IKEA Hacks

Lamps made from IKEA pine furniture pieces.

I’ve met a lot of designers and architects who have these utopian visions of what life and society could be. Some very seriously believe that every problem has a solution and every custom can be made better or easier with good design. This kind of practical idealism is problematic for a lot of reasons, foremost of which, I believe, is the fact that it is most often those in control of society’s means of production who define good design even is. Modern manufacture divides labor and places design authority into the hands of specialists rather than into those of the user. Before industry, people shaped their own surroundings to suit their needs. They made their own tools, fashioned their own furniture and clothes. I’m not about to say that I would give up the multitude of manufactured items common to modern life in exchange for the limited range of objects I would be able to create myself, but I think one could legitimately argue that our dependency on industrial output makes us more vulnerable to deterministic forces that are beyond our control and susceptible to influence and manipulation from centralized power.

Terrarium for pet turtle

In response to our growing alienation from the industrial processes that shape our lives, a growing movement of DIY hobbyists has sprouted up in the last 20 years or so. One of my favorite DIY online communities is IKEA Hackers. On the website, members share modification recipes for IKEA merchandise. People rate each other’s mods based on usefulness and creativity. The most popular hacks among members are the ones that diverge most flagrantly from IKEA’s original intent for the product. The irony of these deconstructions is that IKEA hackers are disrupting the planned application of an object that IKEA has already proposed to be “good design.” The company’s mission statement reads, “At IKEA, our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.” By ignoring the designers’ carefully crafted preparations and simply using the products as raw material, IKEA hackers not only invalidate the supposed preeminence of IKEA’s superior design but also undermine the power IKEA wields in being able to prescribe its so-called “good design” as a cultural convention.

As with many mod communities, not all IKEA hackers are resentful of IKEA’s hubris or seek to advance an anti-consumerist agenda. Many are IKEA enthusiasts who genuinely appreciate the products and admire their design. The user’s introducing additional functionality to a particular item does not have to imply a complete negation of the designer’s original purpose. On the contrary, it proves the item to be more versatile and the designer’s plan to offer a greater allowance of function to the user. The designer can build a process or object that is programatized in an exceedingly clever way, but this need not entail programitization of the client’s use of it.

Design Constraints

What we call “good design” is as much about shaping human behavior and leading people around like cattle as it is about building useful, sturdy, beautiful objects that enrich our lives and allow us to extend our potential. People in design circles always assert that the purpose and use of a well-designed object should be apparent in the object’s own form. Someone who is reasonably acquainted with the practical context within which the object would be used should be able to identify easily how the object is to be used and what it might be used for. Additionally, the object should not accommodate uses that deviate from its intended purpose. This is so anyone equipped with the object does not confuse its function with that of another object or apply the object on the incorrect job. It is a reality of industrial design that when a designer sets out to design an item for practical use, she not only constructs the object to be optimally suited for the job she has in mind but also makes the item especially useless for anything else besides that job. These restrictions that are built in to the item’s form are called “design constraints.”

Donald Norman, one of the most influential writers in modern industrial design, uses the example of a thirteen-piece Lego motorcycle to illustrate the operative advantage of restrictive design constraints:

“…the appropriate role for every single piece of the motorcycle is unambiguously determined… people could construct the motorcycle without any instructions or assistance, although they had never seen it assembled” (The Design of Everyday Things, 84).

The motorcycle’s possible methods of assembly are limited sufficiently that there can be one correct arrangement and no others. Its design succeeds perfectly in enforcing the designer’s intended assemblage of the parts. However, as a toy, especially a Lego toy, the motorcycle obviously a failure. Its design constraints are so strict that they preclude play and improvisation in the item’s construction. If one can only build the toy within the parameters specified by the manufacturer, what is gained from buying the item disassembled? It seems to me that design constraints are actually sabotaging the effectiveness of the motorcycle as a play object. But I think this criticism could be extended beyond toys into practical objects and tools. Imposing a kind of deterministic plan of possible interactions an individual can have with an object is narrow, and it is coercive. It delimits the range of possible action available to a user and thwarts substantive improvisation. It suggests that the designer knows better than the practitioner and goes further to enforce that assertion by restraining the practitioner from accomplishing anything more than what the designer has already envisioned.

