Community of Things?
by Jordan Crandall
From its beginning in 1990, Blast has set out to explore changing practices of reading, viewing, and authoring, in terms of a publication. The current project, blast5drama marks a transition, where these studies will no longer be continued in publicational terms.


Thoughts of community are taking strange detours from the world of people into the world of things. Things that go beep in the night, dancing, singing, buzzing, flashing across the screen, advancing toward ubiquity in cellularity, promising to connect us in globality. Things testify. And so do CEOs, often on their behalf.

As in Wired, upon whose pages things and businessmen frolic. In a recent issue (October 1996), writer David Kline, quotes David St. Charles, CEO of Integrated Systems Inc., as he breathlessly heralds "the next stage...where we make the Internet real. And I mean as ubiquitous as electric motors or telephones, where all sorts of devices and systems are linked invisibly together. Where people and devices easily and automatically communicate with each other with no one having to know anything about computers or software or TCP/IP stacks or anything else. It's everywhere, it does everything, and it's absolutely a no-brainer to use. The push-button Internet!" (Well, SIGN ME UP! Finally the materialization of the Internet, formerly just a community of researchers.) Kline, beside himself, can hardly contain his glee: "Here, at last, is a vision of the Internet for the masses"--and, making sure not to omit the size of this potential market, he adds--"in their hundreds of millions and ultimately in their billions." Reeling with utopic delirium, Kline continues to gush:"Here, at last, is an Internet finally set free from its PC-centric straightjacket--a cyberspace transformed from just another platform into an omnipresent glue that binds the whole of society, with all its trillions of daily social and economic interactions, into a truly connected civilization."

What is all this excitement about? Reading on, one encounters not only one of the most ridiculous scenarios ever to appear on this magazine's pages, but a prime example of how this strain of business-jargon, from which all critical consciousness has been evacuated, is swallowing up digital-culture discourse like the Blob. Kline explains that "the starting point for tomorrow's great technologically-induced social changes must be the masses of technologically unsophisticated, ordinary consumers." The way to hook up the great unwired masses is not to sell them PCs, but to embed the Internet inside the everyday devices and systems that they already use. This invisible, "embedded Internet" would link up, say, washing machines, garage doors, cars, heating and AC units, CD players, TVs, gas meters, home security systems, and emergency response media. These last would be "more reliable than today's phone-based 911 system" and, if they were hooked up to smart sensors on your heart and you had a heart attack, they "could even be self-actuating." (What does that mean?)

This embedded Internet would even connect to the workplace, enabling "automated monitoring and reporting on factory- floor production," allowing production processes to be remotely managed. The secret to all of this, insists St. Charles, is invisibility. "If you want the Internet to be everywhere," he says, "it has to be visible nowhere. It has to be unseen, unnoticed, undiscussed." In other words, it must ascend into the higher ranks of the apparatus, where it can operate--operate on--out of sight, trackable only by its disciplinary effects. At the same time, it must operate locally in minute, surgically precise placements, through which voice is given to the object: our new community member.

Perhaps community comes naturally to the thing--the commodity object--which, as Marx taught us, only "has" value anyway, something which never exists in and of itself, like information, and as such is always communal. To allow humans into the community of things would at least offer more bodies-as-conduits for them, and therefore more CEOs to speak for the necessity of their reproduction. On the one hand however things already do speak quite well enough for themselves: as Bruno Latour points out, they are capable of showing, inscribing, and testifying before human witnesses. They behave in some manner or other, and we witness and translate their behavior. And things don't lie: unlike humans, they are incapable of will and bias, uninfluenced by predispositions and the sway of sensation. In comparison, humans are exceedingly unreliable and can never agree on anything anyway.

What about this contestatory site of the thing? Is the thing to be counted upon? Can it fool, can it impersonate? And what is left for our dear laborer, mired in this "omnipresent glue" that connects home, heart, and factory floor, colonizing every last shred of private life under the guise (gaze?) of liberation and animating--forcefeeding-- these things with agency? Perhaps both can wear la perruque--"the wig." According to William Bogard, after Michel de Certeau, this term--whose origins are ancient ("duping the master")--refers to the ways that traditional workers in France trick their employers into thinking they are working, when in fact they are engaged in personal tasks or ways of making their work less burdensome. They are not avoiding work so much as working at keeping up the appearance of work. Engaging the wig is a way of disappearing under an authoritative gaze, momentarily reversing the vectors of control. It is not productive per se, but takes place within "production" as an acting-out, a mimicking of that order from within. It resists by going through the motions, even though those motions overlap another production realm, another order, where they function according to alternate conditions, expectations, demands. La perruque is a repertoire of windows and roles, a conduction zone of multiple orders, which reterritorializes and retemporalizes "control" through simulation and impersonation.

Perhaps a new sense of community will arise out of this informatic factory floor, this boot-camp for a new mobility. Perhaps a matrix of drag-effects will emerge, the likes of which we have never seen. I am there with the pages of Blast, in wigs.

Jordan Crandall is the founder of The X-Art Foundation, which experiments with new forms of authorship between artist and institution. He is an an artist, writer, and founding editor of Blast.

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