The Work of Opinion in the Age of Digital Reproduction Six weeks ago the architect, critic (and Strelka author) Sam Jacob inaugurated an “opinion” column for design website Dezeen. With Jacob’s first three articles now published, what can be gleaned about the work of opinion in the age of digital reproduction?
After six years of avoiding doing what the press does (i.e. journalism), Dezeen seems to be embracing traditional media values. From its humble origins as a publisher of press releases and competition entries, Dezeen has graduated to the world of architectural criticism. Well, almost.
The name for their new weekly column (which Jacob writes on an alternating basis with editor Marcus Fairs) is not “critique” but “opinion”, a subtle but significant difference. While critique implies a detailed analysis of a subject or theory, opinion only guarantees a view or judgement — one not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Jacob is one of the finest critics around at the moment but he has not normally traded in opinions – his schtick was always the post-modern one of pointing out just how revealing seemingly innocuous objects like Wyle E Coyote and Domino’s pizza are about culture.
Nonetheless, Jacob’s articles make for compelling reading. His first piece, How can culture exist in a stream of Photoshopped incontinence? is a kind of meta-existential reflection on the very context in which his column appears: the saturated, image-dominated, overly-consumptive, design rich, theory poor, environment of Dezeen itself. Through a cascading build-up of increasingly wild metaphors Jacob highlights the basic problem with today’s digital media:
“We have also jettisoned the powers of old media to give shape and meaning to the worlds that design produces. Having abandoned their abilities to develop narratives and direction for design culture, we are left with the same image of design, the same boring heroisms, the same banal beauty, the same stale imagination spinning around and around. To paraphrase Orwell, if you want a vision of design’s future, imagine a screen regurgitating images on a human face - forever.”
For his second article, We can’t draft a new world and print it out, Jacob attempts to dispel the utopian aura infiltrating dreams for the 3D printer. “Yet of course, we’ve been on the cusp of techno-liberation before. Remember those wild, free years when the Internet was young? Limitless fields of freedoms seemed to open up through the window of a squawking dialup modem. The information enclosures of Facebook, Google, Apple et al have long put paid to that sensation.
Let’s face it: 3D printing might give us a million new ways to make objects, but it is unlikely to undo our late capitalist relationship with objects. If the history of the Internet is a lesson, then technology only accelerates us further towards the horizon of consumerism, deeper into the depths of digital modernity.”
Jacob’s third opinion so far, Offices designed as fun palaces are fundamentally sinister, makes a serious point about the effects of contemporary office design on the neoliberal confluence of labour and leisure. In the Astroturfed boardroom, replete with kitsch amusements, work is play and play is work, to the detriment of both professional and social culture. “These spaces of west-coast-uber-alles business ideology might be seen as a denial of the very real power structures inherent in labour relations. And their denial of these dynamics through apparent fun and the sensation of individualism could be seen to operate as a form of oppression. More fundamentally sinister is the idea of work colonising the real spaces of intimacy and freedom: when your office resembles all the places that you go to escape work, maybe there is no escape from work itself.”