FastForward Opening & Closing Remarks

DesignInquiry FastForward Introduction by Peter Hall

DesignInquiry FastForward Wrap-Up by Peter Hall



DesignInquiry Fast-Forward was introduced with the phrase, “The quickening pace of life calls for a rethink of time.”i What did we mean by that? Well, firstly and most literally, that we are all familiar with the idea of being busy, juggling deadlines, racing for the plane, ferry, pressed for time, and the idea that this kind of pace can’t go on forever, for us as individuals (we get stressed, weary, old). It’s useful to recall the idea that “being busy” is slightly illusory. There is always “the one who is not busy”, as the Zen koan goes, the one meaning not someone else but you, or the potential in you to be not busy in the activities that you choose to doii. To sweep, do dishes, listen and laugh without being busy, without thinking of the next task, the next thing, without desire.

The bubble of business also gets disrupted, by hurricanes, power failures, flight delays and we are suddenly reminded that at a societal level too, the pace of life cannot continue. We’re coming to the end of the Modern notion that somehow this is our destiny, to do everything faster, to fly around the world, buying stuff, building stuff, accumulating stuff and then throwing it out; that this can be done without consequence. Modernity has done a great job of hiding from us the consequences of our behavior; not just the sense that we don’t know where the stuff we consume comes from or where it goes, but that the mode of representing stuff is atemporal. Design, in its modern sense, embodies a whole belief system based on denying consequences.

When the design project is finished, where does it go? Typically we might hope for a happy client, a warm reception, a glowing write-up, maybe an award, huge sales or millions of hits. And then, onto the next project. We fix in our heads a snapshot of the project’s success, the unveiling of the building, the book launch, the photograph on our website, the congratulatory email, and that snapshot becomes the project. All the messy stuff, the research, the work, the materials, the impact, the landfill, all gets hidden behind that snapshot. How do we learn to peel back that snapshot, unravel that narrative? How do we detach process from outcome, from the big narrative of progress?

The answer might be in rethinking the way we perceive time. In terms of design, this means not prioritizing the snapshot but situating each project within a longer time-span. Perhaps this means mapping things, considering the things at hand as part of a continuum. A chair, a table, a plastic milk jug in a still life arrangement are anything but a still life: they might appear to be transfixed in that arrangement but in truth they are moving, not just at the molecular level, or in the sense that the planet is moving at 18 miles a second, but that their material ingredients have – in the scheme of things – only momentarily come together in these particular configurations. The jug will be washed, taken to the Vinalhaven landfill where it will decompose over about 500 years, or someone here might take it to the mainland where it can be broken down and remade into plastic lumber, outdoor furniture or a bucket. A thing is, as Bruce Sterling has put it, simply an “instantiation” of flows, and our task as people who design, photograph and write about things, is to rethink them, firstly as points on a timeline. We also need to rethink things in terms of their significations, their meanings, which not only change over time, but have a dramatic impact on how we perceive and value them. If we stopped seeing things as snapshots and viewed them as instantiations of flows, how might that change their meaning and effect on us. This is a thought exercise: we are often quite good at noting how a kid has grown bigger, a friend has aged, or the grass looks browner, but in the same light we might see the past and future of the things around us. Those great shoes you wanted to order online become instantiations of refined petroleum.

To stimulate a temporal rather than chronophobic view of design, it seems appropriate to challenge designers to experiment with visualizing the passage of time, not as scientists but as philosophers, artists, designers, humans. The interest here is time as it is experienced and embodied.

