Sketches of the Shape of Time

Published:  February 12, 2013
Daniel Neville
Sketches of the Shape of Time

How do we talk about The Future when by most standards we’re already living in it? When we’ve been here for over a decade and we still don’t know when we, or It, will arrive. The Now might look and feel different than the future we’ve been promised, but it’s here nonetheless.

So far, the early years of the 21st century has been weirder than any of us imagined, and it’s only going to get weirder (especially if any of the ideas presented in this issue have anything to do with it). You can’t really look around and articulate the march of progress anymore. Things don’t move along in a linear direction like they used to, like they damn well should. There might be pockets of good old fashioned progress and futurity here and there, but on the whole we’re bouncing around and we don’t really know what’s going on. We’re not moving forward into a brighter future, we’re stumbling around in all directions, pushing and prodding at various strands, giving us the eternal Now, composed of many different futures. It’s not that we’ve lost the will to move forward, it’s that we’re moving in too many directions to form a cohesive narrative of time and direction. We used to move through time like we do turning the pages of a book, moving from one page to the next. Now we click and tap our way through it, constantly opening up new tabs and moving through divergent streams. I’m here to tell you that not only is that a good thing, but we as designers are well suited to imagining these futures. Thinking about and living in the near future is how we operate on a daily basis.

A report by the Royal College of the Art in 1979 described the central concern of Design as “the conception and realisation of new things” and at it’s core is the “language of modelling”. It is these two concerns that enable us to always be living in the tomorrow.

Let’s just unpack that for a second and explore what it is about those two concerns that make us so adept at seeing into the future. Every time we start a new project we’re thinking about something that doesn’t exist yet and trying to see if it can work. Every pen stroke of every sketch is an exploration in a future world. We look just past the horizon because we need to see how our ideas will work in the world of tomorrow. To see how it will interact, to see if it will survive. Some of them do, and some of them don’t. But we need to create as many possible ideas for as many possible futures for any of them to survive. So we create prototypes to see how they’ll operate in a world that is ever so slightly different than the one we’re in now. We imagine scenarios and test them out, injecting our work into all manner of possibilities and seeing if need to shift or prod things to make them work.

By working this way we hopefully we nudge the world in a positive direction. This normative way of working – towards the way things ought to be, not how they are – is the whole point of design. It’s the reason we question the client, change the brief, work late, or even just kern that text a bit more. Because to us, all of these shifts make the world a slightly better and more readable place.

Alan Kay stated that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”; each time we set pencil to paper, shift a Bézier curve, tweak some code, we’re inventing the future. We’re all doing our bit to move ourselves into the future, to create as many possible futures that didn’t exist before. To spread the timeline out into as many possible directions as possible. The central concerns of Design suits the world we live in now.

To understand the multiple timelines that we all live in now, we have to go back a bit and look at how we used to understand time. More importantly, we need to look at how progress was tightly coupled to the notion of futurity and why we’ve collectively lost that correlation.

The March of Progress used to be a super important ideal. It’s one of the great things that the Enlightenment era gave us, and that carried over into Modernism. The Future was something to look forward to, that it would be better than the past. We were always moving forward and improving the standard of living for the human race. If we just put one foot in front of the next and keep at it, things would get better. And we kept walking and things did improve. Then Modernism had to shoot itself in the foot and make grand plans that couldn’t be carried through. Projects that didn’t exactly suit the human and very messy way of living and ideals that only suited a select group of people. So then we go and blow it up and watch brick after brick of glorious Modernism come tumbling down and what we’re left with is decades of doubt, pastiche, and way too much self referentiality. Time changed from being a single purposeful line always moving forward to something that could loop back in on itself. A line that looked back on the past, took whatever surface novelty it wanted and slapped style all over the place as if they meant nothing. All of our sketches leaned too heavily on everyone else and we retreated into the past as if that was the only thing left.

If the shape of time changed from a single unending line to a looping mess, where does that leave us? Now our line branches out into as many different directions as possible, endlessly and constantly connecting with itself. We’re taking small steps to shape our future in as many ways as we know how. We’re all working on as many different sketches as possible in the hopes that some of them will survive in the wild and turn into something useful.

There are so many different directions that our future might take that it’s impossible to keep track. We’ve become so accustomed to The Network as our main mode of experiencing the world that it’s shaped the manner in which we perceive the possibilities of time. It’s that damn nodal diagram that we can all see when we close our eyes after using the internet for too long. This connects to that, which connects to those things over there, and then spreads out to those points in that corner and then the ones near the centre and before you realise it’s three in the morning and you’ve connected 70s disco, nature documentaries, and an assortment of memepuffs and you still don’t understand how you got there. But you’re here now and you’re stuck. And tired.

We can’t tell if we’re moving about in any discernible direction but we are moving about in some direction, usually a few of them. And this is the problem: we’re confusing movement for progress. Not forwards or backwards, just a spreading out as far as possible and we’ve forgotten what we came here for but we’ll open up just one more tab and see what happens. The Network makes it so easy to move around in all directions that we’ve forgotten what moving about with purpose felt like. And this leaves us with a continuous and constant and infinite Now. It’s such a confusing state of temporal affairs that we have to squeeze all of our photos through the nostalgia filter just to remind ourselves that we are genuinely moving through the abstract yet concrete process of time. That we have a past and that we’ll have a future. But seriously, enough with the filters; we’re already confused about linear time without adding digital reproductions of entropy into the mix.

The beautiful upside to this constant unfolding and branching out off all possible future timelines is that they still all converge into one absolute timeline. But we get all the richness that exploration and sketching brings that you just can’t get with a singular approach to progress and timelines. But we tend to forget that we are, by all means, living in the future. It’s so easy to get jaded and complain about minutiae and the lack of a future that we were promised but that we don’t really want anymore because it wouldn’t really suit our current way of living. Instead of throwing back food pills made in a lab we’re all hunkering down and growing artisanal heirloom tomatoes. We don’t need flying cars or pointless jetpacks because we have little slabs of glass in our pockets that can do all of the travelling for us. We don’t need these legacy futures to hold us back from what needs to be done now.

So go out there and be a designer and make as many sketches as possible and inhabit as many different futures as you can. Model the world your sketches will need to inhabit and what they’ll have to be in order to survive. But remember we have to follow through into the present and turn those sketches into reality. It’s the only way we’ll ever get to go to Tomorrow.

Illustration: Adam Cruickshank

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