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Q: About Vilem Flusser ( Answered,   0 Comments )
Subject: About Vilem Flusser
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: doudesign-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 09 Nov 2002 23:20 PST
Expires: 09 Dec 2002 23:20 PST
Question ID: 104467

I need to write a brief pepper about Vilem Flusser. Specially, I want
to know about the essay subtitled "The Non-Thing"(p85~p94) in his book
"The Shape of thing - A Philosophy of design".
Can anyone explain what the essay about is and Flusser tries to say?
Since English is not my native language, some of the information that
I've found on the net was not easy to understand for me. So I ask it
Thank you.

Request for Question Clarification by bcguide-ga on 10 Nov 2002 05:12 PST
What is your native language? Perhaps we can find some links for you
that will be easier to understand.


Clarification of Question by doudesign-ga on 10 Nov 2002 12:49 PST
Hi  bcguide,
Thank you for your reply.

My native language is Korean. However, I do understand English, if
it's not written by very complicated style.

Thank you.
Subject: Re: About Vilem Flusser
Answered By: rbnn-ga on 14 Nov 2002 10:40 PST
If you have any questions please use "Request Clarification Button"
before rating the answer.

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to research this

I will try to keep this essay easy to understand.

I will divide the essay into these parts:

o About Vilem Flusser

o General remarks on the "Non-thing"

o Detailed analysis of "Non-thing" part 1

o Detailed analysis of "Non-thing" part 2

We will see, Flusser's ideas are important today. They are even more
true now, because of the Internet, than when he wrote them.

About Vilem Flusser
[All biographical information is taken from Introduction to The Shape
Of Things]

Vilem Flusser was born in 12 May, 1920 and died in 1991. He was born
in Prague, Czechoslavakia. He was a citizen of Brazil. He wrote mostly
in German. Some of his early writings were in Portugese.

His father was a mathematician, and his mother was an artist.

Prague was an exciting place to grow up. It had a lot of wealth and
activity. By 1935, Prague had a world-class collection of modern
buildings. There was much design work going on in Prague then. For
example: airplanes, architecture, arts.

In 1939, Flusser left Prague. Just in time, because he probably would
have been killed if he had stayed because of Hitler. He went to
England and then to Brazil. He stayed in South America for 30 years.

He learned Portuguese in the 1940s. He learned philosophy too. 

His first book was published in 1963: "Language and Reality". 

In his writings, he is concerned by the effect of technology on
people. He is also concerned by how technology changes people.

He is interested in etymology - the study of words. He often writes
about the original meaning of words. For example, in his essay "About
the Word Design" he writes that the word "design" comes from a Latin
word "signum" meaning sign. He discusses the history of the word
"design" in that essay.

His writings are full of humor and wordplay ("puns"). He is expert at
making the reader see old things in new ways. He writes about how
things that seem different really have connections between them.

General Remarks on The Non-Thing

These essasys are concerned with how the environment is changing, and
how people are changing too in response. We are going from a world of
things to a world of "non-things".

In the old days, people mostly lived in a world of physical objects.
Physical objects was what was important to people. Farmers worried
about their crops. Factory workers worried about the products they
made. Soldiers worried about their weapons.

In modern days, physical objects are less important. Objects that are
not physical instead affect people. These objects are things like:

 o A computer program.

 o A television show .

 o A message on a message board .

 o A question on google answers or on Usenet .

These objects are called "non-things" by Flusser. In these two essays
he describes the importance of "non-things" to people. His main point
is that our "environment" is not made up of physical objects any more.
Instead, it is made up of "non-things", of "information".

Now, this idea might seem see obvious in the age of the internet. But
it was very wise of Flusser to observe how important "information" was
so long ago, and how it changed culture. Flusser would be fascinated
by non-things like the Google Answers message board and the "society"
of people on that board. He would be very interested in how people are
changed because we just sit and type on a keyboard and watch words on
a screen.

I will now describe the essay in detail.

Non-Thing part 1

[p. 85] "Until recently our environment consisted of things..." In
this paragraph, Flusser talks about how we used to think of the
environment as consisting of "things", that is "houses, furniture,
machines, clothing" and so on. He points out that there are still
"grey areas" in discussion these things ("what is the exact definition
of Poland"). Despite such grey areas, things were still, physical
objects and we lived in a world of physical objects.

"it was rather cosy living in a world of things..." In this paragraph,
Flusser introduces one of his funny wordplay ideas (about death). He
begins by sayin, in the old days, life was simple. People lived their
lives. They were moving along the paths of their lives. Sometimes
there were problems to be solved: harvesting a crop, building an
automobile, building a house. Solving these problems is what people

"Unfortunately this has changed". 
No longer do we have these concrete problems that we can handle.
Instead, our environment is made up mostly of non-things, or
[Let us call this claim CLAIM 1].

Flusser uses some etymology here: he writes "information" as "in
formation" and observes that there is some "information" in
everything. He brings up an objection to CLAIM 1. The objection is:
information has ALWAYS been all around us. All things contain
information, is the objection (OBJECTION 1).

