Take Me To Church
The Audio Device As A Modern Reliquary
“The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials and comic-strip characters” –Roland Barthes
Barthes estimation of modern mass culture was prophetic; where we used to look to religion and other established mythologies for guidance and direction we now turn to the more modern fictional personas portrayed by celebrities, musicians, and brands. As conventional religion recedes into the background spirituality is being transferred from religious symbology to carefully crafted aspirational personas, and from religious relics and iconography to the consumer objects and logos which serve as their physical manifestations. This spirituality is tied intimately to how we negotiate our identity, influencing our interactions with others by affecting how we see them, how they see us, and how we perceive ourselves.
I see design as being tasked with codifying the aspirational qualities and messages which define a brand into form, creating (in the case of industrial design) the physical objects which negotiate meaning between individuals and the modern gods they advocate. These evocative objects reference the narrative of our favorite cultural producers and are our communion with that narrative, acting as a sort of modern reliquary for everything it (in our own estimation) embodies.
Music, the articulation of aspirations and the language of dreams, has always been an avenue for the communication of meaning, and recent technological advancements have made it possible to carry it with us everywhere or receive it from anywhere. Audio technology is the means to project the sublime power of music into our everyday lives, inspiring courage, tears, memories, or ecstasy on demand. The devices we choose to surround ourselves with are objects which serve as a conduit to a sort of modern spirit world.
Music is our connection to a spectacle self, larger than life this individual is the triumphant dopamine filled example we constantly aspire to, the one we think about as we drift off into unconsciousness and the one who greets us on its far side. This person defines and directs the course of our lives, existing in all the moments we remember forever.
Beats by Dre disrupted an industry by demonstrating that users are willing to pay far more than previously thought for audio devices; a product category that has gone under designed and under branded virtually since its inception. Is it really surprising that an object so central to myth making in the lives of its users has an incredible value proposition? This proposition is something that Beats understands and imbues in its devices deftly enough to control 70% of the headphones market. Beats did not do this through objectively superior technology but through a clear understanding of what audio meant to people. The Beats brand was able to achieve dominance through a very clear design language and fantastic marketing, both of which conveyed a strong and appealing message to consumers.
I think Beats understood that where we used to wear a cross, we now wear Jordans; where we once carried a bible, we now carry an iPod. The Beats pantheon includes a wide range of celebrities and personalities, its gospel is the messages of extremely popular artists, built on simple commandments (value propositions) like “Hear what you want.” People spend their whole lives looking for meaning and direction, Beats found it for them.
The audio equipment branded by our favorite cultural producers is our connection to a personal spectacle, and through its function we receive the sermons which define the sacred moments in our lives. I am interested in designing objects which make meaning and moderate identity in the lives of their users, a process in which music and its physical manifestations play a key role. Audio devices are modern day reliquaries of desire and aspiration, connecting us to all that we are and wish to be, with power of a religious artifact. I am fascinated by these objects because they connect us with our spectacle selves, and these in turn chart the course of our lives.