of the network economy as both an interplay of commerce and a social condition, a society perhaps best defined by the concept of constant flux. In his reading, he sets up a list of conditions that frame the network economy, all based around the ‘liminal condition.’ By that, he is asserting the interaction of the differing aspects of this economy reside in an in-between state. His analysis itself resides in such a state, being an exploration that provides no distinct resolution but posits the apparent or possible modes of existence. To facilitate this, Coyne uses a series of keywords around which he may circle his exploration: household, machine, game, gift, and threshold.

The introduction of this book deals specifically with design, more so than any other section. Coyne presents what reads as almost an open call to designers everywhere, an argument for the evolution of design theory into a process of greater permeability and multiplicity. As well, he puts design in a context that includes both its role in a consumer market and its place in the greater scope of cultural determinacy. While understanding that design is still a part of the commercial process, he attests that, like art, it is an altruistic pursuit to which commerce is a “corrupting influence.” (3)

The key elements of what he refers to as ‘edgy design,’ a design practice reflective of understanding and engaging with the network economy, revolves around transgression and exploration of seams and boundaries. For Coyne the boundary is the limit of a thing, or as he calls it, “a site of resistance.’ (4) He uses as an example of this the concept of security versus access in a web-portal based scenario. Exploring opposite states and the friction of ideas facilitates the design process. In that way, design is not a solution to a problem, but a playful discourse. He elaborates with five ‘states’ of design:

Design as theft – design practice originating through mimicry, complicated currently by both the ‘ideal’ and the nature of digital media mimesis.

Design as metaphorical – problematic in a similar way to theft, as metaphor may be regarded as an augmented form of copying.

Design sideways –an alternative point of access or inquiry to the creative concept. The process of complicating may provoke creative engagement, or may act as an obstruction.

Design as service – design is found in the service of commerce and the consumer.

Design as plunder – Coyne first uses the term cornucopia in this context as in ‘a cornucopia of opportunities.’ (14) Design may loot or assimilate the language of the market it is designing for.

Home Economics
Within an understanding of the network economy as a democratic space, the concept of the household begins to play a role in possible structural metaphors.  The supposed decentralized and communal aspects of the Internet and its many facets lead to certain such comparisons, but also present problems. Extrapolating on this framework, Coyne explores design in contrast to economics through four models:

The market, or market edge – defined by way of the ancient stoa, or marketplace, the Stoic model of a unified system.

The academy – rooted in Platonic idealism, a focus on illuminating the truth or ‘higher’ reality.

Lifestyle and the garden – where aspects of materialism, leisure and betterment of life through goods reveals a connection to the Epicurean heritage of the ‘connoisseur.’

The household – derived from an Aristotelian notion of moving toward an attainable ideal, marked by cottage industries, the personal workspace and non-commercial market ventures.

Rampant Machines
Using Le Corbusier’s metaphor of the “…house is a machine for living” (35), Coyne plays with the example of machine as metaphor for Internet commerce. He pushes deeper into the use of metaphor itself in design practice, as well its “…linguistic cousin, metonymy.” (36) He asserts that the use of metaphor provokes interaction by way of resisting opposite forces, while metonymy utilizes a part to represent the whole. In that fashion, the use of metonym is appropriate to the concept of the machine, as the machine may be defined by the sum of its parts. The problem arises when such usage results in an over-privileging, or conversely, a consistent reduction of certain aspects within a machine. Furthermore, he delves into the complexity of utilizing metaphor and metonym in relation to irony and language, underscoring the frequency of their relations in contemporary design.

Returning to the theme of aspects or parts of a whole, the concept of a casual system begins to come into play through use of the metonym, as it supports through its very nature the perspective of relationships. Coyne considers the notion that these parts of a machine system are often seen as being removable and replaceable. Division of labor arises as a point of focus when examining such aspects; with contemporary design, division of labor segues into specialization, perhaps analogous to the specific parts of a complex machine. As well, the division of parts and labor may be compared to the design strategy of breaking a project down into sub-categories or parts in order to problem-solve. The dilemma with this approach may be found in the lack of perspective it gives to the entirety of the ‘machine’ itself, and by the passing over of the innate indeterminacy in a ‘thing.’ Coyne speculates that this machine-like organization is the very condition that often elicits a bureaucratic mindset within the network economy.