In the next paragraph, Flusser shows OBJECTION 1 is incorrect. His
CLAIM 2 is that the information we have now is not associated with a
physical thing. It is instead stuff like pictures on a TV screen,
computer programs, and so on. "Software", written "soft ware" for
"things that are not made up of physical matter". (The word "ware"
means basically a "thing").  This is different from the kind of
information that OBJECTION 1 describes.

Now he imagines another interesting objection to CLAIM 2. This new
objection is this: even software is really a "thing" because it is
written onto some physical thing. For example, a computer program is
written onto a physical thing: a computer chip. A TV program is
"written" using laser beams. Let us call this objection OBJECTION 2.

Let me point out that OBJECTION 2 and CLAIM 2 are very interesting. In
the United States, for a long time software algorithms could not be
patented. Only their "hardware implementation" could be patented.
Often one still can read patents about software that talk about the
physical computer that the software runs on. So you see, the tension
between CLAIM 2 and OBJECTION 2 is still very important.

Flusser disagrees with OBJECTION 2 because the believes that the
hardware is less important than the software it is used to display.
His key line is:

"The vestiges of materiality still adhering to these non-things can be
discounted by looking at the new environment". That is, "If we
consider the new environment in which non-things are increasingly
important, we see that these hardware parts of a software system
(laser beams for a video monitor; computer chip for a computer
program) are less important.

He believes "The environment is becoming ever softer...more like a

By the way, this philosophy is used in the beautiful novel NEUROMANCER
by William Gibson. This author also was interested in how our
environment is made up of information. In that novel, the characters
essentially could choose to live in a world of "virtual reality". In
the science fiction of Greg Egan, such as his novel Diaspora, the main
characters actually are computer programs. So you see, the ideas of
Flusser are very influential.

In the next paragraph, Flusser talks about we are all becoming more
and more concerned only with information, whether we realize it or
not. He also makes some links to economics. He points out that more
and more people produce "information" only, and fewer and fewer
produce "physical things".

He is very interested in the effect of this. His sentence beginning
"Bourgeois morality based on things:" shows that he is interested that
concepts of ethics and of morality will change as well in this new

In the next paragraph, Flusser raises a new objection (OBJECTION 3).
What about all the junk (junk mail, pens, lighters, disposable cans,
and so on) we use in our daily lives now? Does this not prove that
things are still very important?

(If you ever look in a computer scientist's office, his office is
still probably very very messy. It can still be full of junk, even
though he is only writing "non-things" these computer software

Flusser's reply (CLAIM 3) to OBJECTION 3 is that this junk is not the
same as "things" because it is not important to us. The "junk" is not
important, it is the information which is important. He points out
that people with control of information are controlling the society.
This again shows that information is more important than "things".

In the remainder of the essay, Flusser starts to try and predict what
will happen in the future in the new "information society". He asks
"What will a human being be like who is not concerned with things, but
with information". As a computer scientist, this is an important
question to me!

To answer this question, Flusser looks for a similar event he can
compare the current big change in society to. When else did society
have such a big and important change?

The answer is: The Industrial Revolution. Society also had a big
change in what people considered important then. Before the Industrial
Revolution, people thought that living things were the most important:
cows, horses, farmers, carpenters, and so on. After the Industrial
Revolution, however, people began to be more concerned with machines
and the things made by machines. He points out that this change made a
huge difference in people.

What can we learn from the lesson of the Industrial Revolution, asks
Flusser in the next paragraph? The answer is: we should accept that
sometimes societies do make such big changes. We should accept this.
We should realize that perhaps our previous focus on "things" was not
that great, that one can have a lot of material goods and still be
unhappy. We should try and imagine our new life where information is
what is important and not things.

Now we come to the last paragraph of "The Non-thing 1". 

Flusser talks about how there will be a "new human being". This is the
"child of the information age". The new human being will be
comfortable in this environment of information. He will not handle
things; he will not view  physical objects as most important. Instead,
the new human being will use keyboards to write things. (Like what I
am doing now).

Have you ever wondered why people are more interested in a movie about
space travel than in NASA itself? Flusser explains this here by saying
the new human being does not want to "have" things, or to "do" things.
Instead, the new human being is mostly interested in enjoyment and
information. This enjoyment and information is provided just as well
by a movie about space travel as by actual space travel, for example.

Finally, we come back to the beginning of the essay. In the beginning
of the essay, Flusser stated about how life used to be like a road we
traveled on, meeting challenges and overcoming them. In the new life,
these challenges are just like computer programs. Even though many
things have changed from the old life where things were important to
the new life where information is important, one thing stays the same.
We still travel through life to death, meeting different challenges,
then dying.

The Non-thing 2

This is the second part of Flusser's essay on "non-things" or
"information". This part of the essay is not as serious as the first
part. Flusser is having some fun here, and I will not be as detailed
in its analysis.

