Noortje Marres

Anatomy of a contemporary capsule-dweller

a capsule-dweller has a question (what is real?)

Take a contemporary home, that is equipped with technologies of action at a distance in the broad sense of the word: telephones, networked computers, newspaper subscriptions, televisions, order-by-catalogue services.

Evidently, many other set-ups can be called 'capsule': an incubator is a capsule, but so is a caravan. A soap bubble, a canopy, a pill, a submarine, a sauna, a car, a fruit. And ever so many functions could be ascribed to it. But, when applying the word to a contemporary home, we get the conceptual figure of the capsule-dwelling. What a capsule-dwelling does, is imposing a membrane between the shelled sphere that is a capsule, and the outside world. Removing the necessity of a direct reaction to the surrounding environment, is what it is supposed to do. Ideally, inside a capsule-habitat, events occuring in the vicinity do not have to be responded to immediately. Instead, they can be ignored, or selectively taken in, and quitely digested. (Something similar goes for actions taken from within the capsule: they can simply be refrained from, or carefully targeted, and timed.)

In this semi-fictional capsule-dwelling there lives a semi-fictional capsule-dweller. He resembles you or me, except that he never leaves home. Plus, this capsule-dweller is sensitive, pensive and curious, something which you or me aren't necessarily, and definitively not all the time. Now, for this character the capsule-dwelling raises a question, which concerns nothing less than ‘the real'. It goes something like this: if all input reaches a capsule-dweller via a trickster mechanism that blocks and edits, selects and times, what, then, can be called real? In a sense, it is the same old, grand and famous question that great philosophers and modern scientists have always asked (how do we know the world?). Except that here the question of the real comes up in a home, which is also very much a place for work, sleep, love and play, not just for asking complicated questions. With tele-technologies operative in the capsule-dwelling, however, the question of the real is often shimmering in the background. At times it may even harass the capsule-dweller, especially if he is, as said, of the sensitive, pensive, curious type.

Now a whole range of stories can be brought in to treat the question of the real, and the excitement and melancholies that may come with it. From a tragedy of a lost reality, to a ghost story about engineered realities. From pleas about reality as ‘surprise', to a never ending tale of ‘tinkered realities'. The short guided tour of such stories that follows, is organised around the components of a capsule-dwelling: armour, kitchen garden, (dish) antennae, among others. With ‘the real' dangling in mid-air, the least we can do is stay in touch with the capsule itself. Thus, a capsule-habitat will be dissected, its parts laid out, and each component scrutinized for a story of the real that it may add.


Zooming in on its armour, a capsule appears as a way of putting the outside world at a distance. A capsule-dweller can be compared to a mollusc, a creature too weak to deal with the storms and untamed creatures that rage outside. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk goes as far as to elevate the armoured sphere to what defines the human. According to him, it was only when human beings occupied the capsule (in those days, the cave), that they became what they are. And as a general rule: only when people succeed in shielding themselves from ‘the provocation of the outside', do they start developing sensibilities. This is one of Sloterdijks proofs for his claim: Where do we find people who want to return to nature? At the Kampingplatz. Enthrenching themselves in their own sphere, it is what humans do, always and everywhere.

To the origin myth that Sloterdijk sets out in such a matter of fact tone, we can further add this side remark: if it is an armour that allows people to develop their ‘humanity' to the fullest, to become all soft and soaky on the inside, then being ‘human' also involves a serious amount of indifference. The armour equally works like a Do Not Disturb sign, enabling the o so sensitive creature inside to bluntly disregard what- or who-ever is passing by outside. The story of the real that the armour provides, then, is one about a warded-off reality. In as far as we define the real as what is given, as what is already there, beyond the capsule, the armour goes to show that reality is shut out by a capsule-dwelling.


The channels that run between the capsule-habitat and elswhere tell a second story of the real. It begins with the realisation that a capsule-dweller stands in no other contact with worlds beyond his own little bubble, than via the channels. Everything that he receives has been pumped into these man-made infrastructures somewhere. Which implies that all the capsule-dweller has access to, has in some way or other been processed by humans-machines. It not only goes for what we refer to as ‘content' (text, image and sound), but also for the materials that reach the capsule (agro-chemical substances, panels and parts, and hardware more generally). From this, the conclusion can be drawn that capsular life is led under circumstances of near-total malleability. At least in theory, what flows through the channels can be manipulated and modulated ad infinitum. Worlds as they are disclosed to a capsule-dweller, are a lot like Datatown, a city-concept developed the Dutch architecture studio MVRDV. In this hyper-modern, futurist megacity, the number of cows bred, the volume of trees grown, in fact everything, is a variable to be toyed with.