This first requires a view of time as a construct. Where does the measurement of time come from? The ancient Babylonians, whose mathematics were based on the number 60, were the first to decide that a day–the time it took for the sun to rise, set and rise again–should be divided up into units of 60. This was not based on observation, but an abstract concept. Since they didn’t have fractions, the Babylonians favored the number 60 because it could be evenly divided by the widest number of other numbers. (1 x 60, 2 x 30, 3 x 20, 4 x 15, 5 x 12, 6 x 10). We could just as easily have had a metric system, so that an hour might have been 100 minutes, but thanks to the Babylonians we have 60. So the most familiar non-mechanical clock, the sun dial, quite effectively measured the movement of the sun using the shadow of an arm and a circle marked with the numbers of this 60-based system. Another kind of clock used a stick in a bowl of water that gradually filled up from the water pouring from another bowl with a hole in the bottom. Since water drips at a regular interval, a reasonably accurate account of how many hours had passed could be determined by the height of the water in the bowl against the measuring stick. Confusingly for us, early civilizations used different length sticks at different times of year, so the hours were actually longer in summer than winter.

This arbitrary system has obviously worked quite well, but after a few centuries, with the industrial revolution, we started to adhere to it more slavishly. Mechanical clocks, which in Medieval Europe date back to the 13th Century, were becoming increasingly accurate with the introduction of the spring, and were starting to be used to tell the time of day by the 19th Century. In England, which had enjoyed a golden age of clock making, technological prowess was the driver for standardizing time across the isles. Prior to 1847, different cities in the UK had different time zones, so Bristol, which is only 118 miles from London, was 20 minutes behind. With the arrival of the railways, time zones were abandoned and a national railway time system was introduced. So even though Bristol did receive the sunrise a few minutes after London did, it was forced to adopt the same time. This move was fiercely resisted by astronomers and religious organizations who felt that “railway aggression” was imposing an artificial system, against the natural movement of the sun, or God’s will, as it were. But within 40 years, time had been standardized across the world, at least by those nations involved in the shipping trade.iv

The impact of standardization and increased technological precision in the measurement of time has been to literally change the way we think. Not long after the railways standardized time, the movements of factory workers were being analysed by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his scientific management team, with a view toward improving performance. Guided by “thousands of stop-watch observations” Taylor analysed every step in the assembly line, to eliminate waste and perfect motion, not of machines but of workers.v The stopwatch became the weapon for heightened corporate control over the pace and intensity of work. It occurred to me just recently as the mechanical voice of the “Runkeeper” app on my phone loudly cruelly delivered my “workout summary” as 4.23 miles at a plodding 11 minute mile rate that I had turned a formerly enjoyable activity into a Taylorist admonishment machine. Running is no longer jogging: with the help of military technology (GPS) and performance measurement systems like Nike Plus, running is timed, collated and compared, tagged with personal targets and simulated rewards.

Our conventions for representing the passage of time, too, are inextricably entangled with an Enlightenment view of time as a sequential line, rather than, say, a cyclical thing. Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, in their book Cartographies of Time trace a visible allegiance between Christian, rationalist views of time and linear representations. They focus on works by Joseph Priestley, cited as an 18th century innovator of the linear timeline, who himself suggested that the timeline was a fantasized visual referent for an object without material substance. It appears to guarantee a directionality to past and future history. Henri Bergson referred to this “imaginary homogeneous time” as a deceiving “idol”.vi As Johanna Drucker put it, the contemporary representation of time is as something “unidirectional, homogeneous, continuous (with no breaks of ruptures) when none of those things are true in humanistic experience.” vii

To critique the timekeeping legacies of Modernity calls for some experimentation. Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie’s explorations at the University of Virginia’s SpecLab, for example, included “stretchy time-lines” and other experiments at representing time as experiential and non-homogeneous. Europe was mapped according to the difficulty of getting from place to place, a train journey was mapped according to perceived time between stations, and days were mapped according to heavy events and levels of anxiety.viii The goal was to achieve what Drucker called an “affective” mode of representation, and in so doing, “question fundamental assumptions about how we know what we know.”ix

