The World Beyond Experience

Post-modern individualist culture has no common goal or purpose—no empire, no religion. Everyone is an individual with their own tastes, dreams, views and ambitions. Everyone pursues their own goals, seeks out their own path to happiness. There is no common project, no common people, only an ever growing mass consumption society.

The only thing that is considered real in this atomized culture is experience. To the post-modern individual life is a series of experiences. From the perspective of this condition, the quality of one’s life is measured by the sum and the quality of those experiences. The consumer consumes products, but it is not the products they are really after, it is the experience afford by those products. Owning or using a thing is not enough, it must become part of an enjoyable experience.

This is why design has transitioned into “user experience design”. Design is no longer a linear activity with an end product, it is now a never ending process, and the object of the process is the continual creation of experiences, which themselves do not last, being consumed the moment they are created.

This condition of the modern consumer society ignores the very ground upon which it has grown and developed, namely: civilization. Civilization—the collective cultural and intellectual capital of a society—exists outside of a single human lifespan. It exists in the minds of individuals, but it lives and evolves in the minds of a people.

Objects of civilization are built over generations. The construction of the Salisbury Cathedral began in 1220, ending about a hundred years later in 1320. At least three generations of craftsmen were involved, each passing on the mission and the skills required to carry it out to the next in line. Civilization is like a cathedral—it exists outside of individuals, but it nourishes them and connects them, tying them together onto a common thread that spans far beyond their short lives.

The post-modern atomized culture is the world of individual experiences. It has no goal, no purpose. It actively eats away and corrodes civilization by submerging the people in the waters of the ephemeral. In contrast stands the world of objects. Products that embody the ethos of a people or a movement are not only material creations—they attach themselves to the spiritual, becoming embodiments of the immortal world of ideas. They become artifacts of civilization, carriers of its symbols, monuments to its struggles and triumphs. They are spirit materialized.

It is fashionable to complain that the consumer culture has given us a million apps but not a single flying car. I would rather see cathedrals than flying cars. But we won’t have any cathedrals, or any great art, until we see that there is a common world beyond our individual experiences, a common world onto which we can express our taste, our values, our consciousness; a world upon which we can—to steal a phrase from Tolstoy—construct a bridge between our finite lives and the infinite universe.

Published January 2016