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Richard Coyne on Digital Consumption:

The burgeoning of the industrial age was visited by various stoic, epicurian and academic reincarnations, through Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlisle, and John Ruskin. The antagonism they provoked persists in contemporary discourses surrounding digital media and its economic aspects. An examination of these ancient legacies, and the spatial metaphors on which they drew, sheds light on design with and for digital media, in ways other than those offered by the prevalent Marxist critique. We follow Aristotle in settling on the origins of economic theory in the home. The home also provides the latest target for e-commerce: as the presumed site of both unmediated consumption and the amateur entrepreneur.

Professor of Architectural Computing and Head of the Department of Achitecture at the University of Edinburgh, Richard Coyne is the author of Designing Information Technoloy in the Postmodern Age : From Method to Metaphor, 1995, and Technoromanticism : Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real, 1999, both published by The MIT Press. Currently he is engaged in research on e-commerce and design and economic theory.


Digital Consumption: From the market direct to the home

Richard Coyne, Department of Architecture,The University of Edinburgh

This talk is based on a chapter of a book in process.

The Entrepreneur at Home

The opportunities for e-commerce focus substantially on the household. Many claim that

• The Internet brings the market into the home, the site of mass consumption
• The home can be the site of entrepreneurial activity, through "cottage industry"
• The personal computer is reputedly a home-based invention, with its origin in the low overhead domestic workshop
• A significant threshold in the personal computer market was reached when the industry started to regard the computer as a household appliance
• Ideas about "open source" development as in the co-operative development of the Linux operating system.

In the latter case software has been developed by programmers distributed around the world with no apparent organization or management. This reputedly democratic process presents an ideal for the design and development of computer systems. It also accords with idealised conceptions of a free market. According to one commentator, "The Linux world behaves in many respects like a free market or an ecology, a collection of selfish agents attempting to maximize utility which in the process produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved." (Raymond, The cathedral and the bazaar, quoted by Bloor, The Electronic B@zaar: p.43.) We shall examine the relationships between concepts of the "selfish agent," utility and design subsequently. Here it is sufficient to point out that the model presented is a domestic one in so far as it appeals to modesty of scale, autonomy, and humble origins.

Design Against Economics

The impetus for creation is not always in harmony with economic enterprise. E-commerce often engenders distaste amongst designers. Magazine articles and self help guides advising on how to achieve instant wealth are just the latest onslaught of journalistic overstatement that seems to accompany the populist business and economic literature. Issues of economics become tainted with this brashness.

In a recent e-commerce self-help book the business person is exhorted: "If you don’t use it, embrace it, and immerse your business in it, then the internet will one day take your customers away from you and your business will die. It may already be doing this." (Bloor, The Electronic B@zaar:, p.x) As in the first quote about the Linux operating system, there is an immediate appeal to self interest.

The idea of self interest as the primary motivation for commercial activity is generally attributed to Adam Smith, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and political economist. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith explains how we need each other’s help in society, but we cannot expect it by appealing to good will. We have to interest our potential collaborators, benefactors and providers by appealing to their own interest and show them that it is to their advantage to do for us what we require of them.

Smith’s model of economics has its antagonists, particularly amongst the romantic writers of the nineteenth century who claim territory in the realm of invention, creation and design, particularly John Ruskin and Thomas Carlile.

The battle line is drawn between the science of economics and the promotion of art. It is a war between self interest and altruism. It is also a battle between two ancient legacies from which these other dialectics derive, that of the Stoics and the Platonists.

1. The Market Perimeter

As well as The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith is known for his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he surveys the contribution of the ancients to an understanding of morality, calling substantially on the authority of the Stoics for his justification of a philosophy of "self-command."

The Stoics took their name from the stoa, the colonnade that surrounded the market place, or agora, of ancient Athens, where Zeno would instruct his students. Stoicism presents a philosophy of the market, and for Smith of the free market. Claims about the emerging commercial world of the Internet find a ready trade in market metaphors. Appeals to ancient Greece, the electronic agora, suggest democracy, people power, a noisy commerce in both goods and ideas, an electronic b@zaar.

The Stoics believed in the unity of the world around us. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the Stoic writers on whom Smith draws, describes this unity in terms of a single organism.

Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by this single impulse, and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens. Remark the intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web.

This description could equally have been attributed to any New Age populist, or even presented as a description of the Internet.

Occasionally Smith describes this unity as "the whole machine of the world," which comes close to a premonition of "the capitalist machine." But the appeal to a world unity is to exhort us to know our place, and therefore to be content with our lot. In common usage, the stoic attitude is one where we bear up well against adversity. We breach the moral order when we elect to complain about our current condition. To complain shows lack of wisdom in two ways. First, it appears as an attempt to deny the natural pattern of interconnections, the pre-ordained order of the universe. Second, it suggests that, as one recalcitrant fragment we are denying our place in the universal scheme of things. It is easy to see how stoic naturalism led to Smith’s advocacy of laissez faire and the primacy of self interest.

