Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Swimming against the Tide: A Quest for Duration in Societies Whose Only Permanent Feature Is Change

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Swimming against the Tide: A Quest for Duration in Societies Whose Only Permanent Feature Is Change

Article excerpt

Design is inseparable from its age. But its role may also be to break away from the spirit of the age and herald a new era.

Two hundred years ago, the seemingly static pre-industrial world began to stir. Slowly at first, and then with growing speed, it embarked on an unstoppable quest for novelty. Right from the start, industrial design was one of the main driving forces behind this process of acceleration, for reasons that were both ethical (the new versus the old in the name of progress) and mercantile (the new replacing the old in the name of commerce). Design was both a product and a component of its time. How do things stand today?

It is often said that acceleration and transience are the defining features of our age. But today we wonder where all this speed is taking us. Perhaps design should swim against the tide and contribute to this questioning. Perhaps it should promote profundity and duration in what seems to be an increasingly superficial and constantly changing world. In other words, perhaps design should emphasize the "solid side" of a changing world.

Language pollution

Freed from its inertia, matter lends itself to unlimited transformation. The physical world no longer seems to be a solid vehicle for permanent meanings, but a constantly changing fluid. At the same time, progress in information technology and communications opens up a new dimension of human experience that is liberated not only from matter, but from the constraints of space and time. Even the certainties of memory are called into question by the greater possibilities of "fiction", of juggling with information and images to create a potentially infinite variety of "virtually real" pasts, presents and futures.

These developments are both fascinating and disturbing. We cannot yet fully gauge their human and social implications. The only thing we can really be sure of is that the changes under way are of far-reaching importance. New cultural instruments must be created to confront a phenomenon whose consequences will be mainly negative unless it is kept under control: We can already see this today. What ought to be communication, and therefore exchange, has led to a new form of isolation, and what ought to be information has become no more than background noise. We discover that words and images are products that are "consumed" and produce rubbish that eventually pollutes our language.

But matter that seemed to have dissolved in the ever-changing flow of information reappears elsewhere in our experience. The rubbish accumulated by our societies is matter that has again become dense and inert, trapped in its own heaviness and duration. It is used matter, stripped of its original meaning, that invades our space and our time as tangible evidence of the irreducible physicality of our environment. We discover that the fluid world of information and "fiction" needs powerful stage machinery in order to function, that all this machinery consumes and is consumed, and that it all forms a huge entropic system which uses resources and creates waste.

Nobody today would deny this obvious fact. We talk anxiously about "the environment problem", and ask ourselves questions about how to promote "sustainability", in other words about how to put an end to the war that the human race has more or less unwittingly declared on its environment. …

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