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John Thackara

Desert of the Real


Here is the text of this year’s Puma Sustainable Design Lecture which I gave on 8 November at the Design Museum in London.



The invitation to do this talk arrived around the time I was stopped in my tracks by this perplexing sight (above) in one of those endless corridors at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Who commissioned such a thing, and why? What, if anything, was in their mind? Where did they procure that cheesy stick-on foliage? Is that a robot digging away behind the window – or does it have a driver? What does he make of the living wall that’s not, in fact, alive?

I can’t promise to answer all those questions in my talk this evening, but I will discuss three perplexing issues which I believe are related. First, I’ll explore the notion that we are living in a ‘desert of the real’. Second, I’ll look at what the desert of the real has meant for environmental communications. And thirdly, to conclude, I will explore alternative ways of knowing and being in the world – and ask what these might mean for design.

Part 1: Desert of the Real

Although that weird airport corridor was disturbing for this traveller’s peace of mind, in the greater scheme of things it was probably harmless. Developments elsewhere are signs of a more alarming loss of contact with reality. Consider, for example, the National Security Agency, whose multi-billion dollar headquarters is nearing completion. A vast black office box, clad in reflective glass, is the degree zero of Big Data. The machine room for global surveillance is down the road — in Bluffdale (I kid you not) Utah — where a vast server farm has been built in the middle of a desert. The fact that the facility needs three million gallons of fresh water daily, just to keep cool, suggests that it has a way to go before achieving the Total Information Awareness its charter prescribes. One’s doubts about the project are amplified by the control room, deep inside the NSA facility, commissioned by the NSA’s boss, General Alexander. A near-replica of the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise, the control room’s design — especially the prominence of a solitary commander’s seat — reflects a command-and-control model of information sharing ill-suited to the vast volumes of data the center is hoovering up.

Although the NSA’s tunnel vision on Big Data is extreme, others are not far behind. The consulting industry has issued a stream of reports about the potential of Big Data to be ‘the next frontier for innovation’ that will afford business a ’360 degree view of customers’. Technology firms are promoting the concept of the ‘Smart City’ with particular fervour: their rhetoric imagines the places where we live as a gigantic train set whose operation, by a total coincidence, will stimulate a $17bn market for Big Data back-end services.

Big Data have also enchanted the Quantified Self (QS) movement. Adorned with wearable devices, QS enthusiasts track data on the tiniest details of their physical and psychological status — from sleep patterns and blood pressure, to heart rate and mood. In extreme cases, so-called “body-hackers” have surgically implanted sensors in their bodies. Some of this data is useful, of course — but the development of high-end me-meters for otherwise healthy 30-somethings is unlikely to impact the pandemic of chronic illnesses in the rest of the population.

If quantity counts, the Big Data craze is understandable. According to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, “the amount of data in the world has doubled in last two years” — and we apparently create “as much information in two days, now, as we did from the dawn of man through 2003”.

It’s a fair argument, I suppose, that with so much data about, it would be wasteful not to use it. But how, and to what end?

For the Financial Times, Big Data signifies nothing less than the arrival of a ‘postmodern economy’. Under the headline ‘Welcome To The Desert of the Real’, the paper stated last year that ‘today’s market is the most infinitely complex and impossible object ever imagined”. In order to prosper, the FT opined, the modern investor must be ‘adaptable to changing modes of acuity’; be able ‘to imagine different realistic states of the world’; and be able to think as ‘both the mathematician and the artist’.

If frothy prose like this appeared in an undergraduate’s cultural studies paper, one would not blink an eye. But these words adorned the house journal of global finance. It is surely alarming that the world’s economy is being shaped by people who are mesmerised by all things digital — but who are blind to a much larger reality: the analogue knowledge accumulated in nature during 3.5 billion years of evolution.

In his book Collapse, Jarred Diamond argues that one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions. Diamond focuses on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants’ survival prospects. That lesson applies equally to us, today. We lust for speed, perfection, control but, because we inhabit an abstract, digitially diminished world, we’re blind to their true cost.