For Smith, though we are motivated by self interest, it is "our own final interest considered as a part of that whole, of which the prosperity ought to be, not only the principal, but the sole object of our desire." So self interest should not be characterised as a disregard for others but our primary contribution in caring for the whole. It follows therefore that we should be stoic in the face of economic failure, as well as success, in light of a consideration of the bigger picture.

2. The Academy

The talk skims over the rival philosophy of the Platonists, with whom it is easy to align Ruskin and the Romantics.

3. The Garden

Were there more time we could examine the Epicurians, with whom it is easy to align the utilitarianism of other economic and social theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The "philosophers of the Graden," as the Epicurians were also known, appealed to the importance of both utilitarianism and the life of simple refinement. The latter is a theme taken up in modernist design and contemporary advertising that appeals to "simple sophistication."

4. The Household

I want to focus on the philosophy of Aristotle, already introduced by Pelle Ehn. It is accurate to attribute Aristotle’s philosophy not to the bustle of the marketplace, the isolation of the academy, or the pleasures of the garden, but to the complex familial relations of the household.

In a famous passage of the Ethics, Aristotle outlines the chief intellectual virtues. The pivotal virtue is phronesis, practical wisdom, the exercise of prudence, the ability to balance rules, the ability to apply the right rule to the right situation. Aristotle identifies prudent people as "those who understand the management of households or estates" So it is fitting to identify the household as the site at which prudence is best exemplified. Aristotle’s account of the city, the polis, begins with an understanding of the relationships within the household, those of husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves.

In his survey of the legacies of the ancients, Smith gives an account of Aristotelian prudence, but diminishes its importance by describing it as "the habit of mediocrity according to right reason," and demonstrating its subservience to the Stoic virtue of "self-command." Under Smith, economics seems to lose its association with domesticity.

The philosophy of prudence has been adopted and elaborated by the hermeneutical writers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martin Heidegger before him. It is also a common theme in contemporary discourses in sociology, and in social economics. Prudence, interpretation, practice, and application point to the rule-resistant spheres of the human sciences, the realms of human action. It is appropriate to think of prudence in the case of the management of a household, as it is in the home that the complex of social relations is most resistant to an understanding in terms purely of self interest, and hence free-market economics. The web of relationships within the family, kinship ties and interactions are more complicated than suggested by monetary transactions and legal contracts. The point is well made by certain social economists. According to Godolier: "Whether in the sphere of kinship or politics, there is always, in every human activity if it is to become constituted, something that precedes exchange and in which exchange takes root, something that exchange both alters and preserves, extends and renews at the same time." So develops the concept of the economy of the gift, a primordial mode of interaction that economic exchange depends upon, and with which it is in a dialectical relationship.

The gift features in accounts of the Internet as a manifestation of the "gift economy." The Internet demonstrates the intriguing property of encouraging some individuals to give goods and services for free.

In terms of Smith’s free market the gift appears as yet another kind of economic transaction. Gifts act as inducements to buy. We use gifts to develop a clientele. If we give then we expect to receive in return.

But the giving of gifts also seems to work outside economic systems. It provides a bond within a family and a community. It is a way of gaining admission and developing trust. The gift fits within a complex of social relations. The gift works against regulation and contract; the rules are unwritten.

Design makes ready claim on Aristotelian prudence. Any invention occupies the unsteady position between the rule and its application, ideas advanced in the area of design by theorists such as Schön and Pelle Ehn. In the grand spectrum of exchange for money versus the exchange of gifts, or economic rationalism versus situated action (Lucy Suchman), in an Aristotelian sense, design belongs on the side of the gift. It is also grounded in the philosophy of the household. Both the household and the gift hold promise of advancing understandings of design in the context of e-commerce.


Ideas about e-commerce seem to develop on the ideal of unregulated free enterprise, the language of the ever expanding marketplace. The Academy also furnishes us with metaphors that need elaboration in the context of internet economics, perhaps drawing attention to the nature of patronage, economics under the metaphor of the mentor student relationship. The metaphors of the Epicurian garden are also suggestive and perhaps give an account of aspects of advertising and the mass consumption of the good life. The metaphor of the household already has a stronghold in digital narrative: the Internet as cottage industry, home working, the practices of non-commercial collaborations.

5. Postscript

If the stoics were of the market place, the idealists of the academy, the Epicurians of the garden, the Aristotelians of the household, then the school of philosophers known as the Cynics (literally the dogs) were the vagabonds on the street, the itinerants, the beggars, the homeless, the dispossessed, the peripatetic philosophers against home bound metaphysical systems (perhaps the proponents of "gutter design" referred to by Pelle Ehn). In terms of the gift the cynic is dependent on the hand out. Narratives validating the Internet also trade in metaphors of the wanderer, leading us to consider the bricoleur and her relationship to Internet economics.


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