This essay was first published at The Pathos of Things newsletter. Subscribe here.
Somewhere in my room (I forget where exactly) there is a box containing four smartphones I’ve cycled through in the last decade or so. Each of these phones appeared shockingly new when I first removed it from its neat cuboid packaging, though now there is a clear progression of models, with the earliest almost looking fit for a museum. This effect is part of their design, of course: these objects were made to look original at first, and then, by contrast to newer models, out of date. That all have cracked screens only emphasises their consignment to the oblivion of the obsolete.
The point of this sketch is not just to make you reflect on your consumer habits. I think it represents something more profound. This series of phones is like an oblique record of the transformation of society, describing the emergence of a new paradigm for organising human existence. It captures a slice of time in which the smartphone has changed every dimension of our lives, from work and leisure to knowledge and personal relations. This small device has upended professions from taxi driving to journalism, and shaped global politics by bringing media from around the world to even the poorest countries. It has significantly altered language. It has enabled new forms of surveillance by private companies and government agencies alike. A growing number of services are inaccessible without it.
Yet with its sleek plastic shell and vibrant interfaces, the smartphone is nonetheless a formidable object of desire: a kind of gateway to the possibilities of the 21st century. Ultimately, what it represents is paradoxical. An exhilarating sense of novelty, progress and opportunity; but also the countless adaptations we have to make as technology reshapes our lives, the new systems into which we are forced to fit ourselves.
To understand how a designed object can have this kind of power, defining both the practical and imaginative horizons of our age, we have to look beyond the immediate circumstances in which it appeared. The smartphone is a truly modern artefact: modern not just in the sense that it represents something distinctive about this era, but modern in another, deeper sense too. It belongs to a longer chapter of history, modernity, which is composed of moments that feel “modern” in their own ways.
The story of modernity shows us the conditions that enable design to shape our lives today. But the reverse is also true: the growing power of design is crucial to understanding modernity itself.
The very idea of design, as we understand it now, points to what is fundamentally at stake in modernity. To say that something is designed implies that it is not natural; that it is artificial, conceived and constructed in a certain way for a human purpose. Something which is not designed might be some form of spontaneous order, like a path repeatedly trodden through a field; but we still view such order as in some sense natural. The other antonym of the designed is the disordered, the chaotic.
These contrasts are deeply modern. If we wind the clock back a few centuries – and in many places, much less than that – a hard distinction between human order and nature or chaos becomes unfamiliar. In medieval Europe, for instance, design and its synonyms (form, plan, intention) came ultimately from a transcendent order, ordained by God, that was manifest in nature and society alike. Human designs, such as the ornamentation of Gothic cathedrals or the symbols and trappings of noble rank, drew their meaning from that transcendent order.
In practical terms though, the question of where order came from was really a question about the authority of the past. It was the continuity of customs, traditions, and social structures in general which provided evidence that order came from somewhere beyond society, that it was natural. This in turn meant the existing order, inherited from the past, placed constraints of what human ambition could fathom.
To be modern, by contrast, is to view the world without such limitations. It is to view the world as something human beings must shape, or design, according to their own goals.
This modern spirit, as it is sometimes called, was bubbling up in European politics and philosophy over centuries. But it could only be fully realised after a dramatic rupture from the past, and this came around the turn of the 19th century. The French Revolution overturned the established order with its ancient hierarchies across large parts of Europe. It spread the idea that the legitimacy of rulers came from “the people” or “the nation,” a public whose desires and expectations made politics increasingly volatile. At the same time, the seismic changes known as the Industrial Revolution were underway. There emerged an unpredictable, dynamic form of capitalism, transforming society with its generation of new technologies, industries and markets.
These developments signalled a world that was unmistakably new and highly unstable. The notion of a transcendent order inherited from the past became absurd, because the past was clearly vanishing. What replaced it was the modern outlook that, in its basic assumptions, we still have today. This outlook assumes the world is constantly changing, and that human beings are responsible for giving it order, preventing it from sliding into chaos.
