Is Design In Its Golden Age, or a Midlife Crisis?
The media states this is the golden age of design. But is it actually a midlife crisis? This era of design sees the global population with heads bent, focused on the screens in their hand and oblivious to genuine human interaction.
In a shared cab ride to O’Hare with Cameron Campbell, the Director of Digital Strategy at Digital Kitchen and one of the organizers of the ReDesign Conference, I mentioned to her that I thought it was an extraordinary time to be a creative artist in our business because only artists can decode the data we are amassing – only artists can break through the enormous clutter – and only artists can make meaning.
When I received the ReDesign Conference theme – Golden Age or Midlife Crisis: Creating Context in a World that is Focused on the Small Screen, I had just read Atul Gawande’s New Yorker postscript to Oliver Sacks' life. Gawande spoke of his last conversation with Sacks where Sacks expressed his distain for social media – how it absorbs people to the exclusion of everything else. Sacks asked if Gawande had read EM Forster’s The Machine Stops. The story is extraordinary – it describes a world in which human beings no longer live on the surface of the earth. Rather, each now lives in isolation, below the ground in a cell, with all their physical, intellectual and eventually spiritual needs met by an omnipotent Machine. People dread direct experience and completely depend on screens and instant messages to communicate. Early in the story, a boy sees what is missing and contacts his mother on the other side of the world. He says: “the Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you, but I do not see you. I hear someone like you, but I do not hear you. That’s why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so we can speak face-to-face and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”
This exchange is so profound – so simple – so direct, and so surprising when you realize that Forster wrote the story in 1909. I cannot imagine a more chilling metaphor for our screen addiction. There is no essay about the dangers of the internet as powerful as this story. And yet, if you read the story, Forster has given us the solution – you must go outside...
When we live by the rhythm of screens, our lives can be stripped of symbolism and expression – of humanity. Or they can be enriched by the ability to see and know more than any prior generation. But is our excessive search for total knowledge leading to delusion? Are our mediated connections becoming more real and intimate than face-to-face? Information is suffocating us. There is much too much of it. This excess – if it lacks meaning, soul and metaphor – has no value. And so with these devices and applications, we struggle to experience the original: the subject or object or the dopamine rush of our original experiences.
Technological progress affects society, our systems of signification and meaning. Who can make sense of it all – as a prophet, as anthropologist and as translator? My answer would be artists. And when I say artists, I also include extraordinary designers.
We live in an age where technology is mediating all our experiences, and the responsibility for symbol makers is enormous. Symbols facilitate sense making in the world in which we live – they serve as the grounds upon which we make judgments. They are characterized by rich meanings that are multiple, fluid, diverse, layered, complex, and predicated on metaphorical associations that assert connection.
Culture, itself, is based on symbols. Without it, communication would be impossible. It is basic to the construction and conveyance of gender, ethnicity, and identity. It is the primary way humans create meaning, classify knowledge, express emotion, and share experiences in society. The innate gifts of artists mean that they cannot become alienated from the soul of our culture.
Great artists, symbol makers, and designers are not only witnesses to the spirit of their age but also prophets at the same time. Often, they unwittingly give us insight and imagery with which to cope with the enormous changes and challenges the modern world throws at us. These decoders don’t need to be accepted by their times; they rarely are. The shining of light onto the outer world is our task whether the world is experiences or mediated. This task is harder in the mediated world and therefore so much more essential.