The concept of an ideal or universal machine is often the philosophical antidote for such a bureaucratic state, and while Coyne examines the utopian ideology, he counters it by examining Marx’s “dialectical materialism” (54) and his assertion that a transformation of capitalism leads to a more machine-like state. An interesting concept that flows from the Marxist exploration is one of machines that are monstrous, created to destroy what is built by other machines. Coyne states, “Before building a city one must consider the machines for its destruction,” (57) a notion that raises the question of a machine’s potential uses and possible mutation. Lastly, he considers the useless machine and the romantic relationship with machine. The former acts as an alternative to the monstrous, corrupted (perhaps by other machines) and dysfunctional; the latter as perhaps a form of self-induced naiveté, a refusing to recognize the multitudinous potentialities of machines.

The Lost Game
In this section, Coyne turns his focus to gaming and the idea of play. He argues that all of our experience is subject to the contest between various emerging and receding elements, which are continually ‘in play.’ (69) Here, play may function as a preparation for encounters in the sphere of reality, while design and play can also act as a to-and-fro dialogical game, utilizing the entire contextual playing-field of the design elements. This is analogous to the concept of learning from computer games. Higher forms of play may include repetition and alternation, as in a musical refrain. Repetition in this case is not necessarily a means to an end, but rather a searching out of possibilities; an exploring of permutations, be they algorithmic or based in artificial intelligence. Repetition is in fact the state of normalcy, whether found in language, defined by a series of referents, or in the perpetual hope of renewal.

Within a hope for renewal, progression plays a vital role, perhaps marked by the model of progressive levels. Coyne explores the level not simply as development from one state to another, but as another multitudinous concept. He states, “Design too succumbs to not just to repetition but to variation across repetitive operations.” (82) Although evident by variation across repetition, the impression of levels may exist as a quest for enlightenment, for transcendence, or as a movement to achieve higher understanding. It may also function as a rite of passage, or be a quest for a greater truth. Coyne notes the drive of game design to transcend deception and encounter the ‘real,’ though the rules of perceived reality as defined by game design often tend to function within the confines of their own language.
The design of games is also dependent on sociality, as evidenced by differing perspectives of interface, the first-person-shooter or the multiple focal lengths of third-person perspective. As well, social dynamics are found within the engagement of game opponents and adversaries, be they artificial of another player. Coyne also notes pressure points in the concept of ‘the game’ as perhaps leading to a perceptive division, where the rest of our lives is ‘serious’ as opposed to play, though he also remarks that games may act as interventions in reality.  Additionally, he argues toward the limited nature of game evolution, pointing to a restricted framework that strives solely for better AI, more photorealism, greater detail, and enhanced rendering power.

The Gift Of Information
The metaphor of gift is critical, and perhaps central to Coyne’s exploration in this book. Gifts, or models of ‘the gift’ are abundant in the network/Internet economy and community; open source software, freeware, and a free circulation of information with no expectation of monetary return. He posits four possible explanations for this phenomenon:

1. It is the true character of information. This is the idea that information is different from commodities such as labor or physical goods. Coyne speculates that Internet generosity is a cheap form of altruism.

2. This wave of generosity is a sign of the ‘digital revolution,’ where a new configuration of identity is born.

3. The Internet brings consciousness to something (the gift) that has always been present, a primordial basis for the economic system, an as-of-yet unrecognized social norm.

4. The gift presents a profound disturbance to economic order; the Internet is radical social alteration through which such a phenomenon can arise.

Coyne also defines three characteristics of the gift: Surprise, where the gift must be unforeseeable. Excess, where the gift is something not actually needed. Difference, where the gift promotes unequal relationships between members of community, or reinforces rank and status based on commodities.

If a free, fair market is defined by equal knowledge, the equilibrium of one is disrupted by the idea of surprise. Risk is component of this surprise, marked by such endeavors as venture capitalism - risk versus return. Surprise is countered by excess; place more on the line, but cushion this risk with an excess of placement. Excess may also be seen through the penchant for a compulsive backing up of information. Coyne further explores the similarities and differences of the gift and commerce, where commerce and trade are not directly a result of gift-giving. Open source, as an example, is not an endeavor by which capital is directly produced, but the products that feed of it do generate capital.

