The Sympathy Of Things

The most important book about new media in a decade is in print again, after a hiatus of several years.

Lars Spuybroek, an architect and a philosopher of design, examines “the digital nature of gothic” in light of the aesthetics of John Ruskin. Ruskin’s ideas about art and society are crucial, and if he lost favor in the 20th century’s rush to Modernism (and its embrace of Fascism and Communism), by the late age of print we were ready for another look. It’s not a coincidence that George P. Landow, the author of Hypertext, started out by working on Ruskin.

Spuybroek wrestles with new media problems in the context of designing buildings. His problems are our problems. He is not satisfied with superficial embrace of digital motifs: pasting a swoosh onto the roofline of a neoclassical box in architecture, simulacra of books and TV episodes in new media. He joins Ruskin in opposition to mass production but, unlike Ruskin, he’s got an alternative: we can generate a host of unique (though similar) things almost as easily as we can replicate identical things, and each of us can choose from this host the things that appeal to us, those that excite our sympathy.

Instead of the false promise of the holodeck’s game on rails, we have the real promise of the book that adapts to us, that changes for us on each reading. Spuybroek makes a powerful argument for generative art that gets outside the white box of academic reception. And, uniquely, he appreciates how much meaning lies in our encounter and relation with animate machinery – “our slaves of steel” – and the crucial importance of our sympathy with objects.

This is a difficult book. It’s not going to tell you what font to use on your Web site or how to optimize click-through. I’ve been praising it to New Media and Hypertext people for four years. To highlight it, I wrote a workshop paper in the form of a dramatic dialogue. I’m not sure I’ve gotten any of you to read it yet.

Drop everything.