Exhausted and empty
In the final few minutes of Adam Curtis’ mind-bending documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, he talks about how our societies are exhausted and empty of new ideas. He talks about how the grand visions of the future put forward by the US, UK, Russia and China are broken, unimaginative and just based on the past. Bleak? True? Both?
It made me ask myself… what is our destination? Where are we headed?
Does anyone actually know what is coming next?
Moving toward the future
One day passes, then another, then another, on and on. But have we moved closer to anything? Are we closer to a vision of a future, or further away? Have we progressed or regressed? Has anything moved at all?
In The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, Ross Douthat writes that we have indeed entered a kind of civilisational malaise. We’re not moving forward. We’re not moving back. We’re stuck.
“it’s possible that Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.” - Ross Douthat
It absolutely feels like we have run out of ideas. Like society, as a whole, is empty of new thought. New systems, new concepts, new ideologies, new language, new spectrums. New images of the future. Promises of a better tomorrow. It feels like the ideas that have previously forged our world — political, cultural, social, intellectual, economic — have failed, run their course or simply come up short.
In his famous Vanity Fair essay You Say You Want a Devolution?, Kurt Andersen observes the same phenomena: culture has stopped evolving.
“We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle — economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation.” - Kurt Andersen
What can we do?
How can we — the design community — play our part in this? How can we harness our skills and collective imagination to drive newness? To inject the world with bright and different thought.
“There’s a great hunger for change, a yearning; you can feel it… But then no one seems to be coming up with any alternative visions of a future that really grabs you.” - Adam Curtis
How can we carry a baton? How can we create a version of a future that all of us can buy into? An alternative version of the future to what our institutions and leaders are currently offering us. One that it is brimming with hope and optimism. One that all of us want to strive towards.
It’s not a case of just creating new products. I think it’s about creating products and solutions that capture, distill, promote and reward radical new ways of thinking and living. We first need to figure out what those ways of thinking and living are.
The world is our canvas
The best way to think about this is in terms of the opportunity. The opportunity to put forward an attractive vision. The opportunity to define the future.
Our current world is lacking imagination, like a blank canvas. The previous arrangement— the boring, exclusive, extractive, uninspiring stuff— is now outdated. The audience (society) is yearning for a fresh, inspirational, hopeful vision. One that is caring, collective and joyful. Something they can all look at and smile. Something that can help them dream.
To steal a quote from Curtis’ closing scenes, from activist and archaeologist David Graeber:
“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.”
So, my question to you is: what do you want to paint? 🤔