In line with the story of the armour, the channels could be taken as once more distancing the capsule-dweller from what is given, and in as far as we equate the given and the real, from reality. In this scenario, the channels do not provide access to an environment that is simply there, they deliver stuff that has human-technical interference written all over it. Actually worse then the armour (which simply locks out reality), the channels provide the capsule-dweller with a semblance of the real. They bring him make-belief realities. Were we to follow this story-line through, we would end up in a hall of mirrors. For example: an image of a tree, or a pre-fabricated tree, that reaches a capsule-dweller is only an illusory memory of a real tree, that he has never encountered, and never will. The channels would then yield a story called 'Reality Lost' (à la Baudrillard).

But we can also back down and decide against dismissing channeled materials and messages as mere fakes. And instead take the blabber and blubber that races through channels as what the surroundings of the capsule-dweller are simply made of. Out of the channels, we can also pull a story of the engineered real. We then accept, rather straightforwardly, that the machinic processing of raw materials and information is what gives rise to the worlds of the capsule. From this standpoint, the story ‘Reality Lost' sounds more like an excuse for a capsule-dweller not to deal with the malleable environment he resides in. If you are more affirmative, you don't need this. We can now go along with the insight of the Hungarian-Brasilian design critic Vilem Flusser. According to him, whether things are artefactual or not is not the point in what he calls the age of design. The question is whether information and materials allow us to realize new forms. Do these trees, this street plan, make for a viable neighbourhood? Yes, no? Besides, tomorrow we can always build a different one.


And then you spot a leak. Either in the armour of the capsule, or in the channels, you notice some dirt seeping through, or the eye of an unexpected passer-by peering in. At this moment, the idea that these components would perform their functions flawlessly has become absurd. Armour and channels behave haphazardly, not infallibly. Something always leaks, Gilles Deleuze already said it (in his case, with regard to large bureaucratic structures), and so it must be with capsules. All systems, even the most hi-tech ultra ones, are in the end, porous.

Thus, if there is one thing you can count on, it is the occassional disruption of the regulatory tricks armour and channels are designed to perform. Which in turn implies that the story of the engineered real, is a bit of a fairy tale, really. That story paints a picture of smoothly running machines, generating impeccable products and spotless environments. It suggests that as a matter of course all disturbances are kept at bay. But after you' ve spotted a leak, you see this picture, as we now watch films from the Cold War period, with their rock-solid belief in shielding systems that to us are laughable. Take that '50 educational film of the U.S Department of Defense, which demonstrates how schoolkids should dive, duck and roll under their wooden classroom tables, in case of nuclear war. Once considered an effective protective measure, now plain daft. No wooden table, or any other capsular set-up, is ever going to keep out the perturbers that it is supposed to keep out.

To the scenario of the engineered real, the leaks reply with a story of the real as surprise, as recalcitrance. Here, real is what squeezes itself through armour or channels, contrary to our expectations of the usual. It is what defies ‘projected system performance'. Leaks may elicit a sigh of relief from the capsule-dweller who was hit by the side remark that the capsule so often works as a Do Not Disturb sign. When it comes to the ruthlessly exclusionist side there is to capsule-dwelling, leaks sure seem something to relish.

Kitchen Garden

Taking in the kitchen garden, a capsule-dwelling appears as a place of bricolage. With its strangely shaped crops that hesitantly stick their heads above the dark brown soil (still fresh from the plastic bags in which it arrived at the capsule), it is a perfect example of a fragile fabrication. The kitchen garden is assembled from heterogenous elements: seeds ordered from some place, gardening books, the soil from the plastic bags, and a sun lamp. It grows under all sorts of constraints: the capsule-dweller-temporarily-turned-gardener may be under time pressure. The light of the sun lamp may be too bright, so that it dries out the plants, if not filtered by some plastic, which hopefully is available from somewhere. In short, the kitchen garden is a clear case of handiwork. It makes the story of the engineered real further recedes into the background.

Here, its place is taken by a story of the tinkered real. ‘Engineering' suggests that there is a plan, that if rational and competent enough, is realized flawlessly, and will persist as the perfect form that it was designed to be. With ‘tinkering', on the other hand, there is a jumble of materials and plans, which do not fit together by themselves, but have to be creatively stuck together. What is more, tinkered set-ups need constant caring and mending: things can easily go wrong (as with the sun lamp). The French philosopher of science and technology Bruno Latour has claimed that not only things grown in homey set-ups such as a capsule-dwelling, but also those delivered by large-scale laboratories and industries, are the result of handiwork. And he should know, because he's been around in university labs and R & D departments, carefully observing the work done by the white shirts (scientists). So why not call the worlds disclosed to a capsule-dweller, composed as they are of lab- and other capsule products, ‘tinkered'? This scenario too, may comfort a capsule-dweller: it brings the processes in which reals come into being closer to his own bricolaged home.


