The shape of tomorrow

Human intervention in the process of evolution and the advent of the millennium pose some major questions. Janice Kirkpatrick ponders the shape of the future.

I had one of those odd moments the other night. You know the ones, where you’re momentarily stunned by a profound feeling of wonder, about what you are and why you’re here on earth, and what on earth is earth and the senselessness in trying to make any sense of it at all. For a split second everything seems still and you feel that you’ve almost grasped a key to understanding “why”, and then the feeling goes away as suddenly as it arrived… But, why is our world the shape it is, where did it come from and where is it going to. Who is designing it and why?

Why is the world the shape it is? Every product, every city and every civilisation reflects who we are and how we live. Our environment gives concrete shape to our collective hopes, dreams and desires. There are clues hidden all around us that reveal where we’ve come from and where we’re going to. From out of the mists we, like cloudy oracles, could almost discern the silhouettes of the future, if only we knew how to read the signs.

Design is as old as civilisation. It’s a transformational activity which has much in common with alchemy as with cars, labels and brands. Design is the creative process which controls the evolution of ideas, bringing order to the world, bringing forth cities from the primordial swamp.

At the beginning of the new millennium we’re at a point which begs us to take a reflective pause and assess how far we’ve come and where we’re going. The world is our theatre where we create the props and backdrops against which we play out our drama from birth to death. What shape will our next stage set be and how much faster the scene changes in tomorrow’s world?

The only way to explain where we’re going must be to look back and see where we’ve been. We must examine the development of contemporary, objects throughout history. There must be a seamless evolutionary route from the development of speech, writing and drawing to object-making and architecture – a direct line of development from the ancient world to the present day.

In our synthetic world Man is the measure of all things. Man created civilisation according to his dimensions and aspirations. In recent times, we have developed systems of measurement and control, templates against which we create our world. These include Henry Dreyfuss’s Humanscale, Corbusier’s Modular, the scale and proportion of our spiritual and ideological monuments, eight supermodels, acres of detailed town planning legislation and countless miles of statutory conditions applying to everything from paving slabs to thread.

Objects change with society, do people also change with culture? Throughout history many people have modified their bodies for cultural or economic reasons, through corsetry, foot-binding, through food, genetics, bionics and cybernetics. The inertia of human creativity compels us to create, it’s written in the composition of our genes. Just as we can’t stop reinventing the wheel, we helplessly explore eugenics in the belief that we are progressing. The ability to have power over personal appearance is highly prized. Cosmetic surgeons are financially rewarded and their creative production lauded in the pages of fashion magazines. Their altered individuals, in turn, provide the new templates we must all aspire to emulate.

Difference has a value which is highly prized in the West. Historically, we have altered ourselves one person, or one group, at a time. Today, we can alter entire populations at deep genetic levels, in ways we do not yet understand. As cultural difference increases in value we could see the emergence of distinct sub-groups, specifically designed to achieve power and status, like a Frankensteinian extension of the privileged world of public schools and the closed world of the upper classes.

By 2005 someone will have mapped and patented the human genome. We will have the profound new language of life: DNA. Who will control the alchemical potential of this new magic? Who are the new designers and what new creations will they make?

Today, Man remains the measure of all things, but what shape will our future be if we change the shape of Man? Will the shape of all things in our world change? History tells us that it will.

By yielding our god-like, newly acquired power, will we send shockwaves through the order of things? If we change the specification of ourselves we must redesign the world according to our new dimensions and aspirations.

What shape is tomorrow after we have redesigned ourselves? Who among us can read the signs and make out the shapes?

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