Circularity and Flow: Subjective Experience, Technology and Non-linear Time

Friday 9th Sept, 14.30-16.00, Room CG11

Chair: Dr Sarah Lichtman, Parsons the New School for Design 

How do new technologies alter the way we experience time? What new kinds of temporality, and thus new kinds of subjectivity, are implied by apps or social media, or big data? How might we develop a more cyclical conception of resources, economy and time in relation to design?

larry busbeaOf Extension, Environment, and Evolution
Larry Busbea, Associate Professor of Art History, School of Art, University of Arizona

“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”

Sigmund Freud

In a 1964 letter to the anthropologist Edward T Hall, Marshall McLuhan offhandedly remarked that, among physiologists, “there is less and less inclination to separate biology and technology”. This observation occurred in the midst of a several-years-long exchange about the nature of what Hall and McLuhan came to describe as “extensions”; or, technology as a literal magnification of sensory and biological functions. According to both writers, extensions – from language, to simple tools, and up to complex technologies – did much more than accomplish finite tasks, they reorganised the relationship between the subject and its environment or milieu. They did this not only by intensifying the natural abilities of the subject outwards into the world but also by reflexively penetrating the user to “re-programme” her “biological particles”. Hall would subsequently state that these vicissitudes between humanity and its extensions had, in fact, “greatly accelerated” the processes of evolution.

This paper will seek to describe the implication of this idea of extension in a particular postwar design culture that was increasingly orienting itself towards new temporal horizons. At least for a brief moment, the techno-aesthetic activities associated with design held the promise of responding to and optimising the new environments created by human extensions, and therefore of impacting a newly “conscious” form of human evolution.

These ideas were not relegated to an obscure design subculture. They were the stock trade of theorists and designers such as Siegfried Giedion, Buckminster Fuller, Lewis Mumford, Gyorgy Kepes, Victor Papanek, and Tomás Maldonado, often in dialogue with social scientists and cultural commentators such as Hall and McLuhan. These discourses gave a new urgency to the design avant-gardes’ concern for existential self-actualisation, projecting it forward as a species-wide ecological imperative.

By the same token, historical discourse surrounding extensions – both what they give and take away from those thus extended – gave rise to very early formulations of what would come to be described as bio-political apparatuses, and they anticipated current critical discussions of the “interface”. The hinge of this discussion rested upon human agency in the face of ever-expanding technological possibilities. Would our species be overwhelmed by its mechanical and digital contrivances, or would design allow for a qualitative control of these extensions, directing the species to a new evolutionary destiny?

42134488_ida-kamille-lie-bwCircular is the New Linear
Ida Kamilla Lie, Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, Norway
E: W: Institutional Profile || Project Website

Design needs to stop chasing progress and start going round in circles. The critique of Modernism’s rampant faith in progress has necessitated a rethinking of design’s relation to development and thus also to time. This paper will examine an early effort at shifting from a linear to a cyclic conception of resources, economy and time, as a way to improve the social significance of design. In 1973, when the major Nordic design schools planned a seminar on recycling as sustainable design strategy, it represented a radical effort to break with some of the fundamental tenets of these institutions’ own ideological heritage.

The concept of ‘circular economy’ has been promoted as a model capable of considering both the economic and ecological interests of society. Unlike a linear economic model, where resources are extracted, produced, used and then disposed of as garbage or combustion, a circular economy is based on reuse, repair, renovation or recycling in a life-cycle where the fewest possible resources are lost. As such it implies a cyclic understanding of resource management and consequently also of time.

The most known expression of how a circular mode of thought has been handled in design theory is Michael Braungart’s production philosophy Cradle to Cradle. It has, however, been of great importance for design practice through Design for Disassembly, Design for Repair, etc. and also for consumer culture through recycling organisation. As this paper will show, this cyclic conception of resources was also highly present among prominent figures at the Nordic design schools in the 1970s. In a pan-Nordic seminar, topics such as the reuse of products and materials and the use of biodegradable materials would be addressed in a cross-disciplinary series of lectures, and discussed by design students and teachers, practising designers, organisations and institutions within the design field. Due to a number of unsuccessful attempts to obtain funding, the seminar was never held.

That does not, however, detract from its design historical value, as it may serve as important documentation on how design educators in the 1970s viewed design education in an ecological perspective. The practice of reuse, repair and renovation is not new, neither today nor in the 1970s, but for a long time it has been pushed into the background due to both the Western world’s wealth and a lack of will to take environmental challenges seriously. The increasing focus on a cyclic conception of resources, economy and time within today’s design practice shows the importance of knowing the experiences gained in the 1970s. If we allow the past to inform the present we have a better chance of succeeding in a cyclic approach to design, where production, use and reuse goes around in circles.