That the real now turns out to be, not warded off, not lost, not engineered, but surprising and tinkered, however, does not exactly resolve the capsule-dweller's question, or perhaps better put, concern. True, a reality to be located beyond the selection processes that mediate between capsule and outside world, is not the point anymore. And yes, there is no longer question of the capsule-dweller being at the mercy of flawless regulatory mechanisms. We now have ‘reals' creatively put together by more or less homey capsules, and circulating among them in sometimes messy ways. But if the real comes to a capsule via the channels, then inevitably what is real is also a question of the organisation of the flows among capsules. The real now seems at least partly decided upon in processes of selecting and directing the flows. At all times a capsule-dweller may thus ask a second question: where are the gears located that control the flows? Are they placed outside the capsule-dwelling? (In that case, the capsule takes the form of a seedbed, in which a soaky human sits, ready to be ‘impregnated' with selected realities.) Or inside? (In which case we have the capsule as operations room, with a competent human inside, composing his reality of the day.)

Curious as he is, a capsule-dweller will soon figure out that this is rarely a matter of ‘either..or'. A capsule-habitat is never fully seedbed, never fully operations room. A spagetti-tangle of channels, among a whole constellation of capsules, geared-up in various ways, informs the flows that reach a capsule. And in this way our capsule-dweller has walked into a story of the distributed real. The gears tell a tale of realities coming into being in decentralized processes of filtering, editing, selecting and directing flows among capsules-to-tinker-in. Distributedness also means that it is practically undoable for a capsule-dweller to list all the locations that inform what is pumped into his home. He, for one, is already dealing with a wide array of sources: broadcasting networks, gardening centres, laboratories, friends, hardware industries. And in mapping out these suppliers, he has not even begun to gather what sources they in turn are tied to. Still the specific question may keep nagging: why do these images, why these seeds, reach me?

(Dish) Antennae

So a general question has yielded a specific one. What is real? has become Whàt distributed, tinkered real am I hooked-up on? In other words, where are my antennae pointed? No need to stress the point, a capsule-dwelling is very much a place for work/sleep/love/play, not just for asking complicated questions. Still, at those moment when a capsule-dweller is setting his antennae, the question of the real may come bubbling up. Asking: what's it gonna be, what channels are on todays menu? From the stories of the real that have passed in review a tactical consideration can be derived that may inform the settings of his antennae.

A capsule-dweller seems in a perfect position to favour ‘reals‘ that are, one, more tinkered and two, more distributed. With these type of reals, capsules of the homey type, such as his own, would have more of a role to play in their genesis, more so than with centrally coordinated, engineered reals. As to the tinkering, it may very well be that the products assembled in large-scale laboratories and industries are in the end the result of handiwork. The fact still is that in most cases they do not leave a lot of room for a capsule-dweller to do some tinkering of his own. Regardless of how much bricolage is going on in R & D departments, products still come out as engineered: ready-made. Capsules emitting products that are more overtly tinkered (things in which the seams still show), on the other hand, give a capsule-dweller more to do. As to distribution, it may very well be that the selection processes from which edited ‘reals' emerge, are essentially distributed. But a closer look at spagetti-mangles of channels often reveals large knots, crammed with gears. That is to say, they could be a lot more decentralized, and this too would give smaller, homey capsules a bigger part in the play. (The two points are of course related, a spagetti-mangle with fewer large knots means tinkering is going in more places.) Anyway, a capsule-dweller with the occassional tactical mind-set would set his antennae accordingly.

The capsule-dweller

In 1938 the American architect-designer, futurologist and allround visionary Buckminster Fuller dreamt about embryo's connected by a telecommunications network, which did not wish to come out of the womb until peace ruled on earth. Let's say we gave Fullers embryo's, who must still be lying in wait, an update on the current situation. What if we told them that network flows are today the crux of the matter when it comes to whatever rules on earth? We could try and convince them that many of the things that they, back in 1938, located ‘outside', such as peace, or reality, are now also decided upon in networks of capsules, not unlike wombs. Would they buy it, or would they say that's just a crazy idea, made up by a capsule-dweller who seeks a clever excuse for his ruthelessly escapist behaviour?

With thanks to Serge Onnen