How to do we reconcile our desire to create and make new things, with the full knowledge that we are killing our planet?
I tried to answer this question in graduate school with my studies. Though my answers didn’t satiate the thirst of my questions, I concluded that the work we do as designers is really about identity. We make stuff and things. And stuff and things are a necessary part of meaning making in our life.
I still think that is true, but I don’t think it helps the landfill problem.
In Design and Crime, Hal Foster aptly describes this moment (even though he wrote it 20 years ago):
“Our own time is a witness to a qualitative leap in this history: with the “flexible specialization” of post-Fordist production, commodities can be continually tweaked and markets constantly niched, so that a product can be mass in quantity yet appear up-to-date, personal, and precise in address. Desire in not only registered in products today, it is specified there: a self-interpellation of “hey, that’s me” greets the consumer in catalogues and on-line. This perpetual profiling of the commodity, of the mini-me, is one factor that drives the inflation of design. Yet what happens when this commodity-machine - now conveniently located out of view of most us us - breaks down, as environments give out, markets crash, and/or sweat-shop workers scattered across the globe somehow refuse to go on?”
Fortunately, start ups today are building more sustainable products on the production side of things. But it’s the mechanism of distribution, the deeper cultural system at work - “desire is not only registered in products, it is specified there.” Nowadays, the desire isn’t only registered in the product, it’s registered through the marketing mechanism. Digital marketing tools are able to swiftly and accurately deliver those goods to our devices, so that we practice, daily, even hourly - “hey, that’s me” or “that’s not me”. It is the continued tweaking of the commodity matched with the continued tweaking of consumer profiling.
In the recent article, “Why Startups Are The Driving Force Behind Design Right Now”, almost all of the brands in the article speak to cultivating a direct feedback loop with customers. Whether or not that is actually true is up for debate. I remember when Floyd started asking customers what they wanted in a sofa on Instagram 3 months before it came to market. But Floyd also says the sofa took 2 years to develop. Either way, the net result is the same - consumers get to fee like they are part of the process, and that is meaningful. And meaning making is about identity.
But hey, what are we going to do about those landfills?
Love these riffs by Heidegger in Poetry, Language Thought, from the chapter entitled The Thing.
“But the gift of the outpouring is what makes the jug a jug. In the jugness of the jug, sky and earth dwell.”
“To pour from the jug is to give. The holding of the vessel occurs in the giving of the outpouring. Holding needs the void as that which holds.”
“The jug’s jug-character consists in the poured gift of the pouring out.”
“The jug presences as a thing. The jug is the jug as a thing. But how does the thing presence? The thing things….. The jug’s essential nature, its presencing, so experienced and thought of in these terms, is what we call thing.”
Howard Risatti writes in an essay titled the The Thingness of the Thing -
“This is not to say crafts are without social life, a life in society beyond pure function; rather, it is to say that in their essential nature as physical objects they are presentations rather than representations, things rather than images. That is so regardless of the cultures, geographic locations, or eras from which they come is one of the trans-cultural, trans-spatial, and trans-temporal truths of craft.”
Now back to Ariel and the fork. What Scuttle was getting at was the presentation of the object. Essentially, taking the object information presented to him, and wrapping a story/use around it. The thingness of the thing is trans-cultural, not matter if you live under the sea, or among the human stuff.
“It’s a dinglehopper!”
One of my favorite scenes from Disney’s The Little Mermaid - when princess Ariel collects a bunch of “human stuff” and takes it to the wise sage Scuttle for interpretation.
She hands him a fork, he calls it a dinglehopper, and he explains how it’s used for combing your hair.
The thing is, he wasn’t wrong. He made up a story informed by the thing he’s holding. You can comb your hair with a fork, it makes sense.
The big upset comes later in the movie, when Ariel is sitting at dinner and uses the fork to comb her hair.
This is one of my favorite things about functional objects - that if you change the context around the object, you change the meaning. And in the case of Ariel and the fork, not only did the meaning change, but the function changed.
Objects are not inherently meaningful.
We subject them to meaning.
“The arts, in general, are supposed to be a resource for us to do the things that language can’t do, and I feel weird if people feel like they have to pass a certain test to participate or to benefit from that resource. I’m not diminishing difficult or complex art. There’s definitely a role for that. But I think there’s an attitude that happens sometimes and that’s not the thing I want to do. I’m already, like, a recovering asshole, I just want to do things that more people can be a part of and get on board with. That nurtures me and where I want to go.”
Excerpt from 2016 Interview with Sight Unseen - See full interview “ERIC TRINE WANTS TO BRING POWDER COATED JOY TO THE MASSES”
I wrote the above as my “abstract” for my grad school thesis in 2013. What I’ve come to realize is that this “project” is actually my life. What isn’t about connection? When I decided to go back to grad school, it was largely to study, research, and figure out for myself why I love stuff and things as much as I do. I love stuff. And I love things. I love thinking about things and talking about thinking about things. So here’s the space I write about thinking about things.