This should be a good point at which to show sketches from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristam Shandy, indicating the non-linear path of a well-told story, the digressions appearing as deviations from the straight line.x Or a diagram from Charles Renouvier’s novel Uchronia, with a chart depicting the theoretical relationship between the course of history and possible alternate paths.xi And of course Herman Minkowski’s diagrams contrasting the Newtonian view of physics in which two observers assign the same point in time to event A–with the Einsteinian view of physics, in which two observers assign the same event to different points in time. Minkowski flew in the face of contemporaries who felt that visualizations used intuition and were therefore inferior to rigorous, non-intuitive, abstract logic. He showed that Einstein’s relativity theory could be better understood in geometric-pictorial terms.xii

If experience tells us that time slows down and speeds up, and physics tells us that time literally does run at different rates in the Universe, then how might we represent the passage of time differently? This has become a predominant theme in art over recent years: I just saw the exhibition “Making Time” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which included a film by Daniel Crooks in which the movements of a Tai Chi expert were filmed and cut into “time slices” – effectively drawing attention to the point made by both philosopher Martin Heidegger and the 13th Century Zen writer Dogen, that time itself is being and all being is time. “See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time. Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another.”xiii

By exploring ways of depicting things as moments of time, of depicting the elasticity of time, we could also uncover ways of traveling through time. Not in the Science Fiction sense, but in the philosophical sense. If we can show how the present was made and how we are making the future, then we are perhaps one step closer to delivering some kind of subjective shock. I think it is very hard for us to get away from the common sense view that everything is going to be OK, that the mess we’ve made will somehow be fixed by the scientific-technological progress that got us here. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, common sense finds it hard to accept that a catastrophe can really occur. “The difficult ethical task is thus to “un-learn” the most basic coordinates of our immersion into our life-world: what usually served as the recourse to Wisdom…is now THE source of danger.”xiv


  1. Opening up the now.

As several people noted during DesignInquiry, fast-forwarding also implies we pay attention to the space between the present and the future. Rebecca Keyel put this nicely in her proposal: “The phrase fast forward implies both rapid acceleration and an abrupt stop, but also has an element of in-between time. The time from pressing the button to hitting pause seems ephemeral and somehow gets lost.” If this in-between time is a series of “now” moments, and if we really should think of the universe, as the physicist Bryan Greene tells us, as slices of “now” space time piled up next to each other, then “now” is a very expansive concept indeed. Now is “the tick of a clock, a cat jumping, a pigeon in venice taking flight, a meteor hitting the moon, a star exploding”, and not only that, “now” is different for a person moving, so if there are many different “nows” it must follow that they’re all already out there.xv The past has not gone and the future is not nonexistent.

  1. The now-ness of materials.

So all the now moments between pressing the button and hitting pause seem to present an opportunity for discovery. What can we do with them? One of the prevailing themes of the week has been about the now-ness of the materials we choose to work with: The most obvious one seems to be bread dough, which has to be worked in its state of now-ness, or the moment is lost, the bread is spoiled.

  1. Designs are grown, not made.

This is a good point to bring up the anthropologist Tim Ingold, who has argued that making an artifact and growing an organism are not so distinct after all. We imagine that when we design we first conceive of the artifact and then produce it, we impose an ideal on nature. But Ingold uses the example of a beehive and a woven basket to point out that here are artifacts that emerge from a dialogic exchange between the material, its need to go this way or that way, and the makers. More specifically, the woven basket does not have a surface that is altered by the designs of the maker; in the process of weaving the surface is not so much transformed as built up. Its form is the result of a pattern of skilled movement, and the play of tensile forces. “The weaver is caught up in a reciprocal and quite muscular dialogue with the material.”xvi So as this muscular dialogue is translated into regular form through rhythmic repetition, the rhythms of time are translated into space.

This example, of muscular dialog with material, calls into question the idea that we are somehow separate from nature; the surface of nature is an illusion: the weaver ,like the carpenter and the breadmaker work from within the world, not by imposing form on it. Once this is established, the whole enlightenment project begins to unravel: we’re not somehow separate from nature, we’re part of it, it’s in us and the things we make. This shift suggests that a different ethics is required, that ceases to regard nature as a resource to plunder for our benefit. In effect, we are plundering ourselves.

