Underspecified Dreams of Parts
and Wholes
Matthew Fuller
Ecological thought emphasises the interplay of part-whole relations,
those of parts, for instance a plant, a species, operating in a non-unified
whole. Ecologies are wholes that are never complete. Tey emerge out of
the interactions of a multitude of processes and entities and operate and
are acted in at multiple scales. Tis complex relation between the part and
the whole is an aspect of what makes ecologies open to being thought
of as systems. It also allows us to think about ecologies in abstract terms,
as something sharing qualities with other non-totalising systems such as
Tis condition of interplay between parts and wholes is something that
characterises aesthetic work, the relation of a musical phrase to that of
the whole symphony; the particular style of movement of a character in a
computer game to that of the capacities of others; the particular inflection
of design of a door in its relation of analogy and differentiation to the
other objects in a room, the treatment of its surfaces; and its keying in to
the design of the building as a whole in architecture. Music, games and
buildings, as different media systems (if we can take that term broadly)
each have their own characteristic ways of addressing or composing an
idea of the general: how they act to compose the world in terms of unifor-
mity, differentiation, and co-composition. Te relation between the speci-
fic and the general can in turn be seen as a translation of the part-whole
figuration. To take a particular example, something as everyday as a bridge
plays out a relation between the specific and the general.
When you are thinking about design at the infrastructural level you must
resist thinking from the basis of precise cases. For instance, in designing
a bridge, you don’t bring it together on the basis of the particular vehicles
that travel over it, this specific car, or that individual truck. You certain-
ly don’t think about a particular group of people driving over it whilst
singing a certain song on a certain day several years hence, or design the
rumbling of the road surface in contact with the tyres to assuage the
distress of a particular group of sheep who might be on their way to the
slaughterhouse in the back of a lorry. A bridge deals with the general, not
with the specific.
A bridge is designed in relation to certain generic standards such as those
of construction strength, the habitual or novel use of form and materials,
expectations of use characterised at a statistically developed level. It im-
plies a certain universality of travel. At the same time though, it may react
to local conditions, propose new stylistic or structural concerns, articulate
the relation between what is under and what is above, spread the expe-
Inmaterial 01. Matthew Fuller
rience of movement across it, suture landscapes, economies or languages,
and do many other things.
Bridge design can be used of course for a certain amount of disruptive
activity. Tis is perhaps why bridges are so often targeted in conflicts, as
means of disrupting supplies and movements. Bridges are also a classic
artefact in claiming a politics of technology. Tey may act as a force of
blockage as much as one of conjunction1.
1 For a story about bridges, see
Winner (1999). For a critical
response, see Joerges (1999).
Te urban theorist Keller Easterling writes about such things as part of
her discussion of a politics of infrastructure (Easterling, 2014). Standards,
road typologies, the size of physical interfaces to banking devices, ID
cards, all integrate, amongst their universalism, a kind of uniformity. It is
the specific texture and tonality of this uniformity that engenders much
of their politics. Tis politics is not to be simply understood as one of
prohibitions, mobilisations, commands and so on - a model drawn from
the military - but rather one of establishing the means by which things
gain the conditions of becoming possible. Here, design thinks about itself
in the role of producing the raw materials for a further stage of change.
Establishing the grammar of such change is a key stakes of power in the
present era.
Perhaps anticipating this condition, and also seeing it played out throu-
gh a paternalistic modernism of buildings with their modes of use being
overly-prescribed in advance, Gordon Pask (1969) talked about a cyber-
netically-inspired ethics of design in terms of what he called “Underspe-
cification”. Tat is that things should be made in order that their function
can be reinvented, coupled with other things, that they do not pre-empt
the future. A bridge in this sense is also then a platform, a set of condi-
tions for things to happen2. Underspecification is a conceptually advanced
2 For a discussion of platforms
in digital media see Goriunova
form of modesty for architecture, the idea that it is to make entities out
of which other things will be composed. It aims to allow for the relation
between the specific and the general to remain unfinished.
Te extent and affordances of the underspecification of objects and
systems is an important condition for contemporary design in an era of
digitalisation, expanded forms of materiality and of globalization. Easter-
ling’s reflections are particularly useful for a consideration of the latter, as
standard objects proliferate as means of implementing and maintaining
conjunction across the globe. Here, she identifies a nuanced micropolitics
of the artifact, and of norms and the interplay between them to create a
grammar for global assemblages. Tere is a sense in which parts become
Inmaterial 01. Underspecified Dreams of Parts and Wholes
simply subsets of wholes, rather than wholes arising from the interplay of
parts, where the general conditions the particular - leading to the danger
of a loss of variety, and of a politics of homogeneity arising from the sim-
ple unfolding of pre-formatted parts.
Modular forms may also open up possibilities for recombination and ge-
nerativity, as in the ideal of the sandbox - as found for instance in games
and in learning. However, underspecification may also function as a tech-
nique of absorbing the unexpected emergence of otherwise irresolvable
social forms, as a form of preemptive architecture of crumple-zones.
Tat is to say that the particular forms in which an underspecified design
plays out, in terms of its texture, what it blocks, combines with, draws out,
or inspires have a fundamentally political level, but one that is often arti-
culated as being solely technical in nature: when the technical is unders-
tood to be ostensibly neutral. In particular we see this in the “facilitation”
offered by software and by computational infrastructure, of the everyday,
of governance and of selfhood. Te expanded forms of materialization
that constitute the remarkable way in which computational forms have
been woven into and now substantially constitute the condition of con-
temporary culture.
In a sense, there is an argument that the position that software develo-
pment is “simply technical” works, in that it is an argument that itself is
truly underspecified. It thus gives room for an abundance of invention,
manipulation and counter-currents of use, since those aspects of the work
that were seen to be non-technical are not attended too.
At the same time, there is an increasing attention to the modes of cul-
tural operation of things such as algorithms, data structures, file formats,
databases, interfaces, protocols, data security and so on that constitute the
everyday technical material of software developers3. Here, for the purpo-
3 See for instance in the journal
Computational Culture (http://
ses of cultural invention, or for understanding such materials in political
terms, it is important that the recognition of their materiality is expanded
beyond the simple replication of their technical description.
Te scholar Ben Kafka notes something similar in relation to the question
of paperwork and the files characteristic of bureaucracy, a close description
of their agency, must be accompanied by a recognition of their integra-
tion with and incitement of neurotic and desiring activity (Kafka, 2012).
Indeed, this is so much the case, that, as with the “simply technical”, un-
derspecification per se can only be a description of a tendency. Attempts
Inmaterial 01. Matthew Fuller
to reduce things to a purely functionalist level of description can indeed
occur - as in border crossings, or other zones where there is tight, and
highly tense, reduction of things to a stable script. Tese specimens require
an enormous amount of supplementary equipment and work to hold such
a condition in place.
Te extended debates amongst developers about whether the fifth ver-
sion of HTML (the mark-up and programming language for the web,
that now includes vastly expanded provision for the creation of apps, and
for video, amongst other things) should include a native mechanism for
so-called “Digital Rights Management” show that the question of what
and who a technology is for, and what implications it has for the circu-
lation of culture, even if only in well-established discursive forms such as
the discussion of that curious formula “Intellectual Property”, have at least
some degree of traction. In this case, other interests prevailed.
In the last chapter of her book, Easterling suggests that a certain kind of
cunning with technology and with standards is required in order to work
politically in the present. To put this differently, to work with the agency
of the particular characteristics of certain kinds of code, interface, screen,
is part of the art of the contemporary. And such an art is articulated diffe-
rently by multiple actors: regulators, inventors, user experience designers,
companies, hackers, international standards bodies. To make such an
incomplete list of actors is to suggest an ecology of part-whole relations
around and constituted in a technology. Alongside these figures, we can
array others who specifically work to maintain qualities of underspecifica-
tion, even in the most totalised of medial systems.
One of the means of rendering even the most totalising system into a
state of underspecification is to submit it to the imagination - and here
Kafka’s injunction to recognise medial materiality in relation to questions
of psychic conditioning and desire comes to the fore. Here too, the histo-
ric role of art, even if it has been one that has been partially swapped out
for something tidier and more convenient, is worth attending to.
Te Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov is the author of a myriad of
brilliant texts; a visionary, linguist and geographer, he had the great for-
tune to be the author of “Te Radio of the Future” (Khlebnikov, 1921), a
prognosis for media systems that thrills with its capacity to overstep the
bounds of the foreseeable, the standardized and the normative. At the
same time, the text imagines a new deliriously inventive form of univer-
sality, or space of general communication. Russian Futurism took the
Inmaterial 01. Underspecified Dreams of Parts and Wholes
future to not simply mean the tense that comes after the present, but the
condition in which becoming becomes. From this position they were able
to enter into their present from the point of view that was no longer what
it was, since it had already entered into becoming. An understanding of
materiality, whether that was of words, languages, paint, clothing, alcohol,
and technology, was coupled with this imagination; a vivid materiality that
specified the hitherto unspeakable, rendering the world open to the play
of delight and invention and of dreams.
A related opening up of technology to the imagination can be read in
feminist work that rejects the convention of acquiescence to an imagi-
ned nature. Te 1970s writing of Shulamith Firestone, particularly the
closing chapters of her “Dialectic of Sex” (Firestone, 1970), or the recent
Xenofeminist manifesto (Laboria Cuboniks, 2015), and certain currents
within Sadie Plant’s “Zeroes and Ones” (Plant, 1995) work this seam in
which the cantankerous and cretinising part-whole relations of gender
standardisation are opened up through, as Firestone puts it, an integration
of the poetic and the technological. Feminism of this kind is an immense
resource in thinking through designing in the era of digitalization, expan-
ded forms of materiality and globalization since it is very familiar with
the relentless labour of challenging the supposedly natural and organic
nature of certain ways of reducing people to parts, the overspecification of
relations and of the immense and intimate labour of standardisation.
Whilst it shares with art an openness to reinvention and dream, such
feminist work is reasonably suspicious of making yet another call to dream
in order to reconstitute the world, for this is already common knowledge,
and the world is an accretion of such dreams or of desires taken for reality.
Living in a time when a technical disposition to openness, also provides a
form of capture, we know that certain dreams, namely nightmares, are of
great preponderance. In this condition, the question of the composition
of the relation between the specific and the general becomes one in which
a certain cunning is required in order to remain underspecified, with a
certain tensile relation to becoming.
Inmaterial 01. Matthew Fuller
Matthew Fuller
Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of
the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths,
University of London. He is co-author with
Andrew Goffey of ‘Evil Media’ (MIT), Editor
of ‘Software Studies, a lexicon’ (MIT), author of
‘Media Ecologies’ (MIT) and co-editor of the
journal Computational Culture.
E-mail: m.fuller@gold.ac.uk
Inmaterial 01. Underspecified Dreams of Parts and Wholes
Easterling, K., 2014. Extrastatecraft, the power of infrastructure space.
London: Verso.
Firestone, S., 1970. Te Dialectic of Sex. Te case for feminist revolution.
New York: William Morrow and Company.
Goriunova, O., 2013. Art Platforms and cultural production on the internet.
London: Routledge.
Joerges, B., 1999. Do Politics Have Artefacts? Social Studies of Science,
29(3), pp.411-431.
Kafka, B., 2012. Te Demon of Writing: powers and failures of paperwork.
New York: Zone Books.
Khlebnikov, V., 1921. Te Radio of the Future. In: Ch. Douglas, ed. 1987.
Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, 1: Letters and Teoretical Writings.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp.392-396.
Laboria Cuboniks, 2015. Te Xenofeminist Manifesto. [online]
Available at: <http://laboriacuboniks.net/> [Accessed 27 May 2016].
Pask, G., 1969. Te Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics.
Architectural Design, September issue, pp.494-496
Plant, S., 1995. Zeroes and Ones, digital women and the new technoculture.
London: Fourth Estate.
Winner, L., 1999. Do Artifacts Have Politics? In: D. Mackenzie,
J. Wajcman, eds. 1999. Te Social Shaping of Technology. 2nd ed.
London: Open University Press.
Underspecified Dreams of Parts and Wholes. Matthew Fuller