The Impossibility of Permanence in a Consumer Society

In the article titled The Analog Revolution, Rian van der Merwe talks about design permanence, specifically permanence with respect to the the difference between digital and analog products. At the end he suggests we try and move away from the “never done” mentality of software development, that we break out of the cycle of perpetual evolution to create digital goods that can finally be finished and completed.

As I have written recently, the root of the problem here lies not in design methodology, and not even in the different nature of analog and digital products, but in the human condition of the designers themselves. Without repeating myself—and I urge the reader to see the linked post for a more thorough explanation—the modern human condition can be described from the standpoint of consumption. The modern human being concerns themselves with chiefly two tasks: the manufacture of consumer goods and the consumption of consumer goods. Because the job of the designer is attached to the “consumer market”, their products must always be a reflection of market needs, and because the market itself evolves at an ever increasing rate, the designer must keep updating their work, lest it becomes obsolete. In other words, consumer goods are, by their nature, tied to an ever moving target, and must follow in step if they wish to remain in use.

Though it may not be apparent to the modern reader, this is not how things have always been. The idea of “progress” on which modern Western society is based is not something shared by all peoples and cultures—although the technological superiority of the “progress” oriented culture tends to consume the rest, as the native American tribes had the misfortune to experience, leading to a sort of “end of history” as proposed by Hegel, developed by Marx, and most recently applied to the modern age by Francis Fukuyama. The ethos of the Roman Empire, for example, was permanence, specifically the permanence of the city of Rome. The Romans expected the empire to last forever. Additionally, its laws and its customs were rooted in this idea of permanence, so that any innovation was frowned upon and fought. The zenith of a Roman citizen’s life was old age. In old age, a citizen grew closer to the city’s founding fathers, for, as Hannah Arendt describes in Between Past and Future, the Roman conception of age was that one grew old not forwards in time, but backwards. The point here is not about Rome, but about a possibility for multiple experiences of the human condition, not all of them rooted in perpetual evolution.

In order to create timeless work, the designer must first disconnect themselves from the market, for as long as the work attempts to satisfy the transient desires of the consumer market it will itself be transient. Second, the work must find its core in a thing of a more permanent nature. I can see two such cores, each with a variety of manifestations. The first is contemplation, which translates to the activities of philosophy and religion. The second is politics, which translates to either the celebration of great deeds, as in ancient Greece, or the pursuit of an ideal, as with the modern conception of history as a process. It is no surprise that each of the listed cores involves a human activity that attempts to surpass the short span of mortal life, obtaining, through its pursuit, a sort of life after death. Only by wrapping your work around such a core can it obtain a timeless nature, for it is not the work itself that is timeless but the essence of the thing that inspires it.

Published October 2015