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Date Published: 6/28/2002
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Digital Medina and the Electronic Schism

Reflections from Florence by the Design Theorist of X-Media

Mirko Tattarini

Split Modernity

As an expression, the term "Modern" originated at the beginning of the Middle Ages following a path that Walter Freund brilliantly describes in his "Modernus" which gradually gave it a more semantic meaning, until it achieved its present day evocativeness. Its etymology - modernus, deriving from the adverb of manner, "now, at this moment" + ernus, a suffix found in adjectives such as hodiernus - tells us that the expression originally meant "present", and only later did it acquire the meaning of "new". Again Freund remarks that there is a continuity and that perhaps modernity is more tenacious and certainly more adaptable than those who continually decree its eclipse would believe.

In actual fact, between continuity and transformation, it is important to emphasize that in the process of acquiring meaning, one should consider the concept of an historical modernity, in which society leaves the industrial era entering the so-called post-industrial age and beyond, and a form of modernity that belongs to artistic and applied production, taking the culture of design from the modern movement to the postmodern and beyondÖ maybe.

This second interpretation is the subject of this text, though of course continuous references to the more general situation will be necessary, starting from the very next line.

As a human emancipation project, modernity yearned for positive knowledge and the functional transformation of reality through the construction of an objective and absolute science, supported by a universal moral sense. In design, meant as a general category in which architecture, urban planning, graphics and other planning disciplines converge, this premise is shown to be a means of accomplishing an absolute and universal social project, based on predicting human behavior and the needs to which new products should respond. It may be assumed that modernism in applied arts is a form of "globalism" ante litteram - with industrial design as its favorite discipline - organized through a form of aesthetics masked as functionalism (according to Hermann Muthesius' total principal/idea: "from spoon to town") [1]. In this case the expression globalism fits perfectly because just as in Derrick de Kerckhove's vision, it contains both positive ingenuity and good faith (or perversion) in believing that design, on the basis of a "global" ethic, would provide solutions for the first, second, third, fourth and how ever many other worlds there are.

However, at a certain point, this design tension enters a crisis with the perception of the fallibility of the theoretical and applied constructs, transforming the liberation of humankind into a condition more akin to the rational "iron cage" envisioned by Max Weber imprisons people, a rational carceral providing a deceptive escape from both pain and the vicissitudes of existence.

Utopian dreams, beginning with Aristotle and extending from Descartes to Einstein, project themselves onto the world as a way of 'understanding' that reduces experience to its basic elements, reproducing it rationally on a human scale. Today, this utopian dream lies in ruins. If the environment modeled by the modern demiurges progressively diverges from the human scale or from the scale of any living being prediction cannot but acquire the characteristics of divination. Since we cannot allow ourselves to predict a catastrophe, the present is fated to become an ostrich-like existence.

The "Electric House" [2], designed in 1930 by Figini, Pollini, Frette, Libera, short-circuits because of the gentle iterations of daily life. The ritual sphere has overturned the assumptions of the functional sphere. We are back to square one.

Waiting for New Releases: The Time of Practical Reason

If for the Greeks, the knowledge of a phenomenon was the equivalent of possessing an explicit, rigorously expressed theory about it, in the same way the West has considered speculative intelligence as superior to the practical intelligence of application. But if at a certain moment predictive capacity is changed by the complexity of a world which (technological) tools of investigation have revealed as such, then the hierarchy is reversed and during the acceleration of the second half of the twentieth century, technology took off. This assumption too satisfies the theses of Lyotard's Postmodern Condition[3], once again a cultural condition, if technology is understood to be the matrix of culture.

Many technical discoveries lack a theoretical explanation nowadays because science has lost the will to follow the accelerating development of technology-a development which mutates wildly almost like a self-generating act of unconscious creativity. Having lost its aura of fascination, science gives way to the applied disciplines with designers themselves preferring an interface-based empirical expertise. In a Faustian gamble, a contemporary version of Adrian Lewerkühn [4] might well sell his soul to the devil to become the greatest web designer as opposed to being the greatest musician. And if perchance they were to be beset by doubts, the aesthetics of the interface comes to their aid, facilitating their tasks and rendering an illusory knowledge at a surface--translucent--level.

The modernist macroscopic construct of a "singular" and "convex" project gives way to the weak project that concentrates on variously structured and undefined complexes that are above all unpredictable. No longer "isolated" machines but unfinished connections, the domain of which is the potential kingdom. Dreaming of the Internet.