I do not pretend to be a cognitively superior observer, here. I spend too much time myself in environments, such as airport lounges, that are just as insulated from reality as the FT’s news room, or a risk trader’s console. But I also spend enough time outside the digital bubble to know that the environmental impacts of the economy are no less devastating just because they are out of sight.

The desert of the real, I suggest, isolates from literally vital knowledge in four ways:
- because it’s invisible;
- because it’s somewhere else;
- because our sensory bandwidth is too narrow;
- because we’re ‘educated’.



Of the life-critical phenomena we don’t see because they’re invisible, the most important is energy intensity. Bradley Garrett — on the right in the photograph above — was lauded for his daring climb up The Shard in London. But although his exploit was cool, Garrett and his fellow Londoners lead super-heated lives. They — we — need sixty times more energy per person, than pre-modern men and women – like the family on the left.

When you think about it, that sixty-fold difference is astounding. It should be terrifying. The trouble is we don’t think about it — or not clearly. Just this week, for example, scientists at Harvard reported, with great fanfare, that “the human mind, with its 86 billion neurones and phenomenal computing power, runs on less energy than a household light bulb”. Well, maybe it does — but this feat would be more impressive if this amazing brain demonstrated blinding intelligence. Au contraire: the human brain is so self-absorbed that it seems unconcerned by the fact that its body, and its supporting infrastructure, are gorging on non-renewable resources in a finite world. Duh.

Then there are life critical developments that we ignore because they’re happening somewhere else. Our economy’s ravenous appetite for external nutrient supplies is a case in point. Although these flows have grown 1,500 times in just fifty years — an astounding rate of increase — their environmental and social costs hardly disturb us at all. Why? Mainly because these costs are being paid by other people, somewhere else. Without soil, for example, we’d quickly starve — but the depletion of our soils by industrial agriculture is seldom in the news. The same goes for the toxic rivers of slurry produced during mining the rare metals that are used in all our cellphones. They don’t touch us directly, so we don’t think about them.

Another deadly feature of the desert of the real is that we think too much, and sense too little. Think back to that brain and its billions of neurons. We only use a tiny fraction of those neurones for conscious observation and rational thought: We use the rest to experience the world unconsciously. Neuroscientists have discovered that the boundary between mind, body, and world far more permeable than we had thought . The mind is hormonal, as well as neural. The boundary between our bodies, and the environment, is porous. Two-way chemical communications — not just verbal or pictorial ones — shape the ways we experience the world .

These startling scientific discoveries have breathed new life into an ancient question: Where does the mind end — and the rest of the world begin? Until recently, scientists and philosophers tended to think of the nervous system as a glorified set of data cables connecting the body to the brain.



It now appears that the borders of mental embodiment cannot neatly be drawn at the skull, nor even at the skin. For Teed Rockwell — whose work blows my mind in what I experience as a fruitful way – mental phenomena emerge not merely from isolated brain activity, but from ‘a single unified system embracing the nervous system, body, and environment. The neuroscientist Andy Clarke, in a similar vein, concludes that the environment shapes cognition: The human organism, and the external world, are a coupled and unified cognitive system.

The importance of this new perspective is profound. If it turns out that our minds are shaped by our physical environments — and not just by synapses clicking away inside our box-like skulls — then the division between the thinking self, and the natural world — a division which underpins the whole of modern thought — begins to dissolve.

This understanding is startling to us — but it’s old news in other traditions than the western scientific one. In Buddhist thought, for example, it’s been taken for granted for 2,600 years that the organism and its environment are as one.

The insights of modern science also provoke a renewed respect for indigenous peoples whose experience of the world is enriched by perceptual diversity. I’ve learned from Tara Waters Lumpkin, an environmental anthropologist, that perceptually diverse cultures are better able to understand whole systems than scientific cultures that break things down into parts. Indigenous people understand life more holistically than we do. Their aesthetic relations to the biosphere have evolved over many thousands of years. Their everyday experience — being, in Lumpkin’s word, polyphasic – enriches their experience that people and nature are interconnected. Their connected and holistic understanding of the world makes them better stewards of their environments.