Threshold of Order in Traffic Systems

The video above captures a typical flow pattern on a typical street in Hyderabad, India. An opening in the median allows vehicles in the top lane to turn across the opposite lane to reach a side street. The seemingly blind intentionality of the turning drivers and the disinclination of oncoming traffic to stop for them is startling. It drives up the blood pressure a little bit to watch it. I’ve heard that there’s a shared, though intermittently observed, system of right-of-way that prevails on dense, chaotic Indian streets like this one. Perhaps its only legend; I think I learned it from the Youtube comments section, but apparently larger vehicles are given precedence over smaller vehicles. This is for the very pragmatic reason that in the instance of an accident a bus or a delivery truck will cause quite a lot more damage than a motorcycle. Essentially, the more dangerous your vehicle the more likely others are to defer to you on the street. So even in the mess of Madrassi traffic, there is a system of public safety in place that it works most of the time, though not as often as the efficient, organized systems found in protestant Christian countries where obedience to the common rule is unquestioned and everyone is willing to respect everyone else’s turn.

This next video is also quite harrowing. It was taken from a helmet-mounted camera worn by someone who is participating in a bike messenger race through the heart of Manhattan. The cyclists thread their way through different lanes of traffic, cutoff pedestrians in crosswalks, and stare down oncoming traffic at every intersection.

Certainly this journey through New York City very closely resembles the dizzying trajectories of the rickshaw peddlers in the Hyderabad video. There is, however, one important distinction between the two. The people in the India traffic video are continually re-establishing a new set of rules with one another which will allow them all to reach their destinations quickly and safely. As new people arrive in the intersection new demands are placed on the system, and the system then has to adjust itself to accommodate its new constituents. We see constant improvisation exercised by everyone involved. Rules are made and broken and remade again, and this process of rule-making and rule-breaking is collaborative. Contrast this with the example of the Manhattan bike race: cyclists encounter a fixed system of rules (cars remain in their lanes, they stop at stoplights, pedestrians enter the street only in designated areas, motorists wishing to turn left against several lanes of traffic remain out of the intersection until signaled to go). Because of the reliability/rigidity of the urban American traffic system, the cyclists are able to safely predict how everyone they encounter will behave. The predictability allows them to construct a plan of action far ahead of time without having to reconstruct that plan abruptly and all subsequent decision thereafter.

I think this proves that in the consistency of reliable order lies the very key to its own undoing. The better one can calculate an outcome, the easier it is for that outcome to be manipulated or circumvented or, to call it as it is called today, hacked. The Manhattan bike messengers and the Hyderabad rickshaw drivers might share precarious circumstances which closely remember one another, but they are really nothing alike. The bike messengers are exploiting a system of order and trying to operate outside of it, at its margins. The drivers in Hyderabad, on the other hand, convene in the middle of the street and together negotiate a system that accounts for everyone present. There is no subverting such a system. It will accommodate you, even when you actively try to defy it.

Industrial Stoppage

The image above was originally reported as a traffic jam in Baghdad. It was captured by satellite probably around 2005 at the height of the Iraq War. This event is taking place in an industrial sector of the city called Sheikh Omar. I believe the buildings are mostly shipping depots and factories. The vehicles scattered around the area are delivery trucks. They are not stuck in traffic. They are parked, with no place to go. Normally the district looks like this:

It’s impossible to tell exactly what’s going on here. My best guess is that private shipping in Iraq ground to a halt during this period of the war and that these companies in Sheikh Omar recalled their entire fleets all at once and just left them parked in the street until business picked up again. The scene is reminiscent of another notable instance of late-industrial work stoppage. I found the image below on Google maps. It shows the Singapore Strait during the later stages of the global financial crisis. There are dozens of container ships and oil tankers moored outside of the harbor waiting for assignments. In the most wretched days of the recession during 2009 there were around 500 ships anchored in the strait with nothing to do and no where to go.

