Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet

by Richard Coyne
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
272 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 0-262-03336-4.

Reviewed by Michael R. Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Cornucopia Limited grants us pipeful-of-burley ruminations on the networked economy. Yet the title misleads, for the book is negligible on dissent, whether online political organization or its potential for disruption (think of the Yes Men's fake 2003 announcement, purportedly from Dow Chemical, that apologized for the disaster in Bhopal). Coyne’s armchair outrageousness is in metaphors like "design as theft", the necessary appropriation of ideas. While celebrating the designer's unusual perspective at the gaps and interstices, the hybrid juncture of brand names, edginess, and creativity, he acknowledges his or her role in economic service. This designer finds too little tangibly about design. The book is light on design theory or examples, whether drawn from graphics, architecture (Coyne's field), and software—or their uneasy symbiosis, Web and interface design. Coyne acknowledges the marketing primacy of good functionality and interface of good software design yet doesn't provide illustrative examples.

The book is organized into several overarching design metaphors. The first is the household, a private world that shuts out the public market. The foundation of the home is the economics of self-interest as elucidated by Adam Smith, an attitude later lambasted by John Ruskin as only worthy of "rats or swine". Platonic ideas of order are contrasted with the messy marketplace. These poles were negotiated in the ancient world by the Stoics and then the Epicureans, who saw a sound household as the means to the good life in a private garden.

The second metaphor is the machine, an obvious one for the network and its manifested nodes. He reminds us of computers’ origin and centrality as machines in Turing's cryptography. The design of machines is a play of opposites, and a site of machine-like bureaucracies found in organization theory from Weber to Derrida. Coyne ponders the applicability of Smith's criteria for the economic machine, Marx's capitalist machine critique, and the lubricant of Deleuze and Guattari's trope of irony, yet Coyne's own misgivings as a designer gleams through here. Machines have promoted metonymic overuse of an isolated part of the human to represent a whole body ("All hands on deck!"), while another problematic posits work as a machine. Machines can be monstrous, useless, or a cheap conceptual solution, like the Heaven-sent deus ex machina of drama (of which my favorite example is National Lampoon humorist Michael O' Donoghue's advice to end short stories: "Suddenly everybody was hit by a truck"). For Coyne, machines as a category are like those art-devices of Jean Tinguely that huff and puff and ultimately collapse under the weight of their exhibitionistic exertions.

The author's third metaphor is the game, exemplified in three decades of computer gaming. The first game we encounter, said Freud, is the mother and child playing peek-a-boo. Like all good games, it employs Cartesian location and locatedness, socially shared experience and advancing skill levels. Games require demarcations of inside or outside the game, whether in chess, Herman Hesse's fictional Glass Bead Game or a jaunt with Lara Croft the Tomb Raider. The global capitalist system might then be seen as a game, its arenas fitting Roger Callois' game categories: competition, chance, simulation, and vertigo (which, when debased, lead to trickery, superstition, alienation, and alcoholism respectively). Coyne cites Zizek's comment that the citizen's greatest dread is that no one––no TV crew, web cam or state agency's surveillance––is watching us at all.

The fourth metaphor employed is the gift, which brings up issues of creativity and commerce (one recalls the 1970s motto inside the ad agency Leo Burnett USA "It's not creative unless it sells"). This chapter acknowledges and explores political contradictions of the public and private space of the Internet more than any other. There remains the persistent trope of information as a gift, promulgated by the Open Software Initiative, the Free Software Foundation and the Ruskinesque Romantic sensibilities of LINUX originator Linus Torvalds; Bill Gates (called by one biographer the man who first thought of selling software) has fulminated against this ethic since 1976. Coyne cites Marcel Maus on the gift's requirements of surprise, excess, and difference from daily life's exchanges. Baudelaire's story of a counterfeit coin given to beggar, which gets him in all sorts of legal troubles, was example Derrida used of the gift's unpredictable simulation. The gift may be an impossibility, risky, and ill fitting to the rationalism of complex modern society, impossible as event in our over-determined society for its lack of surprise, excess, and difference. Coyne's memorable line here is "[a]dvertising renders products counterfeit."

The final metaphor is the threshold, a gateway of in-betweenness and liminality, with its sense of permeable borders and passage, a negotiation between inside and outside, like Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street. Commerce itself is interaction upon the threshold, allowing Coyne to finally designate design as theft, "something accomplished by breaking and entering". This chapter may be his most architectural, and Richard Coyne is Professor and Chair of Architectural Computing at the University of Edinburgh. Architecture has been a field that has offered up insightful thinkers on cyberspace, whether Nicholas Negroponte and his "architecture machines" or mid-Michigan's Peter Anders, theorist of "cybridity". Coyne often finds examples in a refreshingly comfortable familiarity with classical mythology, from the horn of plenty in the title on down. In his final chapter on the threshold and the trickster quality of its liminality, attention to cynicism (and Diogenes the Cynic) leads to a declarative natural history passage on dogs worthy of Edward Dahlberg's Sorrows of Priapus. Perhaps Coyne could best produce a memorable illustrated book where each of the large points was illuminated with photography, diagrams, and pictures, for his arguments are diffuse and fugitive in text form. Sadly, this book lacks design examples, processes, steps, and anecdotes from experience that so often make books by seasoned designers choice reading. Instead, we are given generalities (and don't bother looking for the "dissent" promised in the title). Coyne's previous books for The MIT Press, Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real (2001) or Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor (1995), might provide more nourishment for hungry designers.




Updated 1st April 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST