adjust from scratch !

by Max Bruinsma

The idea of an upgrade is that you start with something that is already there. You keep it. Although it could function better, you like it enough not to throw it away. Although it needs a face lift, you don’t start over completely. You upgrade. You adjust.

The idea of adjustment is under quite a lot of pressure these days. I mean cultural pressure, political pressure, ideological pressure. We live in radical times. You are either with us or against us. We can’t keep fixing bugs in the system, we need a new start. Your mobile phone is _so_ last week! You need a radical make-over! That kind of rhetorics. The rhetorics of revolution.

The problem with such rhetorics is that they are precisely that, rhetorics. “Be an original” is the slogan of a global cigarette brand. “Be whatever you want to be” is another one, this time for selling shoes. The revolution, guys...

The revolution is eating its children before they are even born. The revolution is the latest prime-time shocker threatening to take over your market share of viewers. The revolution is a 10 point increase of your stock market value. The revolution is a regime change in your favourite soap. The revolution is fighting for your right to be a salaryman. The revolution is system 10 point 5. The revolution is chicken meatballs.

The rest is upgrade. Adjustments of the existing.

Let me give you an example of something in need of an upgrade. The concept of originality. Originally, this concept was limited to things and ideas which have a discernable beginning. A source. A first inception. A start. Originally, ‘origin’ is the opposite of repetition. Origin cannot be repeated – it is a one-time event.

Today, this concept has been watered down to a rather vague kind of attribute of people and things. If you say of somebody that he’s an original, you probably mean he’s funny. If you state that this design or that product is original, you mean it surprises you. You think it’s new - - ish.

Then there are those who say ‘originality’ is a completely obsolete concept. That in post-modern times it is not only impossible to be original – it’s an utter waste of time. You sample what is there, and that’s it. You rearrange existing things, hoping that some meaning will occur which at best slightly alters or adjusts what we already know. You upgrade.

Seen in this light, ‘originality’ has become detached from it’s original source, namely that it is something unique unrepeatable. ‘Originality’, now, is something like ‘going against the grain’, ‘thinking outside of the box’, ‘defy expectations’. Generations of artists and designers – and managers and politicians, at that – have been brought up with this concept of originality; that it is a procedure. 

Reverse ‘a’ and ‘b’, and the outcome will be – – original! 

That, my friends, is uniqueness of a rather commonplace kind. In today’s culture, ‘originality’ has become banal. Anything outside of the expected can be called original today. I’d say it’s high time to upgrade the concept of ‘originality’. Why upgrade? Why not just discard the old notion and forget about it altogether?

Because it is too important a concept to do away with. Because ‘originality’ is closely linked to ‘uniqueness’, ‘individuality’, ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ – all concepts which are central to our way of dealing with the world. All, I must add, concepts which are in need of upgrades as well! 

Or do I actually mean ‘downgrade’? When I say that we need to remember the original meaning of the concept of ‘originality’, do I mean we should revert back to the way it was defined by Plato or Aristotle?

Well, no, I don’t. 

‘Downgrade’ is not a good word here, simply because in most cases it will mean that you destroy what’s  already there. ‘Downgrading’, linguistically at least, means ‘diminish’, ‘take away privileges’. ‘dishonour’... Downgrading is deconstruction without reconstruction. It is originality without source...

Which brings me back to my upgrade of that concept. If ‘originality’ is inseparably linked to ‘source’ – which is the case –, then upgrading the concept of ‘originality’ may mean that the most original act conceivable is to rearrange the way things are linked to their sources. ‘Originality’ then comes to mean: ‘the measure in which someone is able to make us aware of the sources a work is connected to’. ‘Originality’ becomes  a function of referentiality instead of the ‘autonomous’, contextless ‘newness’ that is generally intended when we use the word now.

Seen in this light, from the upgraded definition of the concept of ‘originality’, I would say that the concept of ‘upgrading’ is pretty original! For the idea of an upgrade is to keep what we can use, and adjust it to our current demands. In adjusting an existing thing, or design, or work of art, or concept, we rearrange the way it refers to what it once was. In that process, in re-establishing links with past meanings, the thing we are upgrading may radically change. But since its new meaning has originated from what we know of old, it is embedded in our lives and cultures.

It has become connected in a new way. Take the car, the ‘automobile’; it is an upgrade of the coach. Some say that the car was a radical new invention, others say that precisely because of that, it was ludicrous to make the first cars look like they were upgraded coaches.

Seen from my new definition of originality, the car is an original upgrade; an existing concept of transportation, which has been thought anew, and linked to original notions of mobility in a fresh way. Small wonder it looked like an upgraded coach – that was exactly what it was!

The example of the car also shows that an upgrade can become an icon by itself. A few decades into the development of the automobile, it had become such a strong concept by itself, that it did not need the reference to the old coach-and-horses anymore. Out of the upgrade there developed something new.

Still, the  basic idea is having two axles and four wheels, of which two can steer, on top of which there is room to sit and store things, plus a means of putting the whole thing in motion. This description fits both a four-wheel-drive and a medieval ox-cart. So the word ‘auto’ in automobile may mean that the car goes by itself, but the main thing remains: that _we_ don’t have to do the pulling. 

I’m showing some images in the background, which illustrate my point – each image is an upgrade of a pre-existing one. Sometimes it’s an upgrade ‘from scratch’, by which I mean that the image has come to mean something radically different than the one it refers to. In other cases, the image is a combination of two or more existing icons, whereby the meaning of each is upgraded by the other (or in this case you may sometimes also say ‘downgraded’ ;-)

What all of them have in common is that they link content to content. That they have no intention whatsoever to be ‘original’ in the old way. But in my view they are original in the upgraded sense: they make a point of consciously referring to their sources. In all these images, you would miss most of the information – and the fun – if you wouldn’t recognize the sources.

In conclusion: upgrading is a central activity in a dynamic culture. Upgrading is a usefull strategy when our cultural dynamics are under risk of over-excelerating. Upgrading is keeping what you can use and re-using what you cannot discard. Upgrading has less to do with material facts and artifacts, but is most powerfull when it deals with concepts. Upgrading concepts can save them from becoming either empty or obsolete.

in short:

it ain't broke –

its upgradeable !

max bruinsma