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Inspector-London Information
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Inspector London - from Marx to Mobiles The consumer as designer/producer -
a sketch of contemporary consumption/production landscapes


In his essay The Author as Producer (1934) Walter Benjamin argued that new technologies of reproduction could be implemented in a politically progressive manner and are inherently more democratic. As social relations are determined by the relations of production, these could be revolutionised by artists to disrupt the traditional link of authority and authenticity in the artwork, and the authoritarian figure of the artist/author. At the heart of the essay proclaiming politicised art was a call to dissolve the distinction between author/recipient. A theme that would reoccur in Roland Barthes From Work to Text (1977), or, in a more general relation to technology, to Hypertext. Since then the transientness of distinctions such as author/recipient within cultural production have become commonplace (interactive computer art, weblogs,games). More significantly, the foundations of the capitalist landscape, mass-production and consumption, have been transformed by new technologies.

Flexible manufacturing systems, for example, allow the consumer economically to economically build unique design decisions into very small batches - or even individual products, and it is his participation in this mass-customisation, and also his personal investment in virtual marketplaces such as eBay, which has shifted the boundary between consumption and production. This evolution of design has become possible through the exclusive use of computers, not only in the design process but also in the implementation of the design at the point where concept is transformed into material.

eBay between information and reality

Virtual marketplaces such as eBay are symptomatic of the tendencies of innovative consumer involvement in the determination of the product within the wider current consumption landscape. Established as the alternative marketplace worldwide eBay created a new exchange process. Similar to catalogue purchasing systems goods can only be evaluated through information /documentation provided by the seller. Actual physical contact with the object is deferred until the point of delivery. The crucial difference is that, rather than the standardised, objectified information provided by most consumer spaces, such as supermarkets or catalogues, the shelves of eBay have been reclaimed by the language and imagery of the individual. Products here are photographed from within and bare the trace of home environments of mini-entrepreneurs and living-room niche-service industries. Significantly evaluation of the offered product relies more on the imagination of buyers evaluating the symbolic information provided and therefore on pre-existing knowledge rather than physical contact with the objects at the time.


A similar fluctuation of the space between symbolic, imaginary and real can be traced in design processes. With products crafted using simulation in Computer aided design (CAD) 3D software packages where the computer is used to create precise models and specfications of the product, which can then be turned into a prototype, a complete change of the material object itself when changing the design is no longer necessary. In addition using information technologies, product and material behaviours can now be simulated using Finite element analysis (FEA) cost-effectively eliminating unnecessary materialisation and testing. And thus material properties and behaviour can be evaluated as information being before the product is ever actually materialized. Traditionally, design processes were closely linked to the material of the trade: the final product was only realized through working within material. However in contemporary design practice material characteristics are rendered into manipulable transitory information items, as the transformation of information into material is deferred until the last moment. While previously the object had represented itself rather than being a vessel of information, the data object "exists" as a "light" information item as noted by Welsch (1991), before being reified, enscribed into a variety of materials. In order to materialize it the prototyping of the model can be executed with Computer controlled rapid prototyping. Rather than waiting a week or more for the labour intensive production of prototypes of the design, these can be turned out in hours and allow designers to check the accurateness of their data-objects more rapidly.

The potential of data-objects is most prominently used in intelligence products. Multifunctionality and intelligence that are built into our music systems, intelligent clothing and mobile phones. The nature of information and its physical equivalent, the computer chip are again transforming material objects as functions can be used indepently of the product as they hae become portable using chips. This gives rise to products which offer a myriad of functions from a single, modular homogeneous interface, plug&playing heterogeneous services as scalable commodities. On the other hand while the object used to represent it's specific function this is no longer the case with devices such as the interpersonal communication product. Intrinsic functionality can no longer determine the geometry or physical apperance of the product. New archetypical forms arise with designs that are no longer necessarily indicative of their functions.

As the weight of "data-objects" shifts from material to concept and information, the perspective of the "data-objects" is desireless, empty. This is also expressed by Hal Foster's general "mediation of the economy" (2002) that has become central to current design practice. "I mean by this term more than "the culture of marketing" and "the marketing of culture" I mean a retooling of the economy around digitizing and computing, in which the product is no longer thought of as an object to be produced so much as a datum to be manipulated - that is, to be designed and redesigned, consumed and re-consumed."

Mass customization: Security + Luxury

Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS) allow the fabrication of many variations of a "core" model. FMS uses machining centers, numerically controlled (flexible) networked machines, robots, and automated material handling systems to create a highly automated factory. It is combined with Computer-Aided Design (CAD), to create a system which can quickly go from a new design to a finished item. The flexibility can be used to maintain competitiveness even when products have short life cycles. The tools and workflow of this modular, adaptable factory can easily be modified and reassembled to manufacture a different version of a car or a different formula plastic. While the mass-produced product guaranteed sustained quality as well as equality of products conquering a previously craft-based market that was waiting for standardization, the basis of industries relying on mass-customization has not yet been fully explored. Naturally consumer production palettes, such as Nike's 'create you personal training shoe' website combine the security and reliability of the mass-produced training shoe with the illusion of creative enagement of the consumer in the creation of their product. With a masterstroke this links the values of mass-production with the uniqueness of craft-luxury in the creation of original product currency.

With increasing intimacy of consumers and product specification, a contemporary expression of Benjamin's transition of author/recipient, then placed in a different cultural climate could be suggested. Shopping as noted by Kolhaas has become deeply embedded into every public space from aiports to museums. Artistic expression necessarily has to follow, and needs to be re-incorporated into shopping through the transition from /consumer /to /designer/.

© Kathrin Kur 2003