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The Digital Age: the Fourth Machine Age
Nigel Whiteley
(http://www.lancs.ac.uk/depts/art/nigel%20main.htm)
This paper is written for the “Second International Symposium for Theory and Design in the Digital Age”, held in Grožnjan in August 2005. The defining factor of the symposium, as the title implies, is that we live in a digital age. I agree wholeheartedly with this, and we are spending our week here analysing, discussing and creating digital design. However, I also think it is important to have a perspective on this age we call “digital”, otherwise we run the risk of seeing it just in terms of everything that is new, in contrast to everything else that belongs to the past and is, it might follow with such simplistic thinking, irrelevant and anachronistic. What I’m going to do in this paper is to present the digital age in terms of broader Machine Ages. This will enable us to see where the digital age comes from, not principally technically, but culturally in terms of our attitude to, and assumptions about technology.
Introduction
In 1960 Reyner Banham published one of the most important and influential critical books about architecture and design in the last fifty years: Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. In it he introduced the notion of what constitutes a “Machine Age” within the more general processes and periods of industrialisation and modernisation. The point that Banham was making is that the architecture and design of a period reflect and express – indeed, are formed by – the Machine Age in which they occur. And, to some extent, the design itself helps to define the period. Values and assumptions of the Age underpin our attitude to design and so it is to our advantage to analyse what it is that makes each Machine Age distinctive. Banham defined the characteristics of only the First and Second Machine Ages: what I am doing today is outlining what I think are the Third, Fourth and, possibly, Fifth.
The First Machine Age
That the First Machine Age was a qualitative break with the past, Banham was in no doubt. It wasn’t characterised just by a new phase of technological progress or by novel machines, but by a “…thorough overhaul of ideas and methods in the plastic arts generally, marked by such signs as the Foundation Manifesto of Futurism, the European discovery of Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime… the achievement of fully Cubist painting, and so forth. These mark a watershed…” In terms of technology, the First Machine Age was, he argued, “the age of power from the mains and the reduction of machines to human scale.” The change had occurred only at the end of the nineteenth century and “…began with electric cookers, vacuum cleaners, the telephone, the gramophone, and all those other mechanised aids to gracious living that… have permanently altered the nature of domestic life…” (2)
“Mains electricity made a decisive alteration… one of the most decisive in the history of domestic technology…. [I]t brought small, woman-controlled machinery into the home, notably the vacuum-cleaner. Electrical techniques brought the telephone as well, and for the first time domestic and sociable communication did not depend on the sending of written or remembered messages. The portable typewriter put a machine under the hands of poets, the first gramophones made music a domestic service rather than a social ceremony.”(3)
A key point to note here: machines transformed not only person-technology relationships such as the way a vacuum cleaner was a labour-saving device, but also changed social relations: music was not just a social ceremony – with all the class connotations to do with behaviour, dress codes and so on – but became a “domestic service” that was essentially private and informal.
The aesthetic of First Machine Age reflected the novelty and status of technology. Early machines were less designed than put together or aggregated: that they worked was the point, not what they looked like. However, as designing became a serious business in the 1920s at places like the Bauhaus, machines became carefully considered and we witnessed the development of the machine aesthetic – a machine had to look manufactured and factory-produced. At the Bauhaus (after 1923) and other progressive places, we see a machine aesthetic of primary forms with unadorned surfaces and Sachlichkeit reductivism; in the USA a little later, designers such as Raymond Loewy gave a more romantic flavour to the machine aesthetic, and introduced streamlining that gave the impression of movement and a spirit of dynamism. Both were technological looks.
