Social Machine

1. Small Room, Walter Pichler, 1967
2. TV Helmet (The Portable Living Room) Walter Pichler, 1967

The control of information has always been the key to power, and with the evolution of information technology, this is the case more than ever. Today there is not only an overload of data, but through this crushing flow, public opinion is easily swayed and strategically manipulated. Social networking sites have now become an important and tactical medium for spreading information and influencing both social and business connections. 

In the 1960s when the media was still emerging and had not completely consolidated its control over the realm of the visual, there was still a dissonance between ideology and image. It was then, with Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord - one trying to empower media and the latter to destroy it - that cognitive dissonance was then virtually eliminated, giving unguarded access to power. However, the real revolution happened once it became clear that the image IS the message and that it constitutes the real spectacle of power.

Today, as a result, there is a clear obsession with immediate consumption both of the image and technology rather than with the essence. Our online culture has promoted meaningfulness in terms of online fame and numbers of viewers, and converted time previously spent building face-to-face relationships into online interactions with people whom we don’t really know.

With this in mind, the early critiques of Austrian architect and sculptor Walter Pichler are remarkably poignant.

What he envisioned in his works of the 1967 exhibition ‘Prototypes’, speaks to us today more than ever. Pichler didn’t see technology as an enabler of the physical life, so much as a presenter, and his immersive environments provided an armature within which movement is unnecessary. These strange objects critiqued the new media’s ability to induce laziness and atrophy. Two of these works in particular - TV Helmet/Portable Living Room and Small Room - form a kind of suite, all taking roughly the form of an isolation chamber and including media inputs.

For Pichler, it seemed, media wasn’t architecture, hence he made it architecture by creating armatures to embody its physical presence. Pichler hoped to isolate and insulate people from the pitfalls of consumerism and media obsession, but interestingly in his creations, this took the form of a literal representation of such consequences, since the ‘user’ became isolated from his environment; however, within the helmet only media are permitted as input. These ‘prototypes’ are more than mere simulators or enhancers, they actually offer the subject another world to inhabit.

The analogy with the world wide web and information technology becomes striking, like the Portable Living Room the portable phone is far from participatory but instead somnambulating and hypnotising, pulling humanity’s attention away from its greatest attributes.

Instead of augmenting human abilities, technological advancements in media and information (i.e. smartphones/gaming) have disabled users from moving with their usual acuity, as if always on a leash. Information has become one of the main economic resources and structural social factors that shape various forms of economic activity, as well as the kinds and types of industrial production, and social relationships.

This raises serious questions on ethics and social empathy and forces us to explore, discuss and critically engage once again with our mode of cultural existence. We need to redefine the impact and role both of media and of information technology since the increasing use significantly affects the economic and social processes that change the relationship between government and citizens. The rise of social networks facilitates the expression of opinion and the coordination of collective action, creating, therefore, a false sense of belonging and a clear threat to social stability and security at national and international levels.

The global network has become the battlefield of information warfare, where the ultimate goal is to develop and use synthetic technologies to control group and mass opinion. Information is now geared towards minimising the individual within the community and in relation to the collective social interest, with devastating psychosocial effects where the self-centred society has practically erased the idea of a greater social well-being. Likewise, increased focus on individual promotion and unethical political and economic agendas, have drastically diminished socio-emotional relationships and activities that promote physical, mental and social health.