With Funktionide, German designer Stefan Ulrich aims to remedy the creative class’s alienation.
According to the ancient poets there was once a King of Cyprus who commissioned a statue so beautiful that he managed to fall in love with it. Embracing the silent marble and lavishing kisses upon it, the king was able to imagine that it, in turn, loved him. When Shaw revisited the story of Pygmalion, marble was replaced with a far rawer material, an unrefined cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. In Shaw’s play, Henry Higgins manages to fashion her into a woman of beauty and refinement.
For the Greeks it was a story about projection and the power that our creations come to have over us, but Shaw made it into a story about class and human relations. In the present day, when the objects that we possess seem to possess us, it seems that the earlier version of the myth has a greater resonance. No matter how much effort we put into molding our Eliza Doolittles, at some point, they will always be able to say “no.” Far better, then, to turn our attentions, and our affections, toward objects.
Turning away from human things, we run into the same problem as the old King: no matter how much we love our objects, or how many objects we amass, they cannot be made to love us back. Despite centuries of progress, we retain certain archaic emotional needs — friendship, love, companionship, understanding, and all the rest — that objects simply cannot meet. So we rely on others to meet them. And here is the beginning of all our troubles. Seeking emotional comfort in others who have variations on our own needs often requires a great deal of work. To get, it seems, we must give. Even worse, others have their own wills and desires that are often different from, or even contrary to our own. It may turn out that I seek to have my emotional needs met by somebody who is simply incapable of meeting them or, even worse, someone who wants nothing to do with me.
The result is a seeming unending horror of conflict, sacrifice and interpersonal politicking that is often quite frustrating, not to mention time-consuming. Who has time for such things? No matter how hard we try, other people remain other people, autonomous and separate from us. They may meet our needs quite well one day, only to disappoint us completely on the next.
This a fundamental paradox for the program of individuality: the emotional needs that make up our individual selves must be nurtured by other individuals with their own emotional needs. Until we reach a pure state of Randian self-interest and self-possession, it seems that we will always need, or at least think we need, other people.
Our human interactions, frustrating and difficult as they may be, are by the same token, a source of pleasure. When, for a time, we are able to overcome the difficulties and conflicts presented by the neverending human drama, the result can be joy, comfort, and connection. But one wonders, are all the messy difficulties really worth the paltry rewards?
An exacting and rigorous cost-benefit analysis must be performed on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Is it really worth it to take part in human relationships? Do our connections with others offer enough in the positive column to outweigh their time-consuming and frustration-causing negative aspects? Every day this question is answered in the negative as we turn to technologies that promise to mediate our personal and social relations.
Little by little, I turn more and more of my “self,” my external relations with others, over to technological intermediaries.
I do not have the time or emotional energy to keep in contact with all the people that I have ever known. But my Facebook alter ego is able to present a bold face online even when I am emotionally exhausted. It creates an illusion of connection that is always on display for those I no longer have the time or energy to really know in the personal sense. Little by little, I turn more and more of my “self,” my external relations with others, over to technological intermediaries. But still, I seem to need people. Will a true break, a true liberation ever be possible?
The rapid pace of computer and material technologies suggests that freedom is around the corner. German designer Stefan Ulrich sees a future in which our emotional needs will be met, not by other “people,” but by robots or other technologies. Ulrich has demonstrated one shape such robots might take with his marvelous and astounding Funktionide. Ulrich developed Funktionide as a sort of thought experiment intended (text in German with English abstract) to demonstrate how design might deal with the emotional needs of the alienated and marginalized creative class:
“This thesis does not only deal with a problem of our time — the social isolation of certain parts of our society, the following argument has also grown out of very personal circumstances. It reflects upon the question of how young people of the so called “creative class” can reconcile their desire for home, partnership and family with living personal career ambitions and with the continuously changing and demanding work- life conditions.
“As a consequence of this conflict of interest and in order to remain attractive for the working world sacrifices are made regarding personal relationships. This can actually be one way into isolation. Whereas the isolation of marginalised groups of society can be ascribed to the fact that they do not fit into one of society’s schemes, the isolation of the “creative class” results from the “multilocality” of its job-nomads; the price a rising number of young employees are willing to pay — with drastic emotional consequences. The global job-nomad grows lonely, and his emotional world becomes continuously more one-dimensional.”
As Ulrich sees it, the creative class is marginalized because it has voluntarily given up the very things that give comfort to traditional marginalized groups. Creatives are alienated not at the level of the political, the economic or the social, but at the most basic human level. If the life of the poor is not the life we imagine for ourselves, it plays out as a parody of that life, following the same rituals of family, church, marketplace, and the political. At the center of all these rituals are the comforts of home, place, and humanity. Where the old alienation could be said to take place in a geographic location, the new alienation of the creative class is played out in lonely hotel rooms across the globe. And why is the creative class so alienated? Because it has chosen to be alienated in order to keep up with the dictates of money and success.