The Second Machine Age
That changed somewhat in the Second Machine Age, characterised by Banham as “the age of domestic electronics and synthetic chemistry.” It was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s when the affluent consumer society arrived. One of the crucial changes between the First and the Second was the availability of technology: in the First, “…only cinema was available to a broad public, whose home life was otherwise barely touched and it was in upper middle-class homes that the First Machine Age made its greatest impact…”; whereas, in the Second, “…highly developed mass production methods have distributed electronic devices and synthetic chemicals broadcast over a large part of society - television, the symbolic machine of the Second Machine Age, has become a means of mass-communication dispensing popular entertainment.”(4) Broadly, a society based on scarcity and need was being superseded by one encouraging abundance and desire. The remark by Terence Conran, founder of Habitat, sums it up: “There was a strange moment around the mid-60s when people stopped needing and need changed to want... Designers became more important in producing ‘want’ products rather than ‘need’ products, because you have to create desire.” (5) It was no longer a case of whether you owned a vacuum cleaner, washing machine or car, but which model, or whether it was up-to-date. Technology had become naturalised:
“Even a man who does not possess an electric razor is likely - in the Westernised world at least - to dispense some previously inconceivable product, such as an aerosol shaving cream, from an equally unprecedented pressurised container, and accept with equanimity the fact that he can afford to throw away, regularly, cutting edges that previous generations would have nursed for years. Even a housewife who does not possess a washing machine dispenses synthetic detergent from synthetic plastic packs on to synthetic fabrics whose quality and performance makes the jealously-guarded secrets of silk seem trivial. A teen-ager, curled up with a transistorised, printed-circuit radio, or boudoir gramophone, may hear a music that literally did not exist before it was committed to tape, reproduced at a level of quality that riches could not have brought a decade or so ago.”(6)
In the Second Machine Age, the increasingly widespread availability of a standard of technology that would have been the envy of previous generations. Furthermore, as Banham indicated, technology impinged on the lives of both genders and all ages. Its frequent obsolescence and replacement may have made some aspects of technology relatively commonplace and, consequently, produced “equanimity” in its recipients and users. In this sense technology had become ordinary and, in effect, invisible - part of the routine of everyday life and unremarkable existence.
On the other hand, some technology had glamour and was highly visible. Consumers in the Second Machine Age may have increasingly expected technology to be readily available and deliver a high level of performance, but the Modernist-derived passion for technology also endured, especially with the more consumer-oriented and stylised manifestations of the Second Machine Age. The 1950s American auto symbolises the extreme of glamour of technology in the Second Machine Age. It is still, like the design of the First, full of technological symbolism, but not what we normally associate with mass production, viz. standardisation and anonymity. The Second Machine Age is full of highly-stylised and collectable design from Eames’s chairs through Braun gadgets, to sculptural Italian products – an endless procession of seductive, beautiful, desirable things which encourage pride of possession and the “I-consume-therefore-I-am” mentality of external validation that usually accompany it.
The Second Machine Age was a kind of designer-Utopia and we recognise in it attitudes to design similar to those which we live amongst today, with design museums flourishing, and “designer objects” as fashionable and sought-after as ever. This serves to remind us that Machine Ages contain continuities as well as differences: a new Machine Age does not signal the replacement of the previous one, but a displacement in that some new factor may occur which significantly changes the character of the Age and provides a new frame of reference, new expectations, almost a new consciousness.
The Third Machine Age
Theory and Design in the First Machine Age was written at the height of the Second Machine Age, and Banham never conjectured on the characteristics of future Machine Ages. However, in an article of 1969, “Softer Hardware”, he discusses what, in effect, could be described as the conditions of the Third Machine Age. Participation and involvement were supposedly symptomatic of the anti-hierarchical culture of the late-1960s, represented by the happenings of art and “raves” of the hippies. For Banham, the “interdeterminate participatory open ended situations”(7) led the way out of a system that was predictable, hierarchical and closed. In technological terms, the changing culture represented a breaking out of the mental shackles of “…the cast iron prison of the factory system,” by means of “smaller, handier, less obstructive, more adaptable machinery” into “post-industrial society.” (8) Design thinking, Banham argued, had long suffered historically from a “hardware” obsession: “…so powerful has been the thrall of the factory system mythology that… we have praised the Bauhaus for designing light fittings that show complete alienation from the human user. Praised them for being cheap and simple to produce in the factory – but failed to damn them for producing intolerable glare in the home of the consumer.”(9) Even the “design classics” of the Second Machine Age, although less symptomatic of the factory aesthetic, had the same type of limitation: “…designed objects no longer have the impact they did a decade ago when an Eames chair, a Braun mixer, a Citroen DS 19 looked like manifestations of a future golden age.”(10) The reason “we are alienated even from these classic objects” was partly a result of their “perfect boring reliability”: they may have been beautiful, but they were also predictable. The conventional design process made consumers too passive: designers had to break loose of their rationalistic method which results in “…a proliferation of refined and highly specialised single function objects.…”(11) In the liberating, open-ended mood of the late 1960s, people have begun
“…to rediscover the reunifying virtues of the footloose flow of time in motion… Hence the fascination of temporarily rallying structures – Archigram’s walking city or an inflatable dome – which mark the point in time where we meet to participate in this or that, and then move on. Or, to turn from the collective to the individual, the fascination of the customised car, which binds time and technology… in a personal statement which is, in some vital though often hidden essential, as unique as its maker; symbol of our growing but barely understood capacity to shift the whole balance between men and their objects, to mould the world of equipment nearer to heart’s desire.”(12)
The Third Machine Age moves consumers out of the house and away from their consumer goodies, and takes them to “where it’s at” at that moment. Banham cited Archigram: their “Instant City” project (1969) typifies the new condition. It was, in the words of Archigram architect and theorist Peter Cook, “…an assembly of instantly mounted enclosures, together with electronic sound, and display equipment that could be used to tour major provincial towns, and thereby inject into them a high intensity boost….”(13) Hardware comprised audio-visual display systems, projection television, trailered units, pneumatic and lightweight structures and entertainment facilities, gantries and lighting – the kit of parts would be tailored to the particular location.