Pre-Modern View of Planetary Earth

Mid-way through Book III of Paradise Lost, Satan descends the golden staircase that leads from heaven to earth. From here he is able to see the entire world, like an astronaut looking at it from the moon. Milton narrates this scene with the following lines:

“Satan from hence now on the lower stair
That scal’d by steps of Gold to Heaven Gate
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
of all this World at once.” (3.540-554)

Most modern people know what the earth looks like from orbit. To readers in 17th century Britain, a “view of all this World at once” would have been beyond comprehension. Maps did exist in Milton’s time of a round world with 5 continents. Anyone familiar with navigation would have been able to visualize the earth geographically, but Satan sees more than landmasses and oceans from where he stands. He sees everything that is happening, and he sees it all simultaneously. Milton applies the inadequate simile of a scout who “obtains the brow of some high-climbing Hill” and spies from its summit “some renown’d Metropolis / With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adorn’d.” It’s such a narrow illustration compared with knowing the entire globe. Perhaps sensing the scope might be too small, Milton then attempts to equate regions of the earth with corresponding regions in the sky. Libra hangs in the west and Andromeda is positioned just off the Atlantic ocean at the planet’s horizon. “Then from Pole to Pole / He views in breadth.” (3.560)

Later, Satan flies over Eden and alights on Mount Amara to study the world that God has recently made, and Milton describes in detail the different flora and fauna he sees. For this task, Milton appropriates factual information from science books he has read and employs mythological allusion to represent different groves and bowers. He mentions the different beasts of the field which God appoints Adam to name. So the reader gathers these images and facts and vague memories together in his or her mind, and from that pool of categories and dim representations assembles an exhaustive construction of a vast and varied world. An approximation of all this World at once, or at least the closest thing that a single mind is able to imagine.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Olympus

This famous baroque treatment of the Greek pantheon by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo which hangs today in the Prado Museum in Madrid is positively arresting. The image is framed in mid-air with no horizon to train one’s perspective upon. Up and down are interchangeable. We see Mercury at the top, inverted and sprawled against the sky. Venus is borne on a chariot of clouds yoked to two white doves. Everything appears weightless and swirling. Forms are alleviated of basic physicality. It is a depiction of flight, but it is also more than that. Figures do not appear suspended; rather, they seem to be floating, perhaps rising. This is an application of recognizable levity to convey the sensation of transcendence. And it works. The picture is thrilling to look at. It is a view into perspectiveless space. Form freed of relation.

Below is Gianbattista’s best-known work, Allegory of the Planets and Continents. Here the earth and heavens are imagined as having changed places, with the sun and the sky occupying the middle of the frame and four hemispheres of the globe arranged along the outside. I present it here upside down, with America at the bottom, right-side up, and the Europeans hanging from the top.

Have I Not Drunk Soma?

The Rigveda contains many hymns extolling the virtues of soma. Written in Vedic Sanskrit, they some of the oldest written verse in the world. And as far as poetry goes, it’s rather good. The following veda is found in the Rigveda’s tenth mandala:

This, yes, this is my thinking: I will win a cow and a horse.
Have I not drunk Soma?

Like currents of wind, the drinks have lifted me up.
Have I not drunk Soma?

The drinks have lifted me up, like swift horses bolting with a chariot.
Have I not drunk Soma?

The thought has come to me as a lowing cow to her beloved son.
Have I not drunk Soma?

I turn the thought around in my heart, as a wheelwright turns a chariot seat.
Have I not drunk Soma?

The five tribes are no more to me than a mote in the eye.
Have I not drunk Soma?

The two world halves do not equal a single wing of mine.
Have I not drunk Soma?

I greatness, I surpass heaven and this great earth.
Have I not drunk Soma?

Yes, I will place the earth here, or perhaps there.
Have I not drunk Soma?

I will thrash the earth soundly, here or perhaps there.
Have I not drunk Soma?

One of my wings is in heaven, the other trails below.
Have I not drunk Soma?

I am huge, huge! Flying to the clouds.
Have I not drunk Soma?

I am going, a well-stocked house carrying oblations to the gods.
Have I not drunk Soma?