Modernity was and is most powerfully expressed in certain experiences of space and time. It is rooted in artificial landscapes, worlds built and managed by human beings, of which cities are still the best example. And since it involves constant change, modernity creates a sense of the present as a distinct moment with its own fashions, problems and ideas; a moment that is always slipping away into a redundant past, giving way to an uncertain future. “Modernity,” in the poet Charles Baudelaire’s famous expression, “is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.”
Design was present at the primal scenes of modernity. The French Revolutionaries, having broken dramatically with the past, tried to reengineer various aspects of social life. They devised new ways of measuring space (the metric system) and time (the revolutionary calendar, beginning at Year Zero, and the decimal clock). They tried to establish a new religion called the Cult of the Supreme Being, for which the artist Jacques-Louis David designed sets and costumes.
Likewise, the Industrial Revolution emerged in part through the design activities of manufacturers. In textiles, furniture, ceramics and print, entrepreneurs fashioned their goods for the rising middle-classes, encouraging a desire to display social status and taste. They devised more efficient production processes to increase profits, ushering in the age of factories and machines.
These early examples illustrate forces that have shaped design to this day. The French Revolution empowered later generations to believe that radical change could be conceived and implemented. In its more extreme phases, it also foreshadowed the attempts of some modern regimes to demolish an existing society and design a new one. This utopian impulse towards order and perfection is the ever-present dark side of design, in that it risks treating people as mere material to be moulded according to an abstract blueprint. Needless to say, design normally takes place on a much more granular level, and with somewhat less grandiose ambitions.
Modern politics and commerce both require the persuasion of large groups of people, to engineer desire, enthusiasm, fear and trust. This is the realm of propaganda and advertising, a big part of what the aesthetic design of objects and spaces tries to achieve. But modern politics and commerce also require efficient, systematic organisation, to handle complexity and adapt to competition and change. Here design plays its more functional role of devising processes and tools.
Typically we find design practices connected in chains or webs, with functional and aesthetic components. Such is the connection between the machine humming in the factory and the commodity gleaming in the shop window, between urban infrastructure and the facades which project the glory of a regime, between software programmes and the digital interface that keeps you scrolling.
But modernity also creates space for idealism. Modern people have an acute need of ideals, whether or not they can be articulated or made consistent, because modern people have an acute need to feel that change is meaningful.
The modern mind anticipates constant change, and understands order as human, but by themselves these principles are far from reassuring. Each generation experiences them through the loss of a familiar world to new ideas, new technologies, new social and cultural patterns. We therefore need a way to understand change as positive, or at least a sense of what positive change might look like (even if that means returning to the past). Modernity creates a need for horizons towards which we can orient ourselves: a vision of the future in relation to which we can define who we are.
Such horizons can take the form of a collective project, where people feel part of a movement aiming at a vision of the future. But for a project to get off the ground, it again needs design for persuasion and efficiency. From Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire Style furniture, with which he fitted out a vast army of bureaucrats, to Barack Obama’s pioneering Internet campaigns, successful leaders have used a distinctive aesthetic style and careful planning to bring projects to life.
Indeed, the search for effective design is one of modernity’s common denominators, creating an overlap between very different visions of society. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the ideals of communist artists and designers diverged from those dominant in the capitalist west. But the similarities between Soviet and western design in the 1920s and 30s are as striking as the differences. Communist propaganda posters and innovative capitalist advertising mirrored one another. Soviet industrial centres used the same principles of efficiency as the factories of Ford Motor Company in the United States. There was even much in common between the 1935 General Plan for Moscow and the redevelopment of Paris in the 1850s, from the rationalisation of transport arteries to the preference for neoclassical architecture.
But horizons can also be personal. The basis of consumerism has long been to encourage individuals to see their own lives as a trajectory of self-improvement, which can be measured by having the latest products and moving towards the idealised versions of ourselves presented in advertising. At the very least, indulging in novelty can help us feel part of the fashions and trends that define “the now”: a kind of unspoken collective project with its own sense of forward movement that consumerism arranges for us.