In the Third Machine Age, the emphasis shifts from “hardware” to “software”: from things to situations and events, with design facilitating experience and environment. Banham almost inadvertently captured the change of character when he reviewed Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, broadcast in 1969. Banham attacked it vehemently for its “obsession with elaborately wrought objects,” for being “thing-stricken.”(14) Clark represented a culture, “now in rejection and disarray,” which cared more for “material objects… than human values.” Banham’s criticism applied not just to Clark’s connoisseurship, but to the “well intentioned Bauhaus rubbish”(15) which arose from object-centred, “hardware” thinking.
“Human values” implied experience to Banham, and the experiences could be communal – the Instant City – or personal – the “collective to the individual” as he had described it. After the flourish of communalism in the late 60s and early 70s, we became increasingly individuated in the 70s and 80s, and so perhaps the piece of design which typifies the Third Machine Age is personal stereo. It’s about one individual creating their own private world that effectively excludes all other members of the human race. Its precursor, of course, was the ‘60s trannie – an earlier piece of technology that offered a dream of personal choice and mobility - the dream of one Machine Age often becomes the dream that money can buy of the next.
The house-pride designer trophy-hunter of the Second Machine Age became, potentially, the electronic nomad of the Third. If the habitué of the Second was, in design terms, all dressed up but had nowhere to go (lots of goodies, but confined to the home with them), the nomad of the Third was all dressed down but with somewhere to go. He or she may be festooned with gadgets – personal stereos, cam-corders, Game Boys, palm-tops, miniature note-takers and digital cameras – but they are lightweight, small and – virtually – invisible because they are often not on display, but tucked into a pocket or worn under a coat. These seem like the goodies and gadgets that surround us now, so what makes the Fourth Machine Age different?
The Fourth Machine Age – the Digital Age
The answer is its inter-ness… inter-connectivity, inter-relationship, interface, interactive. “Interactive” has become such a mantra for the Age that once, in California, I even found a muesli bar described as “interactive”! Third Machine Age products may have provided personal pleasure but they largely separated us off and cocooned us from the rest of the world. Fourth Machine Age products re-socialise us, albeit virtually rather than physically as in the Instant City idea. Satellite TV pointed in that direction because its scale was global, but it was all one way – we were the passive recipients of other people’s outpourings. True Fourth Age technology allows us to interconnect. The PC symbolises the early part of the Age because we don’t just use it as an expanded First Machine Age typewriter and abacus, but as a way of being interactive through emails, web sites, business, games and shopping.
However the domestic PC is positively Second Machine Age in its cumbersome domestic residency. Far more in keeping with the spirit of the Fourth is the palm-top and what is probably the ultimate symbol of the Age, the mobile phone, that is, the internetted, fully webbed mobile phone. The technology that is the pre-requisite for this is, obviously, digital. Digital facilitates the complexity and network inter-connectivity of the new design. It offers endless options and, in so doing, blurs boundaries between one function and another. It may have been an integral part of some Third Machine Age technology, but it has come into its own in the Fourth.
A turn-of-the-Millennium example of a Fourth Machine Age product was the Nokia 7110 mobile phone and its immediate descendents such as the 3110. The company described the 7110 as the “first true media phone” because you are able to “access services and text information over the Internet.” Basically, information such as exchange rates or the latest score from the match can be called up as if you’re on your domestic PC; or you can book tickets, check timetables, pay bills, check your e-mails or send a fax. Any text information that is available somewhere on the Internet can be made available for access using the 7110. All this is in addition to the types of features already commonplace on mobile phones: 1,000-name/number memory bank, 34 language options, 35 ringing tones, “built-in vibrating alert” and four games to play. As the company expresses it, this is the phone for the “mobile information society and it gives you “the world at your fingertips”.