Relations with the future change with the transition from prediction (active relationship) to waiting for new releases that will enlarge the multitask landscape or resolve the problems of previous software editions. From theorizing to the suspended time of pursuit, design culture is forced to profess methodological modesty in a time oscillating between nostalgia and expectation.

The Postmodern Semantic Drift and the Digital Divide

Modernity slides into postmodernity, not in chronological but in thematic and stylistic terms. Postmodernity, offspring of weak/weakened thought shows the sometimes contradictory ambiguity of rationality and has to be content with designing in a context that is no longer absolute but has become extremely relative. To continue with the parallelism between thought and application, the change to architectural postmodernity can be dated back to 1972, the year in which the Pruitt-Igoe complex in Saint Louis, designed by Le Corbusier as a "machine for living in", was demolished as it was considered to be uninhabitable. Still in the realm of design we can observe that the decrease in design ambitions is linked with the frenzied development of technology, specifically with the resolution of mechanics and the digital divide. First, the dialectical relationship between form and function is solved. Functional efficiency, with definitive mechanical development, becomes an obvious fact -one expects a car to work properly, or a table, or a spoon or a household appliance - design finds its own operational sphere in communication, in the man/object interface, and in its metaphorical value.

In postmodern design, the key challenge is the semantic question of local determinism. We move now from humanity understood as a species to the individual subject as a design construct. The variation of the cognitive and design aiming from the function to signs, starts with the manufactured article but is rooted in the digital, incorporeal artifact, which has an only semantic existence.

But let's take a step backwards. Postmodernity identifies the individual as the recipient of design in rather the same way as the pre-industrial craftsman (who still works) used to do. The craftsman had the strong characteristics of local identity, and time would instill the artifact with a sacred aura close to that of art. Through the digital divide, the communicative artifact, sometimes called web design, or communication design or whatever, is none other than hi-tech craftsmanship-if craftsmanship means controlling the production process from the original need to the finished product - thus it can reveal the feel, the style, the sweat of the craftsman in her own context. If the product goes to the dataworld, its source is localized and the global awareness discerns and refines the characteristics of the local action. In the electronic workshop (on the understanding that para-industrial Fordist establishments exist and proliferate), the digital artifact is modeled through the tools of experience--in direct relationship with a customer who through "perceptive democracy" considers herself a communications expert - and it is fully completed.

In aiming at individual subjectivity, postmodernity has a distinctly Western/American, not European, matrix: in Europe the concept of a "collective" democratic freedom has always prevailed. It is no coincidence that the variety of styles that have emerged over the last decades have depended mostly on the responses of a centralized issuing economy, to the extent that today one could speak of a "political economy of the sign" [5]. When in the 80s, Wall Street decreed that the economy was flourishing, postmodern design witnessed the triumph of semantic eclecticism, of excesses, of hedonism and of the ostentation of the stylistic collage based on a historical pillage. When in the early 90s there was talk of a crisis and signs of a recession were first perceived, the product withdrew into itself. If on the one hand the approach remained the same, the ornamental aspect was radically diminished in favor of a parsimony of signs that reigned supreme, or of a communicative constant however oriented to what is good, relaxing, to a friendly superficiality: the minimalist empire, the postmodern aftermath of the economic crisis. For example, it is curious to note that in designing minimalist furniture, the reference to the Oriental-Japanese authorizes, with the strength of being "other", globalising and absolutist ambitions, although still only in terms of style.

One day those centralized issuing institutions collapsed, but that's another story, and that happens only later.

Transmodern Mermaids

The reduction (if it can be called that) of the operational sphere of design from function to signs reached its extreme consequences with the digital era and the commercialization of information and knowledge. In actual fact the process is more complex and led to designing metafunctional artifacts that saw the implosion of the classical dialectic reading signifier/significant/referent. Those "objects" that only exist in the web, constructs of data mathematically translated into an interface (referents of themselves) belong to the mythical dimension. Unicorns, chimeras and mermaids, the genie of the lamp, the Japanese "Oni," all combined with a vast array of magic wands, are the actual objects/subjects of the new design, both from within the flesh and without. Their domain is the potential realm: faith in virtuality is the catalyst of new design. It's a faith that answers the need for something "to believe in:" sometimes as a superstition that may be harmful; otherwise as a ritualistic form of knowledge-- metafunctional knowledge--a useful social convention. Each unicorn, mermaid, genie of the lamp (or the "One" of the digital limbo) differs from all the others, each is sacred in its own way, simultaneously dreadful and comforting.

