I wrote a post on Horizons of Significance borrowing a title from Dark Mountain, What do we do after we stop pretending? I find this a most powerful question, the one question that cuts to the heart of where we are today and points to what we need to work at resolving.
We’re surrounded by a frenzy of activity, even as “externalities” catch up with economics and evidence mounts that none of the old ways will work for much longer, we see busyness all about. We who see ourselves in part or in whole as designers, tend to want to be given more responsibility for the why, the how and the when of human ingenuity’s expressions. We tend to chafe that engineers are brought in to do not only their work, but ours; and that when it comes to the more refined questions of visual expression, everybody’s got an opinion, and our, as we see it, more developed and experienced take is not given its due.
It appears at this point that this dynamic of professional self-pity is only the way this, our profession, attempts to metabolize the wider predicament I’ve termed the Crisis of Expertise.
This brings us to today’s point. As designers, at least as people who’ve put thought, training, experience and passion into questions of how decisions of utility, aesthetics and performance come together; what would we be doing if we stopped pretending?
The broadest way to look at this question is to counter the extreme irrelevancy of so much economic activity and ask how the remains of this brief moment of cheap energy, global communication, and highly trained population can be put to work creating artifacts that will have lasting value long after this bubble has burst. While all around us irreplaceable treasure is being squandered on ephemera, like highway bridges, airliners, container-ports; all with about twenty-year life-spans – filling “needs” that won’t be feasible within that time and using up a never to be repeated opportunity to take energy out of the ground to power a large infrastructure that creates lasting effects on the physical fabric of our world. Even more effort is expended on another even wider expanse of even shorter duration ephemera, like electronics and fashion – and housing.
That’s right, what now passes as the “product” of the “Housing Industry” are artifacts that for the most part have useful life-spans of well under ten years. They are sited and deployed as units within a Zombieconomy that will probably not even outlast their pitiful durability as livable structures. The phenomena, suburban America, which Kunstler calls the Greatest Misapplication of Wealth in History, will this be our legacy?
So, what do we do, if we start to design like we had stopped pretending? Once we begin to look at the question, and admit that this is probably the most important task we could take on at this point, it appears to open our eyes to a world of possibilities. It also requires a quick ramp-up in our understanding of what long-term viability might really entail. It will also require the adoption of a discipline, an approach, to build up a mastery of the self and of one’s abilities to actually affect reality as opposed to living under the delusions of Control and our constant diversions into fantasy and wish-fulfillment.
This process requires us to give up “Hope” along with “Optimism” and “Pessimism” both. It also sidesteps ideology, no preconceived notion of “How the World Works” can ever lead to a “Program” that will “Solve” our “Problems.” Even before the alphabet of various ideologies began to melt-down into the absurdity we see passing as public life today, they were doomed to fail because that is Not “How the World Works!” Giving up on these “mainstays” requires a process of self-development. In the end, this process liberates us from the binds, single, double and multiple, that constrain us and hold us within the thrall of a paralytic fear hiding beneath an uneasy apathy.
Facing reality, stripping away the rationalizations and the cultural taboos that protect them, is a difficult process, but not only necessary, it’s rewarding. We begin to see how our personal truths – the truths we find for ourselves, not the pablum imposed on us to keep us in line – begin to find their ways to expression and take us to a place where notions of certainty are not tied to excessive egotism, but to a deep awareness of the limits to human power. Stripping away Utopian and Dystopian fantasy ultimately leaves us cleaned out and ready to do what can be done.
Here’s a very practical design/engineering question that could have a tremendous legacy for the long-range future. “What will people live in after civilization?” “What can we do today, to “Seed” the Earth with “Structures” that just might have useful lifespans as long as the pyramids have existed?”
The pyramids are an interesting parallel. These early products of civilization concentrated and exploited the life-blood of a whole region to create structures that have lasted four thousand years. But what utility have they ever provided? At the time, they were the contemporaneous expression of civilization’s Death Wish. They dramatized the Ancient Egyptian’s Cult of Immortality, one of the earliest of civilization’s fixations of ignoring the reality of living beings upon this Earth for a fantasy of “Life Everlasting.” These structures abide, but they have done nothing – save to serve as quarries – to help sustain life over all this time.
The “Space Program” is a recent example of a similar activity. It’s been said that a moon-shot used comparable energy to the building of a pyramid just in rocket-propellant. Done under the broad auspices of the same underlying Death Wish and Cult of Immortality expressed in physical artifacts and activities, it has also done surprisingly little that will be looked back upon in a thousand years as having done any good for sustaining life in the long-haul.
What if the tiniest fraction of the coming decade’s human activity were to be devoted to creating structures that just might be of use five hundred, or a thousand years from now?
This question throws current “Economic Realities” on their head. It, along with a myriad of related questions, opens us up to a view of our strengths and how we can devote our lives to something positive with lasting benefit. It will also open us up to the broad gulf of humility as we begin to explore how little we can do to control outcomes once we stop fantasizing and limit ourselves to activities that have some sober chance of actually doing good. We will begin to see how so much of what passes for striving for gain is actually counterproductive. We begin to see not only our insignificance when trying to create lasting structures, but how important it is to put our attentions onto living the life we have today as if it mattered.