This re-evaluation of indigenous knowledge brings me to the fourth defining feature of the desert of the real: the things we don’t think about because we’ve been ‘educated’.

For the philosopher John Zerzan, humanity’s troubles did not begin with with the industrial age, nor even with agriculture. Our problems began when we embraced symbolic culture and placed language, art, and number above other ways of knowing the world. Every abstraction both simplifies, and distances, earthly reality. Abstraction underpins a concept of progress in which the globe is perceived to be a repository of resources to fuel endless growth. Abstract thought is deeply embedded in our educational system with its narrow focus on STEM subjects. STEM is such a misleading acronym when one of its effects is to disconnect us from nature — both physically and psychologically.



Part 2: Environmental communications

It’s in the context of this long-standing and deeply rooted cultural conditioning that I turn to the second part of my talk — a reflection on environmental communications and campaigns.

It’s not as if scientists, designers and artists have been idle while the biosphere suffers. On the contrary: The environmental movement has been enriched by a dazzling array of maps, images, data sets, and visualizations. A premise of Joseph Giacomin’s project, Thermal, for example (see the image above) is that our promiscuous energy use will be harder to ignore when the world is viewed through thermal eyes. Giacomin’s research group at at Brunel University — Perception Enhancement Systems — uses advanced technology to leverage our sensory systems and thereby enhance our understanding. Elsewhere, the water footprinting movement has done some amazing work in rendering complex data into clear and affective stories. Media artists have used lasers to reveal the toxic emissions of power stations that would otherwise be invisible.

Much of this creative and reporting work is impressive, even striking. The trouble is that an unrelenting flow of gloomy news, on its own, has proved at best ineffective — at worst, counter-productive. ‘Doomer porn’, as some call it, stubbornly resists empathy. It produces guilt and denial rather than transformational change.



As a response to the denial dilemma, a new generation of behaviour change campaigns has been crafted in recent years to accentuate the positive. The strategic intent of Futerra’s creative work, for example (above) is to leverage the personal, and the social. Their witty storylines appeal to the values and attitudes of young people as they are, not as we would like them to be.

I’m sympathetic to the intent that lies behind this kind of work. In my own work as a writer and event organizer I, too, try to focus on the positive. I seek out people and projects that are grounds for optimism. By choice, I spend as much time as possible with people who embody a world that’s getting healthier.

I nonetheless have a difficulty with the very concept of campaigns to ‘raise awareness’. However positive and uplifting the stories may be, they leave untouched the underlying narrative that we can have our cake and eat it – where “cake” means a perpetual growth economy.

To be blunt: a focus on the individual’s personal contribution to a problem — and how to change that — is an example of what cynical politicians call bait-and switch. A simple example: if you or I take our shopping home in a reused disposable plastic bag, and feel good about doing so, the bag is typically responsible for about one-thousandth of the footprint of the food it contains.

Re-using a bag is easier ask than re-shaping a food system — but campaigns that make us feel good about ourselves deflect attention from the underlying values and structures that shape our behaviour in the first place.

If accentuating the positive is not, of itself, an answer, we are left with a dilemma: What are we to do if, when people are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What are we to do as designers if we create a powerful piece of communication — and it has no impact? How do we reach a TL;DR generation that survives the media blitz… by filtering most of it out?

In my search for guidance on this topic, I’ve discovered these are not new questions.

Saint Augustine, in City of God, attacked “scenic games” as being responsible for the death of the soul – and that was fifteen hundred years ago.

A century ago, in 1908, the American philosopher John Dewey decried the emergence of what he called a ‘Kodak fixation‘ — a photographic attitude that reduces the citizen’s role to that of a spectator, detached from that which is experienced.

Ivan Illich, writing in 1971, believed that our culture started to go off the rails when monks stopped reading texts aloud to each other, and became solitary scholars — in 1120.