The Digital Baroque

But if postmodernity already conceives local determinism, the electronic Pantheon is the child of a macroscopic design reduced to economic determinism, the mysterious and non-institutionalized "Empire" of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: a form of globalization as , "Ö a new political player that controls world trade, the sovereign power that governs the world." [6]. It also governs signs, responding to the resounding inflation of the New Economy bubble by bringing in a very definite style: Digital Baroque. There is now undoubtedly a dominant feature in the best digital aesthetics that can be referred to the various Praystations spread around the world and for which there are hordes of followers armed with levels of PhotoShop and Flash technologies. Impossible structures suspended in cyberspace and composed of multiple intersections, sloping planes and light beams that refract and define hallucinatory spaces within which one can detect elements of interaction and ways of escape. These are the spaces of Digital Baroque where the superabundance of signs takes care not to waste any of the 800x600 pixels available. The spaceship Enterprise meets Wright's "Fallingwater"[7] in an improbable unity of time and space in which static laws lose their meaning, instantly replaced by fractal algorithms. Oh yes, these sign structures would have caused the early creators of architectural modernity to shudder. In 1908 Adolf Loos advised: "Work towards excluding any possible confusion between the material covered and the covering" [8]. He was quite right though splendidly wrong in wanting to attribute an absolute value to this approach. Web designers, repudiated by their modernist fathers are in fact mannerists in the service of their sovereign followers of late capitalism. In this context it is well to note that the need to represent deep, labyrinthine structures may originate from disappointment and from anxious expectation with regard to the expectations induced by literature; cyberpunk authors have allowed us a glimpse of fascinating and coherent space systems such as "Cyberspace", "The Matrix" or "The Metaverse"[9], undoubtedly fascinating systems but at the moment they have not yet seen the (electronic) light.

The economic macroplan that determines the product's forms, as the tachometric distance between the progress of science and that of autonomous technology grows wider, sees itself conceiving a microscopic design that goes beyond the postmodern digital craftsman. From the ashes of the postmodern collage/pillage, arises the survival technique/strategy of modern/weak bricoleur. The bricoleur, who lives in the continual emergency of electronic instability, breaks the bond between knowledge and action, transgresses the boundaries of general design, fractalizing the relationship between intentions, actions and results. The bricoleur no longer uses dedicated tools but adapts other tools originally designed for different purposes, pirates existing structures and combines them to obtain new results, reframing material and ideological scraps to produce recombinant signs. From IKEA bricolage to Macromedia bricolage, or in the worst case Microsoft. If all goes well it will be Linux. Whatever the ambition, the purpose or ethical premise, there is always a kit.

The craftsman of old used to make environmental prostheses in his workshop; the new electronic bricoleur makes and tests prostheses for the new flesh in an impetus of creative improvisation that is intended to regale us with a digital Venice.

While modern absolutisms migrate from science to economy, eventually taking over language, bricolage, as a new design model animated by global awareness incessantly preaching dialogue, recycling and sharing, ends up by severely complicating matters.


If it is not possible to theorize about the "pre" something, because by so doing we would legitimize prediction, how should we interpret the epoch in which we are living? How can we solve the dilemma, if the maximum expressions of hypermodernity betray the modern paradigm owing to a lack of culture and the new designers are forced into mannerism by their origins as offspring of the media and fashion? Perhaps we don't know if we are still modern because we lack the theoretical and speculative tools?

Perhaps it is electronic antiquity that delays its abdication in favor of the new enlightenment. But if this is so perhaps this time we will be in need of being en-lightened even earlier. Perhaps we believe in a future of liberation in the embrace of technology? Not even of science, but of technology.

But how can we talk of modern, postmodern, or hypermodern condition?

While waiting to understand where we are going let's consider ourselves immersed in an ingenuous era, generationally ignorant of history, or, perhaps, too frightened to take it into consideration.

Returning to design, the child of modernity, and considering it, as such, unsustainable, the modern construct loses another of its "pilotis" [10], it wobbles more visibly and threatens to fall. Especially when sheep, cows, cats [11] and human beings are reduced to design products.

It is appropriate therefore to design unicorns, priests of the schism that multiplies the epicenters of electronic emission, where the global village explodes in a liberating diaspora and forms geographic enclaves that are so diversely attractive.