Above all though, design has provided horizons for modern people through technology. Technological change is a curiously two-sided phenomenon, epitomising our relative helplessness in the face of complex processes governing the modern world, while also creating many of the opportunities and material improvements that make modern ways of life desirable. Technology embodies the darkest aspects of modernity – alienation, exploitation, the constant displacement of human beings – as well as the most miraculous and exhilarating.
Design gives technology its practical applications and its aesthetic character. A series of design processes are involved, for instance, in turning the theory of internal combustion into an engine, combining that engine with countless other forms of engineering to produce an aeroplane, and finally, making the aeroplane signify something in the imagination of consumers. In this way, design determines the forms that technology will take, but also shapes the course of technological change by influencing how we respond to it.
Technology can always draw on a deep well of imaginative power, despite its ambiguous nature, because it ties together the two core modern ideals: reason and progress. Reason essentially describes a faith that human beings have the intellectual resources to shape the world according to their goals. Progress, meanwhile, describes a faith that change is unfolding in a positive direction, or could be made to do so. By giving concrete evidence of what reason can achieve, technology makes it easier to believe in progress.
But a small number of artefacts achieve something much greater. They dominate the horizons of their era, defining what it means to be modern at that moment. These artefacts tend to represent technological changes that are, in a very practical sense, transforming society. More than that, they package revolutionary technology in a way that communicates empowerment, turning a disorientating process of change into a new paradigm of human potential.
One such artefact was the railway, the most compelling symbol of 19th century industrial civilisation, its precise schedules and remorseless passage across continents transforming the meaning of time and space. Another was the factory, which in the first half of the 20th century became an aesthetic and political ideal, providing Modernist architects as well as dictators with a model of efficiency, mass participation and material progress. And probably the most iconic product ever to emerge from a factory was the automobile, which, especially in the United States, served for decades as an emblem of modern freedom and prosperity, its streamlined form copied in everything from kitchen appliances to radios.
I will write in more detail about such era-defining artefacts in later instalments of this newsletter. For now, I only want to say that I believe the smartphone also belongs in this series.
Obviously the smartphone arrived in a world very different from the factory or car. The western experience is now just one among numerous distinct modernities, from East Asia to Latin America. For those of us who are in the west, social and cultural identity are no longer defined by ideas like nation or class, but increasingly by the relations between individuals and corporate business, mediated by an immersive media environment.
But the smartphone’s conquest of society implies that this fragmented form of modernity still sustains a collective imagination. What we have in common is precisely what defines the smartphone’s power: a vision of compact individual agency in a fluid, mobile, competitive age. The smartphone is like a Swiss army knife for the ambitious explorer of two worlds, the physical and the virtual; it offers self-sufficiency to the footloose traveller, and access to the infinite realms of online culture. It provides countless ways to structure and reflect on individual life, with its smorgasbord of maps, photographs, accounts and data. It allows us to seal ourselves in a personal enclave of headphones and media wherever we may be.
Yet the smartphone also communicates a social vision of sorts. One of its greatest achievements is to relieve the tension between personal desire and sociability, since we can be in contact with scores of others, friends and strangers alike, even as we pursue our own ends. It allows us to imagine collective life as flashes of connectivity between particles floating freely through distant reaches of the world.
It is not uniquely modern for a society to find its imagined centre in a singular technological and aesthetic achievement, as Roland Barthes suggested in the 1950s by comparing a new model Citroën to the cathedrals of medieval Europe. The difference is that, in modernity, such objects can never be felt to reflect a continuous, transcendent order. They must always point towards a future very different from the present, and as such, towards their own obsolescence.
The intriguing question raised by the smartphone is whether the next such artefact will have a physical existence at all, or will emerge on the other side of the door opened by the touch screen, in the virtual world.
This essay was first published at The Pathos of Things newsletter. Subscribe here.