Twenty years ago Susan Sontag’s classic text Regarding the Pain Of Others raised similar issues — with particular reference to war photography. “Why is it” she asked, “that even when we are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change?” Sontag memorably alerted us to the danger that photographs — and by implication all visualizations — have a tendency, in her words, to “shrivel sympathy”. Images shown on television, she wrote, are, by definition, images of which one sooner or later tires. “Image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content.” Compassion, Sontag concluded, “ is an unstable emotion…it needs to be translated into action, or it withers. [. . .] It is passivity that dulls feeling.”

Part 3: New ways of knowing

If it’s passivity that dulls feeling, as Susan Sontag concluded, the question arises: what sort of activity is the necessary accompaniment to environmental communications? If emitting messages. however clever or evocative they may be, is ineffective without some kind of follow-up action, what kinds of action do we need to take?

Before I turn to that question, let me remind you of the important things that we miss by being stranded in the desert of the real:
We miss phenomena that are invisible, such as energy;
We are unaware of things that are somewhere else, such as resource flows;
We miss all sorts of natural phenomena because we use so few of our our senses;
And, because our education, we fail to experience the planet as a living system of which we are a part.

If those are perceptual dead zones, it follows, for me, that the actions we need to take are those that re-connect us — viscerally, and emotionally — with the living systems we’ve lost touch with.

It’s not about campaigns to raise awareness, or to change other peoples’ behaviour. These approaches simply don’t work — or only partially.

It’s not about making demands, of telling politicians what they must do. “The government must end our dependency on fossil fuels”. “We must end this obsession with perpetual growth”. ‘They’ won’t do any such thing. They can’t.

It’s not even about finely crafted ‘visions’ and the promise of a better reality in some other place and time. Nature unfolds the future from the present — not from projections and plans. If nature can do it, so can we.

The actions we need to take are those that facilitate a sense of belonging and being at home in the world. As it is now. Actions that focus attention on the positive qualities of often small, humble, living things that surround us. Actions that create space for people to experience relationships with living systems no matter how small the scale.

This is where art and storytelling come in. Their task is to tweak our interest, redirect our attention, and start conversations, about ways of living that re-connect us with the natural world.


At a social level, we probably need to talk to each other more face to face. Embodied, situated, and unmediated communications were the norm before we invented writing and, later, mass media. The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber counseled just such activity in his book I and Thou of 1923. “All knowledge is dialogic”, wrote Buber — but he did not just advocate talk. Connection is not just about words; it’s about encounter and community. Buber taught us that that literally “vital” conversations needs to be embodied, and situated.

It follows from Martin Buber’s insights suggest that the meeting formats we design should enable us, quite simply, to breathe the same air in a natural context. Over many thousands of years participatory ritual, and performance, were the main ways that beliefs were shared within a culture. In indigenous cultures the world over today, communities use ceremonies, arts and stories to maintain harmony between nature and culture, body and mind.

The trouble started when we invented convention centres.

poptech

Convention centres are expensive, filled with hard surfaces, and — unless you’re in the convention business — somewhere else than the subjects discussed in them. They are media, not the thing itself. I should know: these words describe the early years of the Doors of Perception conference. Doors started out in 1993 as a high energy internet and design conference in which we , too, hung out in vast darkened spaces marveling at the cleverness of our peers.

A realisation then dawned: people don’t want more messages; they want more interactions. This sparked a search — which is still ongoing — for more interactive and less choreographed forms of encounter. We’ve nicknamed the elusive format xskool. Xskools are feral encounters in the sense that they usually takes place outside – or at least, outside the disciplinary tent — and are shaped and energised by their context, not by an abstract agenda. Being outside the tent also brings us closer to people with first-hand about key social-ecological systems: fishers, farmers, foresters, water stewards, ride-sharers, space re-users. Their embodied and situated knowledge is rarely if at all encountered in ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ events.

Our out-of-the-tent approach with xskools is not original. Time was, not so long ago, when children didn’t go to school: School surrounded them. Nature was a living teacher. Every relative — and every plant and animal — was a mentor. People soaked up the language of plants and animals by immersion — not by powerpoint, and not by MOOC. Our modest ambition is to cherish and nurture what’s unique about each place, each moment, each group of people. “X” means: Breathing the same air; Shoulder-to-shoulder learning; The opportunity to be still; Only here, only now.



