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  • Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet
  • Michael R. Mosher
Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet by Richard Coyne. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2005. 272 pp. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-03336-4.

Cornucopia Limited grants us pipeful-of-burley ruminations on the networked economy. Yet the title misleads, for the book is negligible on dissent, whether on-line 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 such as "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 in the book that is 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 functionality and interface in good software design yet does not 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 machinelike 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 at all.

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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...


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pp. 101-102
Launched on MUSE
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