Editor's Letter

A Milan Observation by way of Robots


21 April 2017

I find Milan an overwhelming experience.

There is too much to see, and too much to do, and too much whose only cause for recommendation is the fact that it is new. Regrettably, however, I feel I am not in a position to condemn this fetishisation of newness (as others have done in the past). Newness is the carrion upon which journalism feeds. Milan, therefore, is the time for glut; a carrion feast for the parasitical press.

Sometimes, however, it’s hard to enthuse over the new. In a week in which Syria’s government unleashed chemical weapons upon Khan Sheikhun, killing at least 70 (there is little to add by way of description beyond what has been published elsewhere), followed swiftly by a US cruise missile strike settled over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”, it was at times difficult to summon the requisite enthusiasm for the panoply of “novelties” on display during Salone – many of which have little going for them beyond their novelty. Newness can so often be a fig leaf for that which has little to say.

Throughout the week, however, my mind kept returning to an exhibition that I visited in early February, Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. In particular, I was drawn to a remark made by its curator Amelie Klein at the exhibition’s opening. “This show is already dated,” noted Klein. “If we had wanted it to show off the latest hot new thing in robotics, we would have been dated by day one – the technology moves so fast that it’s impossible to keep ahead of it.”

I am very much in favour of a curator acknowledging that their show is dated, particularly in the case of a show about robotics – a topic which might easily have revelled in its cutting edge and sheer glittering newness. Instead, Hello, Robot. took the admirable step of delving into the archives, as well as exhibiting works that engaged with the questions engendered by technology, rather than basking in technology per se. Jaques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle – an exploration of the alienation engendered by automation – displayed alongside 2008’s WALL-E; Superflux’s Uninvited Guests design fiction project, in which an elderly man’s connected home becomes both a means for his children to patronise their father, as well as a way of abdicating from a genuine relationship with him; Kirroo’s Teledildonics sex toys that seek to replicate sexual intimacy for those in long-distance relationships through WiFi enabled – drone style – remote vibrations; and the photographer Edward Burtynsky’s images of the 450m-long assembly hall of the Cankun factory in China, a site where 23,000 employees produce a series of short, repetitive (dare it be said, robotic) tasks all in aid of manufacturing coffee machines.

What resonated across these exhibits and the others in the show wasn’t some inherent newness or novelty, or any suggestion that robots represented a radical new frontier in human history. Rather, it was the sheer familiarity of their implications that felt pertinent: social alienation, fears over job loss, breakdown of community. Hello, Robot.’s curatorial success lay in its relegation of the robot to the sidelines, and its corresponding decision retention of the human as its central player. “The questions remain the same with technology,” observed Klein. “Look at the first industrial revolution with looms and steam machines, or the third industrial revolution with automisation. It really doesn’t matter which technology you talk about because the questions remain the same, no matter whether it’s a fully automatic kitchen, a smartphone or a technology that has yet to be invented.”

It’s a worthwhile thought for Milan's world of novelty. What seems new is often old; what seems old may still have seams of fresh life.