The topic of this part is 

The first paragraph discusses the importance of hands to people.
Flusser observes "It is the hand with its opposable thumb that
characterizes human existence in the world". Hands do not only hold
things. Hands also change the things that they hold. For example, a
sculptor can make a bowl out of clay. More generally, a builder can
make a house out of raw materials, and so on.

Flusser first divides things into two parts: the "raw material" and
the "finished product", which he calls "nature" and "culture". For
example, a forest would be "nature". A house built from trees in the
forest would be "culture". He observes however, that there is a third
part: wasted. After we use things for a long time, they become useless
and thrown away. They become junk or trash.

He observes that fields like ecology and archaeology are concerned
with these "waste products": for the results of what is created after
its usefulness is gone. Eventually these waste products return to

The next paragraph introduces again the topic of non-things.
Non-things do not produce waste (I think he wrote this before junk
email was common). They cannot be held in one's hand.

The next paragraph introduces examples of non-things, like the memory
of a computer or a software program. He observes
"The things around us are getting smaller and cheaper, and the
non-things around us are getting bigger". That is, hardware is getting
less important, but software is getting more important.

The next paragraph observes that "hands", which used to be very
important and useful, cannot hold these non-things. So they are not
too useful. Physical labor can now be done by machines, so that much
work is not needed any more.

The next paragraph observes that hands are not totally useless even in
this new environment filled with non-things. Even though we cannot
"hold" a software program, we can manipulate a software program using
a keyboard. So the "fingertips" in a hand are now useful, because the
fingertips are what controls the keyboard. "The human being in the
future without things will exist by means of his fingertips".

Flusser would probably disagree with a recent decision of the U.S.
Supreme Court. In that case (Toyota v. Williams) a woman was not able
to type because she had repetitive stress syndrome. But the Supreme
Court ruled she could still handle "things"  - she could still do
household chores, bathing, brusing her teeth. So the Supreme court
said she was not disabled. Flusser would say: in the old society, she
was not disabled. But in the new society, she cannot handle
"non-things" so she should be considered disabled.

The next paragraph of the essay gives examples of how important
fingertips are. The President of the U.S. can launch a bomb using
fingertips, for example.

In his next paragraph, Flusser talks about how really it is the
programs in the machines that are controlling things. For example,
when I type something, a complex software program translates that into
images on the screen.

In his next paragraph, Flusser begins by suggesting that (CLAIM 4)
"the society of the future without things will be divided into two
classes: those programming and those programmed".

But he rejects CLAIM 4 with his OBJECTION 4: One can think of a person
typing into a computer as being only part of the computer system
itself. Part of the word-processing system he is using. Imagine that
this person is writing a program, say another word-processor to be
used by someone else. Then the first person is a "programmer" in one
sense, because he is writing a program, and a "program" in another
sense, because he is acting as part of an existing word-processing

In a message-board setting like Google Answers, we are all programmers
in a sense, and we are all part of the big Google Answers programs in
another sense. "The society of the future without things will be
classless, a society of programmers who are programmed".

Flusser as always is interested in the effect of this on morality.
Isn't this a kind of totaliarianism, he asks? If everyone is being
programmed, how can we be free?

His next paragraph points out that if it is totalitarianism, it is not
so bad. At least the programs themselves are getting better. They are
so powerful now that one gets "the impression [one is] making
completely free decisions" because one cannot exhaust the limits of
the programs. In reality though, we will just be acting as part of a
large program.

Have you watched someone surfing the web? As they click around the
web, they seem to have infinite possibilities. But they are just part
of the whole "web" program (rather the web browser/internet/web-server

In his conclusion, Flusser points out that this new society might be
the kind of perfect society we used to want. No work, not having to do
manual labor, a lot of freedom. He does not come to a firm conclusion

Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams. Decided
January 8, 2002.

"Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome a Disability?"

Diaspora: A Novel. By Greg Egan. Harper Prism, November 1999.

Neuromancer. By William Gibson. Ace Books, 1984.

The Shape Of Things: A Philosophy of Design. By Vilem Flusser
(translated from the German by Anthony Mathews). Reaktion Books Ltd,
London, 1999. Introduction by Martin Pawley.

"The Non-Thing 1", in The Shape of Things, p. 85-89.

"The Non-Thing 2", in The Shape of Things, p. 90-94.

[Additional writings, including a long bibliography of links, and a
bibliography of writings. Unfortunately, almost none of the links are
in English].
Writings, by Vilem Flusser. (Andreas Strohl, editor; Translated by
Erik Eisel). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002.

Links about Flusser:
Few if any good links are in English. It is possible to use google's
translation feature to get translations of some German pages. For
example, a translation of the "Flusser online site:"

is here:

Most of the translation does not make sense, but the translation of
the biography is OK:

Another site:

Unfortunately, the discussions of Flusser's theories on the web just
don't translate well. For example, the German paper:
"Die technischen Bilder: Zur Theorie von Vilem Flusser" at
is translated here:
. However, the translation is incomprehensible.

I was not able to find good English-language Flusser websites.
There are no comments at this time.

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