In a similar sense, the giving of gifts is often used within an economy to reap greater rewards in the future. The giving of a gift is not just for reciprocity though, but sometimes is used toward altruistic means, or for ‘feeling good.’ Coyne sees this romantic impulse as celebration of the unexpected, where surprise defies calculation in being an inspired act.  Creativity is not always given and rewarded in equal measure, however. He uses the Linux operating system as example, where Linus Torvalds poses the idea of software not being intellectual property but art, existing as a creative act. Coyne sees this as an example of romantic craving for unity, utopia, and a forward-thinking idealistic projection.

Coyne states, “The concept of the future assumes an important role in the face of the increasing inadequacies of digital technology compared to the promises made of it.” (117) For him, selling the ‘future’ on the Internet is another vital form of the gift. Digital technology is increasingly characterized by the ‘not-yet’ state, the promise of development. He asserts that predicting how digital technology is evolving will allow us to control our position to it, and contrasts this with a phenomenological perspective where time and the future itself are dependant on something primordial rather than un-determined. The future is openness to surprise and possibilities, rather than a requiring of things to conform, and the gift is not a commodity with exchange value, but a thing that ensures connection.

Another primary aspect of the gift for Coyne is the notion of exchange without bargaining, though impulsive behavior exists in the easy consumption of the gift. Such excess is marked by the ability to give excessively, where a distribution of disproportionate gifts defines status. The gift is not necessarily one event, but a repeated event or a pattern/cycle (surprise is the break in cycle); it is an amplification of repetition, a back-and-forth sequence of giving. In open source, for example, a cycle of contribution exists where development of product is the gift. The cycle breeds excess however, and within such a rotation Coyne points to an inherent primordially, drawing a comparison to the archaic practice of the potlatch (tribes outdoing each other in generosity) as a practice that establishes superiority through sacrifice. Tangentially, Coyne proposes that the Earth may be seen as the primary gift, a giver of bounty, where a historical precedent exists for exchange, with fruits of the Earth as the gift. Perhaps in that case, the advancement into communication technologies may be seen as a release from these Earthly bounds, or as reducing space to a state of nothing.

Coyne also sees the gift as transgressional, socially and otherwise. He asserts that the gift in its “…manifestation as potlatch bears seeds of class struggle and oppression. The gift already transgresses.” (135) Although examples cited earlier may be informative as groundwork by which to understand the concept of the gift, the archaic gift society “offers a poor model for the late modern world.” (136) Gifts in the modern world dwell in a different state, consisting of such gifts as tips, contributions, bonuses, and bribes. This condition may not be thoroughly explored by using out-moded comparisons. Again, using examples such as Linux and OSI may serve as an appropriate illustration of the modern gift philosophy, but it is still difficult to translate to the corporate world. Perhaps by returning to an understanding by way of multiplicity, the gift maybe seen to exist in duality.

Delving into this dual characteristic of the gift, Coyne finds the expected and unexpected, the essential and unessential. Circulation of goods and the laws of economy are also applicable to the gift, returning it to the aspect of repetition, but also pushing it into the realm of sociability. The gift may be transgression against transaction, but also can be appropriated by commerce: the add on, the freebie, credit miles, the two-for-one deal. On the other hand, Coyne considers the counterpoint: the malignant gift, or the useless gift. In his case, the former is marked by the functioning of computer virus as gift, the Trojan horse, spam; the latter being the promise of update, the next version, the next release.

Coyne summarizes his discursive thread by asserting that he sees the gift ultimately as an anomaly. Although the gift is defined by surprise, excess, and difference, it may be read in multiple ways. For Coyne there are many angles: It is a utilitarian view that positions the gift within economic constraints, as a means to engage the economy. It is a romantic view that positions the gift on higher level, surpassing commerce and existing within a creative context. It is a phenomenological view that approaches from the gift as primordial, and considers that the gift is already disposed to commerce. At the end of the day, the concept of the gift exists within the network economy as a concept that is “fraught with contradiction.” (150)

Liminal Computing
While it is theorized by economists that economic growth is limited, the limits of the network economy and the Internet have yet to be quantified. Coyne states, “For some the Internet is a medium without limit.” (151) It is these limits, however, that he uses to further explore his subject, as they define the seams of a territory and establish a threshold state. The symbolic markings of thresholds are central to Internet design; virtual doorways, the access point in a web portal, as well as the steps in a process.

