Armchair Philosophy

Friday, January 29, 2016 · 4 min read

The IKEA Poäng is perhaps the company’s most comfortable and best-named product: a chic, springy twist to the classic light armchair. The Poäng comes in five or six different color schemes: generally variations on white, beige, red, and coffee.

But what if it didn’t?

Let’s imagine an alternate universe, where the Poäng is advertised as a medium of expression. Let’s imagine a world where the Poäng seat covers are made of dye-able canvas. A world where customers are encouraged to decorate their armchairs to reflect their own personalities.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, uh, let’s see what happens. I present to you an allegory in twelve parts.

January. The concept is first revealed during the keynote at the IKEA Worldwide Developers Conference. The Twitterverse explodes. The New York Times says, “What a time to be alive!”.

February. IKEA sells out within the first 24 hours of sales; customers waiting in line report being “disappointed, but contently stuffed with meatballs”. Television commercials begin to feature contemporary artists decorating their Poängs. There are rumors of AMC Theaters planning to license Poängs for their cinemas. BuzzFeed publishes ten of their best Poäng-assembling tips and tricks (you won’t believe #4).

March. Almost everyone now owns a Poäng. A dark blue Poäng with the Presidential Seal is spotted in the White House.

April. One’s Poäng-decoration becomes a profound statement of his or her identity. After all, an armchair is where you spend some of your most important hours. Reading, chatting, watching TV: these are all best done from a familiar environment that should be optimized for your lifestyle.

A Berkeley establishment begins to sell tie-dyed Poäng covers.

May. Genres emerge.

There are the loud, skeuomorphic Poängs with too much color and design. These generally belong to young children who decorate their Poängs in Crayola colors.

Then there are the average adults, who choose the most suburban colors they can find. Navy blue? Perfect. Olive green? Sounds like home.

Finally, there are the artistic adults, who go for a more refined look. They pick neutral but subtle color schemes with tasteful accents.

June. The Average Adults realize that their Poängs look outmoded compared to the beautiful Poängs of the Artistic Adults. Pastel colors are the “in” thing, according to several popular Poäng-centered Instagram accounts.

July. The development of Poäng plugins spawns a new industry. Embedded hardware for Poäng covers becomes cheap, resulting in increasingly sophisticated Poängs.

August. The genres begin to homogenize into something the Chair Gurus call the “material design revolution”. A combination of color palettes and design guidelines assembled by experienced superstar designers guides every new Poäng design.

An NPR survey reveals that while over 40% of the US population owns a Poäng, only 12% of Poäng-owners report sitting in their armchairs regularly.

September. IKEA begins selling readymade Poängs designed painstakingly by expert designers and artists. They even deliver it—assembled—to your doorstep. Most people choose to buy the readymade Poängs because they are low-maintenance and don’t require as much effort to set up. They are also stunningly beautiful, and the experienced designers probably took care of a lot of corner-cases that you, as an amateur, wouldn’t really think of.

October. Hand-decorated Poängs begin to look passé. Many of them lack essential armchair features such as cupholders and localization settings. They also ignore common best practices in the industry. Marketing professionals say that hand-decorated Poängs are a poor business choice for furnishing your waiting room because they “project an outdated look to potential customers”.

“Don’t roll your own paint,” preaches one blog post that tops Hacker News.

Google publishes a framework to develop apps for the front end of Poängs. They call it PoAngularJS. The average chair now weighs significantly more than the average American.

November. IKEA sells one kind of Poäng now. Customers have occasional problems with them, but you can find workarounds online. Besides, everything else is so user-friendly. It’s really just a couple little things that bother you, like the Wi-Fi crashing every once in a while.

Very few hand-decorated Poängs exist, mostly in educational institutions. Old people complain that “see, them chairs had character in them”, but they’ve been saying that for centuries.

December. IKEA discontinues the Poäng. Usage of armchairs is deprecated in favor of the “one-person couch”, which is a remarkable new piece of technology destined to revolutionize the way we think about sitting.

Nobody really remembers how to put together an old-fashioned armchair (just like they don’t remember how to build a gramophone). Some engineers work together to build their own version of the Poäng called the LibreChair. However, it is only used by hardcore carpentry enthusiasts since the manual is twelve pages long and building it requires you to weave your own cloth.

Epilogue. Let’s talk about customization. The etymology of the word custom can be traced to the Latin consuetudo, which means “habit”. But it means more than “habit”. It means “experience”, “tradition”, “convention”, “familiarity”, “companionship”, “conversation”… even “love affair”.

And it’s this dichotomy between the individual and the communal that makes the idea of “customization” (which is so central to hackerdom) paradoxical. Our identity is as much our own as not; we forfeit our identity to others.

There’s something to be said about having a fortress of solitude. A world which you control, which you make your own with endless tweaks towards your ideals of perfection. Programmers don’t need to carve their fortresses out of rocky cliffs; they can find solace in editors, shells, browsers, and personal websites.

The key is in customization.

Yet even though we spend hours making our tools “our own” with color schemes, macros, and key bindings, we still choose to publish our dotfiles as open-source “projects” on Github. We scarcely bother to read the original documentation of our software, choosing instead to search for solutions written already on StackOverflow. We happily hand over our content to the corporate Cerberus that calls itself Medium. We choose to adhere to style guides written by people who are not us. We foist upon others screenshots of artistically themed editors, that are no better than gilded toothbrushes. We steal boilerplate and eye-candy from others, believing somehow that we’re doing ourselves favors.

It’s foreign, it’s homogeneous, it’s both beautiful and sickening: like a fortress made of cotton candy.

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