— 10.119, Trans. Wendy Doniger

The poem describes stages and alternating states of a soma intoxication. The episode culminates in flight and personal aggrandizement. What I find most interesting about these verses is the speaker’s pronouncements on his own cognition. The line that reads, “I turn the thought around in my heart, as a wheelwright turns a chariot seat.” presents a fine characterization of contemplative reflection as an act of turning and offers the metaphor of the chariot seat to illustrate clearly what is meant by this. The fact that the speaker turns the thought in his heart rather than his mind is a conscious departure from expectation. The soma somehow allows him to perceive with his heart, uniting mind with spirit, anima and animus. The line, “The thought has come to me as a lowing cow to her beloved son.” is an expression of delight over thought materializing in the speaker’s consciousness unbidden. It is significant that here thought is placed in the role of mother and the speaker its child, perhaps suggesting that the speaker views himself as a product of his own thinking or at least in some way subordinate to thought as it manifests itself in his mind. Other lines like “The five tribes are no more to me than a mote in the eye.” and “The two world halves do not equal a single wing of mine.” signify the sudden immateriality of worldly matters as an object of care or consequentiality. The speaker eschews his social affiliations. While in flight he looks down and sees that the world is circumscribed and small. He observes that it is perfectly movable and that he could place it here or there, or even obliterate it if he were to choose to do so, if the world were nothing more than a toy and subject to his whim. Relation between entities deteriorates, along with comparative understanding. Where before the world was vast and the speaker only a miniscule particle on its surface, now, as the speaker flies from the world and is no longer of it, he feels vast and of central importance while the world shrinks into the distance.

What was heavy becomes light, what was immense and boundless becomes minute and contained. Soma uncouples the speaker from all his prior associations. In doing so, it effects an utter collapse of relational logic.

Lost Intoxicant: Soma

In both Hindu and Zoroastrian texts, reference is made to a blessed and enchanting elixir that endows one with god-like sight, the strength and energy of a panther, and the gift of everlasting life. According to the Sushruta school of Indian medicine its rejuvenating properties work by causing ones hair teeth and nails to fall off and the rest of the physical self to whither; following this, it compels the body to regenerate into an adamantine form that could last for ten thousand years. The substance to which I refer is called soma in Hindi, and haoma in the vedic languages. It was believed to have been gathered and brewed by the Indo-Iranian people of present-day Afghanistan, probably starting a little before the tenth century BC. The plant from which it is derived grew at high elevations in the Hindu Kush. It was used in religious ritual by Hindu and Zoroastrian priests who believed it was the only means available to mortal beings to commune with the divine.

We do not know what soma actually was. Priests of the Hindu and Avestan traditions still perform the rites related to the taking of soma, and they consume a drink which they call soma but is more likely a surrogate for the seemingly more potent soma known to the ancients. Present-day soma is extracted from the ephedra plant. It is a mild stimulant and has an effect on the body similar to caffeine. Many believe ephedra is the very same plant referred to in the Rigveda and the Avestan Yasna. If this is true, then reports of soma’s extraordinary effects and its scarcity would have been majorly exaggerated. R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur scholar with a great interest in soma, puts forth a very convincing argument that soma was more likely a psychoactive intoxicant that caused reverie and hallucination. He identifies the fly-agaric mushroom to be the most likely candidate. This would have provided a very potent psychotropic experience, but description does not seem to match that given by ancient texts as to soma’s color and shape. Fly-agaric is a mushroom with a bright red cap; soma was supposed to be a branching stalk that was greenish yellow in color. Wasson points out that the greenish yellow color might have described only the drink itself and speculates that fly-agaric might have been consumed by a head priest who would then offer his urine, replete with all of the fungus’s psychoactive agents, to the ritual’s other participants to drink.

Frits Staal notes that ritualistic activity surrounding soma began to increase a great deal as the Proto Indo-European Aryan peoples migrated from the Oxus River into the Indus River Valley, further away from the source of the Soma plant. New rites emerged relating to the importation of soma, like, for example, the priest’s greeting to the soma merchant and the dismissal of the soma merchant from the temple. Staal speculates that the build up of ritual around soma intensified as the soma itself grew increasingly unavailable. Eventually, the spiritual energy once associated with the soma intoxication might have been transferred to its accompanying rituals, and that the actual consumption of soma became simply a component of the rite and was easily supplanted by a more readily available surrogate like ephedra. To date no conclusive evidence has been submitted that supports ephedra as the original soma or any other substance. Whatever spiritual qualities the soma elixir might have possessed, they are now lost to human experience and forgotten.