Coyne returns to the gift as transgression: transgression is crossing boundaries, limits or thresholds. Marking the household by mapping the exchange of gifts leads to idea of gift exchange as the mark of a community, as well as cross-community relationships. Here, gifts as symbolic emissaries may be used to cross boundaries and thresholds. The question raised from this assertion is then: who monitors these boundaries as they are crossed? Coyne raises the concept of guard, gatekeeper, and doorman: the monstrous guard of boundaries (i.e. Cerberus), or perhaps the position of technology itself as monstrous. Thus, the gift returns to play again as the bribe-gift, a way to transgress the guard and the threshold.

Coyne engages here with his final metaphorical examination, that of the liminal dwellers, figures whom he examines through mythology and a literary framework. He asserts that there are three characters who occupy liminal condition though spread influence beyond; the beggar, the trickster, and the cynic:

The beggar – a marginal figure, one who cannot participate in the economy without assistance, has nothing to offer, and is positioned as a victim.

The cynic – Coyne’s example is Diogenes, the figure who rejects ideology and the utopian ideal, one who exists on the edge much the same as the beggar, though by choice.

The trickster – one positioned outside the system and who manipulates others surrounding them, one who gains through the beguilement of others. This character also has benign aspect in the performer/entertainer figure.

Coyne speculates that there may be a marginal aspect to the prior metaphors used in provoking engagement with the network economy and design (home, machine, gift, game, threshold). He states that these avenues of engagement may be marginal in terms of discussing the economy itself, but can be seen as central to the topic of design. This line of inquiry leads to: similarities of economics and design resting in classification schemas, and the idea of the template or readymade ‘type’ both in design and network system as being a discursive strategy. He further delves into discussion of the ‘type’ beginning with the Jungian archetype, seeing “Narrative self-construction along typological lines” (163) in non-professional web design and techno-subculture. He also looks at the archetype of process in journey, the passage across boundaries and the contextual place of such passage as transformative. He promotes the utilization of archetype not as specific ‘type’ but archetypal phenomena as metaphor in order to reveal specific conditions.

Coyne states, “Confusion at the boundary is well described in terms of concealment.” (165), where ‘lying’ in the context of the network economy acts as concealment and proto-encryption. Here, the adversarial relationship of open-ness/closed-ness within a web portal, the need for security and access is brought into view. Coyne discusses concealment and the role of the trickster through an exploration of Odysseus and the role of trickster as a boundary crosser. Similarly, the negative/critical attitude of the cynic functions outside the boundaries, but without a resolve toward analysis or solution. Coyne uses Diogenes as example, relating partially to archetype of wise man - one who extols exposure through critique, though he adds, “The cynic starts with the pretense of exposure.” (169). He further points out that “…cynicism is also a philosophy that is a parasite on authority” (171), an example of using and profiting from technology while still criticizing it.

Communication itself is a tricky endeavor. While Coyne asserts, “…communication mediates across thresholds,” (174) there are inherently multiple complexities. Such a mediation is achieved through language ambiguity, through words as ambiguous objects with multiple meanings, where the “…meaning resides in use,” (175) Interaction exists at these words-boundaries and contexts, again highlighting the threshold, where Coyne reiterates that design functions as a hybrid, playing on the threshold and edge condition. Secrecy and privacy in the network economy operate as the flip side of the open source situation, with the ability to pay for goods existing as an inherent contingency for access, for crossing of the threshold. The trickiness of a network economy is further complicated by digital thresholding and a binary state, marked by the ‘on/off’ condition found throughout the Internet (i.e. being connected/not connected).

In the spirit of this book as an exploration rather than definition, Coyne gives very little weight to the closing stages. The conclusions rest in the thick of the text, among the tangential lines of questioning and extrapolations on themes. He does reiterate a handful of key points, however, about the multiple aspects of his subject(s): Design acts as a theft across the threshold, taking from one place and placing into another. He states, “Design has the character of appropriation across categories by copying, but more interestingly through the use of metaphor, an act that is provocative, transgressive, and sometimes forceful.” (185) The gift is key to understanding the network economy. The designer act as both thief and giver of gift. The home is a marketplace, but is prone to invasion. The machine is invasive, but also may be transgressive. The alliance of design and theft work in context with that of game and play. Commerce takes place at the boundary of the home. The gift may be benign or malignant in transgression, but it is always crossing boundaries.

References/ Recommended Reading

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