It is quite clear that when money and success, no matter how paltry, are at stake, they will win. We will continue to choose these things at the cost of everything else. We owe it to our “selves.” The ideology of the individual leads by an inexorable logic to the nomadic creative, alone in his hotel room, hungry for human contact and emotional connection.
But that is changing. Funktionide is Ulrich’s proposed solution to the problem, and it is a glorious thing. It exists on the spectrum of objects somewhere between a body pillow, a security blanket, and a sex doll. It has roughly the mass of a human body, but none of the signifiers of humanness. Its flesh, a stark iPod white, makes no reference to human skin. Nor does it have limbs or orifices of any sort. There is a sort of extreme of passivity in the lack of orifices: it cannot even offer itself to conventional connubial activity, and is entirely outside the human sphere. But Funktionide does do things. It is capable of generating its own lifelike warmth and of responding to electrical stimuli by generating wart-like domes that rise above its surface. It is also “breathes.” (In the video demonstration, this breathing is extremely unsettling, like the throbbing and heaving of a maggot.) In one of the videos, Funktionide even seems to move from floor to bed, though at a pace so slow that it seems like a trick of the mind or the camera. From the photos and videos of Funktionide in action, it seems that its main purpose is to be clung to by a lonely creative type.
Ulrich is obviously having fun with Funktionide. Perhaps he sees himself as one of the marginalized creatives at whom Funktionide is aimed, and he is certainly poking fun at the tenets of modern design which describe sterile and unnatural blobjects as “organic.” Ulrich openly admits that it is a critique, but never so much so that he gives away the game, as with this explanation that accompanies the video demonstration of Funktionide:
In this way the works intention is to create a provocative picture for discussion, which enables us to question how much we want technological products to satisfy our emotional needs. To ask these questions will become part of the responsibility of future product design.
The ambiguity of this scenario is, that it could be understood as a solution to a wide range of different kinds of loneliness. But it might as well be understood as a scenario which should be avoided by all means possible.
Funktionide, then, is either a technological solution to a problem that has long vexed us, or a vision of dystopia. In the future we will find our emotional needs met by Funktionide or similar technologies, or we will come to realize that there are certain needs that technologies cannot meet, certain problems they cannot solve. The pathetic and laughable image of the scruffy eurocreative clinging to Funktionide is either a modern Prometheus or an alienated depressive contemplating suicide. Technology is everything, or it is, in certain respects, a blind alley. It is this choice between opposites that Ulrich labels an “ambiguity.”
How does what seems to be an absolutely clear practical and moral choice become an ambiguity? This is where the bad faith of Ulrich’s critique is revealed, as the same bad faith found in all the pseudo-philosophizing and pseudo-critiquing of the futurists and other technorati. Ulrich is a designer: his works is research and development. The choice of what will be made is not his to make. And the conversation that Funktionide is meant to pose … well … just who is going to have that conversation? When venture capitalists arrive on his doorstep hoping to launch production of Funktionide, will Ulrich start the conversation with them, or will he do the work that he has been trained to do?
It is interesting to return here to the distinction that Ulrich makes between the creative class and the other “marginalized groups of society.” We imagine that the old marginalization takes the form of political, economic and social oppression and distinction. But even the slum dwellers and the urban poor have, as the saying goes, each other. The marginalization of the creative class is somehow unique, in that it is personal and self-chosen. But this is not really the case at all. How is the marginalization of the lonely creative in a Hong Kong or Paris hotel room qualitatively different from the marginalization of the migrant laborer who has left home for the same reasons? Any difference must occur at a purely ideological level. The migrant does so for base needs, while the creative does so for “career” and self-actualization. The distinction evaporates under close inspection.
The real marginalization of the creative class is not at the personal level that Ulrich points out, but at the level of their relation to the objects they create.
The real marginalization of the creative class is not at the personal level that Ulrich points out, but at the level of their relation to the objects they create. Where the laborer or the maquilladoro can at least take pride in the fact of their labor as honest work for honest pay, Ulrich cannot even have that. Driven simultaneously by economic dictates and the ideology of design, he must always hedge his bet. He is at once prostitute and artist. If he cannot stomach designing the next generation of real doll, he must create an alibi in the form of half-assed critique. In realizing the potential inherent in new technologies, he must design work that he finds morally repugnant.
What Ulrich has demonstrated in Funktionide is an object designed to relieve and soothe the alienated individual. It is not ideal, and it will certainly not be the last, but it is ready. It a critique only in that it critiques itself in the process of developing newer and better robots to fill human needs. Everything is here but the marketing campaign, the assembly line, and the satisfied end-users. And this is the problem of critical design. When Funktionide or Funktionide 2.0 eventually comes on the market and finds its users, it will not matter whether they are using it critically or ironically. It will only matter that they have turned away from the human and toward the machine. Any critique or conversation that occurs will take place on the customer service hotline.
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