Objects are over: Making in the 21st century

Welcome to the 21st century. We recently exited a century where objects were ideological— we believed that images of life under capitalism and liberal democracy would be enticing enough to bring down opposing economies. Now we talk about the “supreme object of ideology”, an object that is not really an object, or may be proclaimed dead. We were welcomed to this century by real objects hurtling through other objects propelled by this object called ideology (which isn’t really an object, right?). Our objects have dissolved into thin air it seems, we are left grasping at their after images.

Welcome to the 21st century (or rather 21.1), where we sent people (along with lots of objects) to secure several countries (which are maybe objects, if places, too, can be objects) because they had a valuable natural resource object which is essential for the continuation of our way of Western life (read: the production and consumption of objects). But beware of those unassuming objects on the roadside in a foreign land where you are not welcome. There are far too many accounts of humans pierced by objects and non-combatants obliterated by objects and those who witness either (or both) coming home and experiencing a terror (a terror so psychological, it may feel like an object, but it is not) which may be triggered by objects.

Welcome to the 21st century, where in objects, we have lost the commons. Objects are defined by whose they are, rather than what purpose they serve. Objects in the hands of a few are a violence to those in need. There is a great disparity in who holds the bulk of the objects. It is commonplace to see those without scavenging through the trash for objects, below the noses of the skyscrapers where those with objects live. They pile high shopping carts full of clanging, dirty objects, pushing them from one receptacle to the next, a molasses version of the trains that zoom beneath, but only ever on-loading their discoveries. In the speeding trains, we sniff for objects as well (but pretend to deny it). Shuffling through the train car, rattling a cup full of objects, hoping we will add another jangling object.

Welcome to the 21st century, where objects are disappearing (and so are the livelihoods of those who depended on them. The purveyor of objects closes the doors of his hole-in-the-wall shop and poses the question to himself “are objects over?” while his former customers sit in front of a glowing screen object, scrolling through objects, a seemingly infinite supermarket of oh so competitively priced buy-now-no-shipping-next-day-delivery-on-orders-over-$200 objects. So maybe objects are over or maybe just any hope of David slinging well placed objects at Goliath is over, but either way, the brick and mortar doors close (object sale, today only, store closing, everything must go).

Welcome to the 21st century, where we hardly see the objects that we use to purchase other objects. Where these (hypothetical) objects dash through the ether at alarming rates in alarming quantities and take alarming losses and make alarming gains all in the blink of an eye (or the click of a mouse, or the signal of a microchip, that ever shrinking, ever more powerful, god object). In ancient times, civilizations came up with objects to represent value, to standardize systems of bartering and to transfer wealth. Now we again have an invisible system of finance, we have our cards and PIN numbers, but the amounts fly between us, impossible to track. Our system of currency has become so without object, that we can now be robbed by a leak of information. A few numbers in the wrong hands and our bank accounts are drained, all without so much as touching the objects they supposedly contain.

Welcome to the 21st century, where today I saw people line up around the block waiting for an object. We hold giant performative press conferences for the latest object, slick 3D renders (which aren’t actually objects, but you can’t tell) and release these objects to great fanfare. These objects replace very similar objects, which have been living in our pockets and demanding our attention. The replaced objects must be disposed of, usually overseas, where they fill up enormous landfills with them, seeping into the ground, polluting the water and making large swathes of territory unlivable, all for our objects, all for our convenience.

Welcome to the 21st century, where we have ceased to make objects. The cities of America are often referred to as “post-industrial” meaning, where there used to be the production of actual objects, now there are artist lofts (but where are the artists?), luxury condos, and plenty of service industry in the hollowed out shells of factories and workshops. But they do not remain empty for long—the residents have plenty of objects to fill them with, shipped in from countries that are still “industrial” (or perhaps even pre-industrial). These countries cannot except the same access to objects as us, they exist only to produce objects for those of us who do not produce anything. The objects that were in production in the now-decaying city centers have now vacated, the objects that bore “Made in America” stickers are now overseas, the jobs that produced objects are now immaterial.

And here we are in the 21st century designing objects, ever present and ever disappearing objects. What objects are left to design? What might their functions be? Who is the user, who is the wearer? We look around and see a world of exhausted objects, or perhaps a world exhausted of objects. You come to your senses, stop, think. Even now, you are sitting, staring at a glowing screen, an object presenting you with non-objects. The history of objects is here at your fingertips, also, this machine, the culmination of objects—what must be added to that? The 21st century has problems that cannot be solved by objects—it also has problems created by objects. In the words of theorist Paul Virilio, “the invention of the ship is the invention of the shipwreck”, with each new invention comes fresh difficulties and built in demises. When we consider this, bringing a new object into the world is no frivolous task.

At the same time, design cannot be paralyzed at the prospect of creating. There is an abundance of possible alternatives, “another world is (truly) possible”, but not in the way we have always thought. There are new questions to ask now, away from the traditional ways of thinking about form and function. What does an object of resistance look like? How can fashion promote equality? How do our inventions promote privacy, but allow for a shared commons? What is an object that belongs to no one, or that belongs to everyone? Our challenges are less material and more structural, increasingly less about the objects we make and more about the systems we alter. Form and function appear once again, but now as an increasingly complex riddle. The philosophers of ancient Greece posed perplexing questions to one another to tease out the truth. Today, the designer’s role is not much different, yes, tease out the truth, but also repeat to ourselves a version of Socrates’ famous recitation, “all I know is that I know nothing”. To Socrates, this was not a statement of despair, but one of beginning humbly without supposition or prejudice. May our version be much the same—“we live in a world of objects and one more will not save it”.