Except that “phone” hardly captures the range of functions the 7110 and its descendents perform. The current N-series includes a video editing facility so you can make your images as professional as you want before sending them to the corners of the globe. What a pity Marshall McLuhan didn’t live to witness the Fourth Machine Age, because the “global village” now exists as once he envisioned. We will soon be able to be fully (inter-)connected nomads, roaming the mobile information society, and reconfiguring our tribal allegiances numerous times during a day.
The Fifth Machine Age
The trouble is, we can wander off in search of the global village but forget our bits of gadgetry, leaving them all charged up and nowhere to go. Therefore, the Fifth Machine Age will probably be the Age when gadget and human get integrated – the age of the cyborg. For example, Professor Kevin Warwick of the Dept of Cybernetics at Reading University, notoriously had an implant in his arm, which sent out identifying signals to a computer in his department so it knew where he was and could open doors and so on. He planned to connect up with his home computer so that, as he drove up to his home, the implant triggered garage doors to open, lights to come on, water to heat up, meals to cook, drinks to be poured, etc. However, last year he went further and had an implant connected to his nervous fibres, and this sent signals to and from his computer. He speaks with passion and enthusiasm about “becoming a human node on a machine network” and dreams of the day when he will be “part machine part human” – a human evolving into a cyborg. This is the shape of things to come in the Fifth.(16)
To be talking about a Fifth may seem to be jumping the gun – we’ve only just entered the Fourth. But it is symptomatic of Machine Ages that they speed up. The First lasted 50 years, the Second for twenty; the Third for twenty; and the Fourth has been around for not quite ten years; the Fifth is coming into being. The Fifth will pose problems for designers unless they’ve shifted their mental equipment.
Conclusion
There are lessons from history if you don’t adopt the right frame of reference. For example, in the later 1970s and early 1980s there was worry in the design press about the ‘black box’ dilemma – the microchip and miniaturisation meant that everything was becoming small, black and anonymous.(17) There was even worry that the personal stereo was another black box - albeit usually blue or red – when perhaps it ought to be unbox-like and, say, triangular. My point is that a lot of this worry was the wrong frame of reference, revealing an anachronistic Second Machine Age fixation with thingness again, that belonged to a previous Machine Age. If theorists and designers had thought more carefully about the characteristics of the Third Machine Age – particularly the importance of software rather than hardware – then the thingness could have been downplayed. Given the shape of cassettes, and the service they provided, the personal stereo may well have been suited to being a black box, in the same way that mobile phones in the Fourth are largely black (or silver etc.) boxes. It is important for us all – theorists, historians, architects, designers - to think carefully about the characteristics of the current Machine Age.
I hope I have made my case that there are good reasons for thinking of the characteristics of Machine Ages so that we have some perspective on the Digital Age. For Reyner Banham, the motivation was, indeed, that it would help us to realise that some of the assumptions in our own Age are relics of a bygone era, and no longer applicable because technological and social conditions have changed. What Banham wrote in Theory and Design about the relationship between First and Second Machine Ages may also apply to our own, and I leave you with his words: “The reader may… at any turn, find among these relics of a past as economically, socially and technologically dead as the city-states of Greece, ideas that he is using every day of his life. Should he do so, may he ask himself… are any of his ideas as up-to-date as he thinks them to be…(18).
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  1. Banham, Reyner, “Neoliberty: the Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture,” The Architectural Review (April 1959), 235
  2. Ibid.
  3. Banham, Reyner, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (London: The Architectural Press, 1960), p.10.
  4. ibid.
  5. Conran, Terence, quoted in William Key, Battle for the High Street (London: Collins, 1987), 27.
    Banham, Theory and Design, op. cit., 9-10.
  6. Banham, Reyner, “Softer Hardware, ” Ark, Summer (1969), 11.
  7. Ibid. 7.
  8. Ibid. 2-3.
  9. Ibid. 11.
  10. Ibid. 9.
  11. Ibid. 11.
  12. Cook, Peter, Ron Herron and Dennis Crompton, “Instant City,” Architectural Design, May (1969), 277.
  13. Banham, Reyner, “Beyond sir’s ken,” New Society, April 17 (1969), 600.
  14. Banham, “Softer Hardware,” op. cit., .5.
  15. Interview with Prof. Warwick on “Heaven or Hal”, BBC Radio 4 documentary, 31 December 2000.
  16. See, for example, Brutton, Mark, “After Modernism: Towards a New Industrial Design Aesthetic,”
  17. Design, August (1979), 84-87.
  18. Banham, Theory and Design, op. cit., 12.

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