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Amazon & the Decorated Shed

September 14, 2012

“Our society is through and through a technological one, saturated and driven by embedded rationality and automatic routines whose goal is the perpetual mastery of space and time. Even a passing acknowledgment that these processes and realities constitute integral aspects of our material culture places significant demands on design practice.” 

-Sanford Kwinter

The great technological advances of the twentieth century were often so breathtaking that they seemed theatrical. Cars, planes, skyscrapers, and bridges captured the popular imagination through their immediate visual impact, while developments like nuclear fission and space travel were just as forceful in their directness. No one had to wonder why the moon landing was a giant leap for mankind—they felt it in their guts. Everything that truly mattered about that event was laid out for everyone else to see.

Innovations in recent years have been even more incredible than space travel but they no longer make us feel the same way. Using an iPhone for the first time is nothing like getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari or standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. There’s no story. In a video I’ve posted before, David Graeber laments the inability of contemporary technology to capture our imaginations and reminds us that we thought we’d have flying cars by now—something he finds far more exciting than any handheld device.

Steve Jobs at home, 1982 (Source: The Everyday Minimalist)

The cutting-edge technologies of the present truly are far more powerful than the spectacular developments of preceding generations, but they don’t inspire an immediate, visceral sense of wonder. They are better appreciated through reason than emotion, they are not primarily visual, and they are rarely encompassed by a single object or event. Amazon Prime is a perfect example of this technology. With literally one mouse click, a vast range of merchandise can reliably appear on one’s doorstep by the following day. This is arguably a more impressive human achievement than space travel, but the process that enables it seems so mundane that almost no one feels that way.

Few consider what happens between the mouse click and package’s arrival, and Amazon is okay with that. A massive and complex system of trucks, airplanes, warehouses, sorting facilities, and server farms work together to deliver Amazon’s orders to their customers, but the supply chain doesn’t inspire anyone to write a song about Prime, and the invisibility of the process is probably why. It’s not that contemporary technology doesn’t have a look—it’s just that the look has nothing to do with the technology itself.

The idea that advanced technology should conceal its structure is a fundamental principle of the Internet age. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has stated that the best technology “disappears,” while the external minimalism of Apple’s devices (which conceals a complicated reality) is becoming the dominant aesthetic of Western capitalism. Amazon’s web interface is the front end for not only its digital infrastructure but for a massive physical system that moves its merchandise around the world. To you as a customer, however, Amazon is its website.

                                The Decorated Shed (Source: Learning from Las Vegas)

The digital universe of today is a decorated shed. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown introduced that metaphor in Learning from Las Vegas, defining the decorated shed as a building “where systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them.” They found that much of the architecture in Las Vegas was that of the decorated shed, exemplified by a massive neon sign towering over a boxy, nondescript building. The look of Las Vegas was almost entirely independent of its buildings’ structures. The architecture was “shelter with symbols on it.” Likewise, the Internet (along with the devices that bring it to us) presents an interface that is almost pure ornament and symbol—flat surfaces that conceal the sophisticated mechanisms underneath. Maybe this is a necessary arrangement, because the computational intricacies of a smartphone or website would do nothing but distract and confuse us. But as long as the Internet is such a decorated shed, we will never confront our technology directly or feel the powerful hum of the engine, the way we used to. We’ll just click once and see the results.