42134488_haywardExperiments with Time: The Exploration of Traces, Flow, Gamefication and Presence in Contemporary Design
Dr Stephen Hayward, Contextual Studies Leader and Course Tutor, Industrial Design, Central St Martins, University of the Arts London
E: W: Profile

In the early decades of the last century it was not unusual to compare modernity with clockwork. One thinks of the control room-cum-clock-face from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), or Charlie Chaplin enmeshed in the cogs of a Taylorist production line in Modern Times (1936). But today, in the 21st century, the power relations are rather less obvious and personal devices facilitate many more forms of temporality. A health app or a social media profile offer the prospect of an independently managed ‘quantitative self’, even while the data may be surreptitiously ‘harvested’ in the name of an ‘enhanced’ user experience.

Thus an updated version of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934), a book that equates modernity with the standardisation of time, might be re-titled Technics and Subjectivities, and one wonders whether it is still feasible to offer a holistic analysis. Such an overview would need to take account of the proliferation of post-industrial lifestyles, the global flows of Big Data, and the insights, regarding the complexity of perception, that are emerging from psychology and neuroscience.

In this paper I will attempt to clarify this complex terrain by focusing on one area of design activity (i.e. the sort of speculative prototypes and scenarios typically seen in colleges and cross-over art and design exhibitions), and four of its more prominent, time-related thematics.

The first topic is time recollected, and more specifically, involuntary reminiscence, and how Traces may constitute a personal narrative and identity. The second theme examines the idea of time slowed down, or suspended, as in projects which foster fully immersive, Flow interactions. In the third, there is the sense of time speeded up, and rendered more urgent, as in pop-up experiences and the rise of Gamefication. While in the fourth, we encounter the supernatural sense of different times and locations co-mingling, as in the Post-modern phenomenon of hyper-reality, or the Presence afforded by telecommunications media.

To a certain extent these experiences challenge the conventional idea of time as an extrinsic, predictable form of measurement. They introduce feelings of nostalgia, risk and enhanced agency, in so far as a personal ritual, or an attempt to ‘beat the clock’ etc. can be consciousness-raising, or creative.

There are precedents, of course, and an important part of my method involves historical comparison. For instance, the phenomenon of the memento mori, the Proustian moment, the punctum as described by Roland Barthes in response to old photographs, the everyday rituals celebrated by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki (1933, 1977), even the history of ‘electronic presence’ from spiritualism to television (Sconce, 2000).

And yet today’s exploration of ‘subjective’ time experiences may ultimately form part of a commercial agenda. For as the business writers Gilmore and Pine argue (2007), the cheapness and accessibility of physical commodities mean that experiences are becoming the new signifiers of authenticity.

So in what sense are these experiments with time ‘authentic’? Certainly they involve intuitive responses and suggest that modern design, as represented by the ‘clock-man’ in Metropolis, has narrowed the understanding of human needs. But where does the new concern with experience leave the physical object? In the projects discussed in this paper an impression emerges of a ‘hypothetical’ near future object; an object that functions as a ritualistic prop, a philosophical toy, a narrative device in an internet of things.

Further Reading

Busbea L (2016) ‘Soft Control Material: Environment and Design c. 1970’, Journal of Design History, in production.

Busbea L (2015) ‘McLuhan’s Environment: The End (and The Beginnings) of Architecture’, The Aggregate website,

Busbea L (2013) ‘Paolo Soleri and the Aesthetics of Irreversibility’, Journal of Architecture, 18:6, 781-808.

Busbea L (2013) ‘Kineticism-Spectacle-Environment’, October, 144, 92-114.

Busbea L (2012) Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970 (paperback edition), Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gilmore, JH and Pine, BJ (2007) Authenticity. What the consumers really want, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Lie IK (2015) ‘Oral History as Method in Design Historical Research’, paper presented at Design History Society Day Symposium, University of Oslo.

Lie IK (2015) ‘Socially Responsible Design in Nordic Design Discourse, 1967-1973: Victor Papanek and the Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization(SDO)’, paper presented at Environmental Histories of Design, Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society, München.

Sconce, J (2000) Haunted Media. Electronic Presence from telegraphy to television, London: Duke University Press.

Tanizaki, J (1933, 1977) In Praise of Shadows (translation), Sedgwick, Maine: Leete’s Island Books.

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