  1. Island time brings reflection

Sinking into the “island time” of a DesignInquiry gathering on Vinalhaven, with its blissful emphasis on the face-to-face, the here and now, it becomes more apparent how much our daily interactions are mediated by technological devices. It’s interesting how, to pick up on Patricio Davila’s DesignInquiry contribution, that when Hertzian space is depopulated, ie the cellphone towers are diminished and wireless signals fizzle out, that we gain an opportunity to reflect on how the things that designers have designed – cellphones, phone apps, tweets, messaging systems – have such an effect on how we live, and conceive of time. While on island time, you realize how difficult it is to resist these colonisations of time and space that shape our other lives.

The interesting possibility for DesignInquiry is that the culture of a gathering, that reflective, playful, face-to-face, intensive week of discursive making, eating and reflecting is beginning to disseminate. Not only are projects developing between gatherings, but topics explored several years ago remain dormant, erupting when a discovery or encounter shifts the focus back to something that was said, made, read, or experienced. Fast-Forward and the topic of time has a great deal of contemporaneity in this respect.

To be contemporaneous, in fact, is to be able to straddle vast reaches of time, in the sense that Socrates, or the invention of the wheel are contemporary. One particular problem with our fixation on the present as the pinnacle of technological and intellectual progress is that we imagine that the past is out of date. If, instead we recognized that “progress” hasn’t really got us to the best possible position, and that the entire historical convention of imagining the present is better (or worse) than the past needs to be rethought, would we do a better job of designing the future? What better reason to learn from the past than to see it as the pursuit of the contemporary? As the philosopher Michel Serres put it, “to ignore the past is often to run the risk of repeating it.”xvii

i Introduction to the topic, written by DesignInquiry “framers” Gabrielle Esperdy, Peter Hall, Melle Hammer and Ben Van Dyke. July 2012.
ii Fischer, Norman. “Phrases & Spaces” Shambhala Sun, March 2008.
iii Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things (MIT Press, 2005) p79
iv A fascinating discussion on the measurement of time can be found in the web archives of In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, hosted by Melvynn Bragg, first broadcast 29 March 2012. With Kristen Lippincott, Jim Bennett

Jonathan Betts. Web.

v Henthorn, Cynthia Lee. From Submarines to Suburbs: Selling a Better America 1939-1959. Ohio University Press, 2006, p34
vi Rosenberg, Daniel and Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010, p23
vii Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Approaches to the Graphical Expression of Interpretation”. May 20, 2010. Lecture at MIT World. Humanities + Digital conference on Visual Interpretation. Web.
viii Drucker, Johanna, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
ix Drucker, MIT 2010
x Rosenberg and Grafton p20
xi Rosenberg and Grafton, p23
xii Galison, Peter. “Images Scatter into Data, Data Gather into Images”. Latour, Bruno and Peter Weibel. eds. Iconoclash! Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM ; Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2002, p5.
xiii Dogen, Eihei. Uji: The Time Being. Moon in a Dewdrop: the Writings of Zenmaster Dogen, translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi . Northpoint Press, 1995.
xiv Zizek, Slavoj. Censorship for Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses, part 2. Volume. 18: After Zero. The Netherlands: Stichting Archis, 2008, p.42. Web.
xv Greene, Bryan. NOVA: The Elegant Universe. July 2012. Web.
xvi Ingold, Tim. “On Weaving a Basket.” Candlin, Fiona and Raiford Guins, eds. The Object Reader. London: Routledge, 2009, p83
xvii All of the ideas in this final paragraph are borrowed from a conversation between Serres and Bruno Latour in 1991. “Conversations on Science, Culture and Time,” translated by Roxanne Lapidus. AnnArbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp44-51