The Kitsch of Wi-fi Culture

One of the principles of the aesthetics of contemporary houses and offices is the hiding of wires. We cannot stand the sight of such technical ugliness: an unpleasant black spot in the plastic clear neatness. [1] The inhabitants of these houses or the workers of these offices live surrounded by all the objects they need in order to survive in nowadays society. Since they manage to do anything through well-designed interfaces put on stylish plastic covers, they never have to think about cables, magnetic fields, chips, and pipelines. And for this very reason, technicalities are carelessly perceived as unessential and can be out of sight. After all, using Mies van der Rohe’s words, “less is more”.

However, the hiding of the media infrastructure that pervades our environments is a false and short-sighted liberation. Quoting from Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” [2] Indeed, there will be always a moment when those magical objects stop working and need some maintenance or repairing. As Bruno Latour argues, we become aware of the information infrastructure when the device does not function and we are forced to tear that veil of Maya, facing the materiality of the problem. [3]

If we give a quick glance through history, the refusal of the aesthetics of infrastructure seems more a recent fact. Roman aqueducts are considered beautiful, but nobody will be happy to live nearby a water tower or a trellis. Houses and villages were built along the streets and at the trivia, but nowadays few people would like to have a room with a view on a motorway, a railway or an airport. Watermills and windmills make us dream of idyllic landscapes; power plants devalue the prices of houses of the neighborhood. Print houses and newsies were at the very core of Renaissance cities; whereas data centers and antennas are located aside.

– Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

If mainstream architecture and design can be considered kitsch in Kundera’s terms, it must be said that not all the professionals of these fields behave in the same way. Indeed, there are many examples of deliberately exhibited technicalities in architecture, such as Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano [4] (defined as a “love at second sight” by the National Geographic) or the Tōkyō Tower by Tachū Naitō [5]. Aren’t those examples of infrastructural honesty, provoking all the non-engineers that the materiality of information is not complicated, but complex and fascinating? Aren’t they revealing us that this is what our society is made of and that we should understand?

– Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

– Tōkyō Tower, Tōkyō, Japan

The novel by US philosopher Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about that. Differently from a Romantic approach, Illuministic beauty lays on the rational comprehension of and unmediated astonishment for the relations between parts of a multiplicity. Through knowledge, the observer can appreciate the object on a more profound level, whereas “romantic” people are condemned to a life of incomprehension and irritation. [6]

Indeed, the average human is illiterate about the materiality of media infrastructure: he prefers to ignore such irrelevant details and gets annoyed when he has to deal with this matters. In his “romantic” perspective, the media he interacts with are magical objects that work due to some reasons beyond the possibilities of his comprehension. He feels much more secure in the plastic-covered illusion that there is nothing more to understand but the interface on the surface.

We do not want to see cables and wires because we do not want to see our ignorance.


[1] Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Introduction, in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press (2015)

[2] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 68 Publishers (1984)

[3] Bruno Latour, Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts, in Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law, MIT Press (1992)

[4] Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (1977)

[5] Tachū Naitō, Tōkyō Tower, Tōkyō, Japan (1958)

[6] Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, William Morrow and Company (1974)

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