25 December 2015
My blog is, mostly, about design in some form or another.
To many this post might not seem to be about design. It might seem to be about the environment and ecology with some loose links to how technology has shaped our view, treatment and position of it.
To an extent you’ll be right. There won’t be much written here specifically about design.
However — what I’m writing about here are some of the greatest problems that I see our world facing at the moment. These are deep, complex problems that are proving exceptionally difficult to solve.
My writing this post isn’t going to even scratch the surface of finding a solution. But I do know that these issues are already affecting us and will continue to do so — with greater strengths — in the coming years.
I want to be able to use the skills I have, as a designer, to make change for the better — no matter how small that impact might be. To do good design, you need to understand the problem. This post is a small step for me to help shape the problem and look at specific aspects and begin thinking about how I can contribute towards a solution.
As much as it isn’t about design for most people reading. For me, writing, it’s very much about design.
We are the first generation in 100,00 generations of human evolution to have our lives shaped — not by nature — but by an electronic mass media environment of our own making.
Like caged animals we have lost our bearings. Our attention spans are flickering near zero, our imaginations are giving out, and we are unable to remember the past.
Doug Tompkins — sign hung in the front office of Pumalin Park in Chile
We’re told technology empowers us. And it has. But there’s a growing list of movements that suggest we’ve reached peak empowerment. For everything it has given us — it has begun to erode some of our human spirit.
Technology automates, organises, streamlines, communicates, simplifies and much more. It takes the disorganised and brings order. For so long we had so much disorder in the world that losing bits of it seemed a good thing. And while there is plenty of disorder left — in most cases there’s a technological buffer between us and it.
Our ecosystem is built on a process of carefully balanced chaos. Life and death form a symbiotic relationship. Plants and animals die, rot and feed other levels in the ecosystem on a big self-sustaining cycle.
As humans we have evolved as part of this ecosystem. Not always a particularly positive component — we’ve always been good at overhunting, damming and disrupting the natural balance. But before technological help — there was still a big chunk of uncertainty in our lives. Our ancestors were good hunters, but to feed the whole village meant a big expedition to hunt big game. There was always the risk of serious injury, or worse, during the hunt when bringing down dangerous beasts with spears and bow and arrow.
Mentally and physically we have evolved for this. Not many of us would want to go back to that way of living. But we do have an innate desire to experience the thrill of placing ourselves in a dangerous situation.
One of my favourite reads of 2015 was Feral by George Monbiot. In it he talks about how ‘over management’ of our landscape is detrimental. Our picturesque landscapes of green fields and livestock, or forests managed by well intentioned forestry commissions, have removed the essential ‘wilderness’ from our natural world. Dead trees are removed rather than being allowed to lie where they fell and provide an ecosystem for insects and small mammals. Fields are carefully protected as grass fields, despite the fact allowing more trees to grow across farm and moorland would help prevent water runoff and flooding, collect more carbon dioxide and provide greater diversity for a bigger variety of species.
These aren’t specifically caused by technology — but technology has allowed us to indulge in this over management.
In Feral, Monbiot shows a growing movement towards rewilding. Allowing the countryside to self manage itself. The re-introduction of previously native keystone species such as beavers and wolves (in the UK) which also rebalance the food chain and promote biodiversity.
What Monbiot also demonstrates though is not just a benefit in rewilding of the countryside — but a rewilding of our own lives. He talks about feeling trapped by technology While it offers us so much — including a safety net to do more extreme activities — the safety net often goes too far. Embracing some physical danger is good for us. Physically and mentally it established an equilibrium between our digital lives and our palaeolithic selves.
This is the part of the book that particularly struck a chord with me. I’m no great adventurer — but over the years I’ve done a lot of cycling and it’s the rides that have seemed the most unpleasant at the time, where I’ve been soaking wet, freezing cold, dehydrated and in the middle of nowhere or feeling too tired to make it over the next hill — these are the rides I have ultimately enjoyed the most. Sometime’s it’s intensely rewarding to go out and meet the man with the hammer. It’s not fun, but that’s kind of the point. It gives you a feeling of invincibility.
On a micro scale it’s easy to see how technology is being used to help individuals become re-attached with nature. Some people utilise technologies to make it possible for them to lead simpler, more self-sufficient, lives. Technology makes it possible for them to communicate, or introduce certain efficiencies or utilise some energy sources that make this lifestyle choice more practical. Or other people use technology to monitor their environment and physical activity when they’re pursuing an activity outdoors. When they get back they can monitor, publish and review their activities — and use technology to push them on to more extreme athletic feats next time.
And there’s, no doubt, many more such examples. But all on a very micro scale. They’re fantastic and disruptive within their specific market segment — but they’re not going to revolutionise the relationship with technology our whole species has.
This is not to say there’s going to be a sudden shift away from the technology we currently have. But I think there is a new demand emerging for a new type of technology. Arguably it’s a demand that doesn’t need to be solved with technology — but I can’t help feel it will, ironically, be best solved with it.
Americans have been polled annually since the end of WWII to determine their state of happiness. Somewhere in the 1950s happiness peaked — and despite all the wonders new technologies have released (and there really has been a lot since 1945), our happiness has not improved. You could argue that happiness levels would have dropped anyway — any it’s only technology that has really stopped happiness levels hitting rock bottom — but I don’t think any of us believe that do we?
Whilst we wouldn’t be without it — happiness has sapped us of something. I have started to think if the reason we continue with more and more technological innovation is because we can’t believe it isn’t making us happier. So much technology is so good — it’s hard to believe it’s not improving our quality of life.
Yet, somehow, it does appear to be making us less happy.
In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly discusses his views on the future of technology. Kelly believes we will reach singularity with technology. Technology and human life will become inseparable.
Kelly is not alone in his beliefs on this and while I’d certainly not bet the house against him being right — I’m not wholly convinced about it myself. Essentially for 2 reasons:
1. I’m a bit pessimistic about the future for our species and the rapidly appearing effects of climate change. I tend to think the rapid technological development we’ve seen will falter before any singularity is reached.
2. I still think our human spirit is more closely tied to nature than we think it is. We’ve seen that technology is not making us happier — but we keep thinking the next innovation, then then next then the next will turn this around. I think though it shows that there is something other that powers us as humans. This is no spiritual ideology — I’m a resolute atheist with no real time for spirituality — but I have come to believe that through evolution the human species has developed a close tie with nature that is more important (imperative even) that we understand and we need to regain some equilibrium.
Technically I believe a singularity could happen — and if it happens I’m sure it won’t be the end of the human race. But the next step in our evolution and one that I struggle to identify with or aspire too. It reminds me too much of the Matrix, where humans were led to believe they were leaving a fulfilling life — but actually living as batteries for the robots. Some humans were happy to accept the fiction, it was easier than the real world alternative. But the heroes of the story fight against the Matrix and seek to regain a true human experience outside of an entirely digital world.
We’ve used technology to insulate ourselves massively from the dangers and uncertainties of the natural world and I think we’re starting to realise it’s also insulating us from some innate human spirit. As a result we’re lacking something in our lives that is resulting in increased stress and mental health issues.
And now we want to break out. We’ve built up such a controlled technological ecosystem around us — it might well be that we need technology to find spaces within it where we can be wild again and regain a taste for disorder. The growing cultural interest in self-sufficiency, woodcraft, people choosing to live out in the wild or go on digital-detoxs shows there is a growing demand for better engagement with real nature, free from technological barriers.