In a culture that is over-connected, but under-experienced, a good number of people and groups have embarked on similar journeys. Our collective search for new ways to meet, and to reconnect, has seen the emergence of nomadic arts laboratories, low-tech festivals, food fairs, and learning journeys. (The photograph above is from the Secret Garden Party festival in the UK). In California, school students are not taught ecological literacy in so many words. Instead, they’re invited to join a mission to help the endangered California Freshwater Shrimp. Working with ranchers and professional restoration designers, Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) plant native willows to restore the shrimp’s streamside habitat. In Kerala, in India, K B Jinan runs nature sensitization courses for young children that are designed to reawaken the aesthetic sense we are born with. There is no classroom teaching. The children spend their time searching for medicinal plans, making whistles out of leaves, and story-telling. In Turkey, hundreds of teachers across the country are being certified as ecoliteracy instructors in a programme that spans subjects from soil erosion to ethical forestry. Across the global south, La Via Campesina has opened 40 agro-ecological schools that are independent of large-scale commercial agriculture.

These are just a few examples. I could happily show you dozens more projects, the world over, for young and old alike, in which people are taking action to close the metabolic rift. But I need to draw things to a close.

In 2009, the Mannahatta exhibit exposed New Yorkers to Manhattan’s ecosystem in 1609 — just before the first settlers arrived. The event asked: ‘What was it like here before we paved it over?’ Mannahatta showed people which neighbourhoods were originally oak-tulip tree forests, and which buildings had been built on the former homes of masked shrews, and grey foxes. It posed a semi-rhetorical question: could these ancient ecological functions shape the city’s development again?

As we adapt to the realities of energy and resource transition, that is not such a fanciful question. The abundance of the oil age abundance distracted us from the richness and wealth of natural life on earth.The precarity of these new times reminds us that life in artificial environments is not so secure as we thought - and that we’d better get closer to the soils, forests, and fish stocks upon which all life, including our own, depends.

These transitional times provoke a special respect for solutions evolved by nature over the last 3.8 billion years. Other life forms than our own, we’re reminded, are able, expertly, to move water, capture the sun’s energy, provide shelter, store food, recycle nutrients, share resources, build communities, control population, and manage ecosystems — all without human intervention.

We’ve worked hard throughout the modern era, to lift ourselves ‘above’ nature — only to be reminded by modern science that man and nature are one, after all. The human mind is hormonal, as well as neural. Our thoughts and experiences are not limited to brain activity in the skull, nor are they enclosed by the skin. Our metabolism, and nature’s, are inter-connected on a molecular, atomic and viral level. Our nervous systems and our bodies co-exist within the same, life-filled, environment. As embodied creatures – and like all other organisms - we interact continuously with living systems that surround us.

This is something that ‘savage’ people have known all along.

We are born with an inherited aesthetic tendency to appreciate this intimate connection with the world — and then we go to school. There, an unremitting focus on science and technology exacerbates our dislocation from the earth. We manipulate symbols, abstractions, and concepts — but to what end? To earn money? To consume?

Reconnecting with nature is not about leaving home to live in a yurt. For most of us, it means adapting in the places where we live now – re-imagining the urban landscape as a living ecology with the potential to support us.

Re-wilding, in this sense, is not about looking. It’s about reconnecting in practise – working with the plants, animals, and ecosystems that occur naturally in our cities and bioregions.

What lies ahead is like the picture in a jigsaw puzzle that slowly emerges as we add each piece. The ‘pieces’, in this context, include values and practices recovered from nature, other cultures, and other times. This picture contains myriad details of an emerging economy whose core value is stewardship, rather than extraction.

The more pieces we fit in — each piece a new way to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves — in partnership with living processes — the easier it becomes.

It’s our genes at work: Formed long before the industrial age, they’re helping reconnect us with our wild side.



“The savage mind is our mind” said Claude Levi Strauss — but can it be the designer’s mind?

You tell me!

Thank you.



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