Humans regain control of distance, the conquest of language, the marvels of diversity in an exciting communicative malediction. The new popes expressed by the vote of the village elders in purple robes are mutants. Rome, Avignon and then Pisa (the great schism of the West 1378-1417) but then Sarajevo, Tindouf, Porto Alegre, Kabul, Gaza and Gozo. The digital schism is the premise that demolishes the absolutist hypermodern faith. The form of human resistance that defines the ephemeral contours of time, modestly hodiernus, of the here and now and in unrepeatable form.

If a demolition has declared the end of architectural modernity, then a collapse could have declared the time of the schism.

Being unable to rebuild unity we produce the digital schism of technological fundamentalism.

A transmodernity should carry us elsewhere, bring the communities back to the center of emission, ready to find the keys to dialogue, prepared to accept the irrationality of myths. Beyond the Western-centric vision we start to consider the admissibility of other cultural sources, of equally valid and appropriate theories and practices. So, maybe, let's change the term - seeing that for the new generations "modern" as an adjective and noun no longer exists - as a portent of the identification of e new, aware era in history.

Reconciliation with humanity, the gods and the world passes through the schism.

The Gap: The Digital Divide is Envious of the 20th Century

Driving a sports car, trying out the geometry of a mountain road is exciting, an experience that pumps you into the heart of the world, to which we should renounce physically and semantically through the fault of three centuries of fantastic iniquities.

But I say, do you think it is right?

Perhaps it will never happen again that "a roaring carÖis more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace" [12] (unfortunately for most Nike are shoes or soccer balls). Contemporary aesthetics do not allow it, speed is dangerous, engines pollute, it's much better to stay at home. To do what!! The speed of light along the information highway is a fictitious experience, technomediated in the most deceptive way. Can one feel the wind? Or an electronic centrifuge? No, the digital divide lives in envy of the twentieth-century, and in it this is the only way that modernity, in a final spasm, can hold out. Unless

Ö the neurotransmitters lick with chemical tongues at the metallic and crystalline endocranium, the electrons fly out from the chips, shoot along the cables up to the starter systems. Through a dozen sensors Cowboy feels the rotor turbines start to turn reluctantly while the starters groan; flames erupt within the walls of the combustion chambers and the blades start moving with a shrill cry. Cowboy keeps control of the exhaust pipe as it vomits fireÖ

Walter Jon Williams, Hardwired [13]

Welcome to the digital medina, melting pot of cultures, we'll meet at the bar to talk.


1. Hermann Muthesius (1861-1926). German Architect and founder of the "Deutscher Werkbund" in 1907..

2. L. Figini, G.Pollini, G. Frette, A. Libera, P. Bottoni designed, under support of the Edison company, the "Electric House" for the "IV Triennale Exhibition", Monza, Italy 1930.

3. Jean FranÁois Lyotard, La condition Postmoderne, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1979.

4. Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: the life of the German composer Adrian Lewerkuhn as told by a friend, 1947.

5. Jean Baudrillard, Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press: St. Louis, 1975.

6. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

7. The Fallingwater is Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. The world famous home is dramatically sited over a waterfall.

8. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1907. In this pamphlet the author fostered his polemic toward the "Wiener Secession" and established one of the basic assumptions of the modernist poetic.

9. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992. The "Metaverse" in Snow Crash comes so close to reality that it almost lies atop of it, just like the life size map of the Empire in the Borges Fable " Francesca Wodtke,

10. The first of Le Corbusier's "Five points", the "Pilotis" are reinforced concrete columns intended to raise the house above the ground, in conjunction with rigid floors of the same material, to form a rigid load-bearing skeleton, thus permitting the garden to continue under and through the building. The other four points are: the use of roof-gardens, the open plan, ribbon glazing, and the free facade.

11. The reference here is to the cloned sheep "Dolly", the phenomenon of the crazy cow and the recently cloned "Copycat".

12. The fourth point of the Manifesto of Futurismo by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: "We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath-- a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace".

13. Translated from the Italian edition titled, Guerrieri dell' Interfaccia, Phoenix: Bologna, 1995.

Mirko Tattarini was born in Santa Fiora, a small town on the Amiata Mountain in the south of Tuscany. You will find him in Florence for a couple of years more. Then he will be reachable in Maremma, communicating with you through broadband connection. Good wine and design flavor, under a midday sunny sky. Founder of Lagos Design Studio he is at present time professor of Communication Design at the ISIA of Florence. Mirko is one of the organizers of X-Media, an International Conference on IT and Communication Design.
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