13. The mass for the single person

Ariang Festival, Pyongyang, North Korea, September 12, 2008.

We reached now a point where we are exploring our original 4 x 4 matrix in the lower parts of the system, where you have big groups of people (or a whole mass) working for the benefit of a single person or a selected group.

The very extreme case is the one where you have a whole society working for a single person. Of course we all know this is rarely true: the king has a court, the tyrant has always a close circle and the like.

Having to focus on the case-study where everyone works symbolically for one person, we generally tend to think to the Egyptian pyramids, where a huge amount of workforce is busy for years on the construction of a single huge building. Going further, we can also point to the huge tomb built for Qin Shih Huang Ti, First Emperor of China.

The Great Pyramid of Giza (built c. 2560 BC), and the Sphinx (built c. 2555 BC to 2532 BC)

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (also know as “terracotta army“), Xi’an, Shaanxi, c 210 BC

We can also observe that the “individual” can be a real person or an immaterial entity as it happens in religious festivals dedicated to specific saints. Think for instance to the incredible North Korean choreographies made to please an audience of one omnipresent person/entity (curiously called: “dear Leader”).

Workers and students celebrate Kim Jong Il and his father in the Arirang Festival in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium (2005).

In our view this system (mass for one single person) does not necessarily imply a totalitarian system. The Cathedral built and dedicated to Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo was funded voluntarily by legions of faithfuls, just as it was for St. Peter Cathedral in Rome some centuries before.

RPBW (Renzo Piano Building Workhsop), “Padre Pio” Cathedral in San Giovanni Rotondo, 2004

Bramante, Raffaello (with Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra’ Giocondo), Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, Michelangelo, Maderno: “St Peter’s Cathedral” (1506/1626).

If we think for a  moment we can agree that  “many people working for the single” is not necessarily synonymous with some lost Asian republic belonging to the former Soviet Union or South American juntas.

The mechanism of the cathedral dedicated to a specific saint is often declined in the form of a religious festivals (a whole list would be a too long work): moments of real collective celebration, giving to the “single” an excuse to release an enormous energy made out of skills, talents, money and social values.

The crowd in piazza del Campo (Siena), waiting for the “Palio” to start


The possible examples where a local tradition (religious or civil) becomes a complex web of various interests, activities, service is actually quite long. Think for instance to the “taranta” music tradition (putting together psychosomatic disease and music therapy) a typical case of social function fulfilled by a curious mix of evil and ritual.

Even today if you go to the Lecce area, you may find this delicious mix of ethnographic and anthropological local tradition mixed with fascinating languages of Hellenistic origin and mysteriuos dolmens.

Musician playing traditional “tarantella” to cure a “tarantata” woman (c. 1950’s)

Another interesting example where we can observe the mechanism of  the “all for one” system is the social network related to various kinds of hobbies and crafts.

The first class (one for one family) analyse the “bricoleur” character and the changes happened to him because of new technologies. Nowadays, thanks to digital technologies he finally reached the ideal condition where he has millions and millions of others people at his service with all kind of expertise, and advice.

Beta tools: the bricoleur always wants/needs the best

The digital revolution has generated a certain number of these phenomena.

We were used to be in a TV universe where each single person is thought to be equal and willing to watch the same exact program like everyone else, to a new system (think for instance to Twitter) where we have again a mass of users (exactly like in the previous TV system), each one assuming to be a “specific” entity.

In the TV world each user is the same and he/she is aware of this. In the Facebook world, each user is the same and he/she is not only not aware of this, but believes to be unique. From this point of view Twitter and Facebook are very clever because they do work as mass-media, but they address the specific desires and needs of an individual. The single person might have the perception to be really campaigning for abandoned dogs or being part of a special group producing a specific content. Yet, finally, the medium is so strong that swallows everything and everything becomes the medium itself.

Facebook and Twitter: two of the most succesful contemporary service design. Social networks are products of very sophisticate design skills

In this extent Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message) reminds us that in the Facebook world everything becomes nothing more (if you prefer: nothing less) than a videogame.

“The medium is the message” shirt by Obey

Obviously this game has a paradoxical effect close to magic. If we were to ask to any twitternaut:  “Given the 4 by 4 grid, to which family do you belong?” He would probably reply to be part of the “one person for the big group”. He is not grasping that the dynamic is exactly the opposite. He is a little cog of the “big group for the individual” mechanism.

From this point of view, if you have to manage, organize and run the life of a moltitude of people, it doesn’t make such a big difference (in terms of “how”) if you have them building pyramids, to have them sit in front of a TV set or you give them a Facebook account.

It is the ethernal duality between the personal subjectivity and the overall culture we live in. Is the writer a person who add his personal contribution to the general culture, or is the general culture expressing itself using the writer as a tool/medium (obviously, we tend to imagine the second hypothesis as the correct one).

Think to the heroin junkie in some Western cities or the jobless Japanese salaryman who spends hours and hours in a pacinko parlor. These two persons, are they freely choosing what to do with their life, or are they innocent victims of sophisticated instruments of social control?

Salaryman on his way back home after a long day at work

Without going too far: how to explain the incredible success in Italy of an odd device like the bread machine? Italy is a country where you have an excellent (and cheap) baker at the corner of every block. You flood the market with a machine producing a low quality bread, in a country where you can buy an excellent bread at a very cheap price, and people love it and the thing becomes a great success.

In what imaginary world does the bread-machine user live?

William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, cut-up page from “The Third Mind“, 1977

By the way, if you are fascinated by these themes, you should definitely read some of the famous novels written by two experts like Williams Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.

Absolute beginners should start by Philip K. Dick: “The Man in the High Castle“, continuing with “The Naked Lunch” by Burroughs (eventually proceeding on with: “The Soft Machine“).

Whisky Tumbler used by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in “Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982). Designed by Cini Boeri for Arnolfo di Cambio in 1972. Quite interesting to note that the house where he lives is the mesmerizing Ennis-Brown House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924…

Cini Boeri on her “Ghost” armchair, Fiam, 1987

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Cini Boeri


– William Burroughs, cut-up


Marshall McLuhan

– Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner“, 1982

service design

social network


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