Thursday, 12 February 2009

(Draft) Article for Sublime Magazine - "Work In Progress" Themed Issue

Article (aged 1 month)

My son Cosmo (aged 6) and his dad (aged 44) have been playing a game recently. I suggest an object and he has to guess how long it has been around. It’s a fun game, interspersed with giggling about events like the invention of the flushable toilet (aged 120). And how in much older times you had to watch out for Londoners emptying chamber pots out of city windows. Or the gory news that before guns (aged 500) and cannons (700), battles consisted mostly of people at very close quarters hacking at each other with swords and spears. We get back as far as writing (aged 5500), cities (aged 15,000) or farming (aged 23,000). And Cosmo quite rightly exclaims: “well that’s not very long is it?”

No indeed. It’s not very long at all. 23,000 years. 920 generations. (For some bacteria 920 generations would take only just over 6 day’s worth of our time).

This all falls into a span of time Cosmo would describe as ‘countable’. That is to say, you could - if you really wanted to - count back all the way to your ‘great, great, great… great grandfather’ who was alive at those times. You can’t count back to what he calls ‘the old days’, when stone tools first appeared (aged 2.4 million). Not unless you were a very, very patient 6 year old. But most of our world is very countable indeed.

So how come we can’t just change things? The market research says that people simply cannot imagine life without a nice modern car, without central heating, without mobile phones, TV, foreign holidays… all things that no-one would have expected to have a few generations ago. Cosmo, in point of fact, loves hearing the stories of when I was his age and used to stay with my grandmother who had an outside toilet, no TV, no central heating, and certainly no video games – but who still used to marvel to me about the scientific miracle that was her transistor radio. ‘Whatever next?’ she used to say.

‘Whatever next?’ indeed. What is more depressing than all those things we could not imagine living without, is that we also can’t seem to imagine a future which is better than now. Where new solutions will be found to the ancient problems of daily life; of trouble and toil, comfort and stimulation; the love of fresh air, natural scenes, open landscapes, of pottering, sharing ideas and chitchat. Can we really not imagine a better life than the one we live today?

In the America of the 1930s the dream of a leisure society took hold; with a three day working week and ample opportunities to learn, socialise, bring up a family. It’s the side of the ‘great depression’ story that is seldom told, blotted out by the mechanisation of wartime production and the treadmill of post war ‘productivity’. As Susan Currell wrote of this time: “Of all the problems that faced America in the 1930s, only leisure seemed to offer a panacea for the rest.” 25% unemployment? Why don’t we all just work less of the time, and pursue learning, family, self development, hobbies, entertainments?

In the 1950s another utopia took hold, this time the ‘space age’. The media were full of images of flying cars, domestic robots, holiday homes on the moon. Where the 1930s dreams took their cue from the Great Depression, the 1950s combined consumerism, the space race and the power of television.

Imagine a new way of life today, one based on the challenges of sustainability. Not a descent, retreat or collapse. But an advance. One that will make our own homes look antiqued. As cluttered as a Victorian parlour. As mechanistic as the industrial age factories that modern architecture and design drew its inspiration from. In this future our clunky prosthetic technology has all but disappeared. But we will live more comfortably and healthily in homes which self-regulate and apply all sorts of clever ideas drawn from fields like bio-mimicry, to new ways of heating, cooking, sleeping, learning, communicating and once again reducing ‘the trouble and toil’ of daily life. One better suited to human rhythms and instincts than today’s machine homes. All of these new ideas will be beautiful. And they will create a more beautiful life. How will they capture the imagination if not? A home in this future will produce no waste, consume very little energy. But its excitement will come from the kind of living it supports, not its restrictions.

The quality of life agenda is slowly taking hold in mainstream politics. But we still perhaps need to wrest it from the clutches of the ‘back to nature’ brigade if it is to become the dream of our age. If all we can offer people is a shanty town or rustic hut, how can we complain when they cling onto what they have? If we aren’t all to go back to farming, we will still need an economy, cities, companies, shops and mass production; although all of these in very new forms.

Have we forgotten how to dream of a better life? My son hasn’t. He told me yesterday that he wishes ‘all the magic stories were true’. It’s dreams like those that led mankind to flying. (And okay that proved to be a mixed blessing. But what an achievement!) Can’t we accept that we are, unless we totally screw things up, at a very early stage of human civilisation? That we are quite an inventive species, when we put our minds to it? And can’t we realise that most of what we regard as permanent features, ‘the only way things can be’ are all so very fleeting in their recency? If the challenge of leaving things in a better state than we currently find them seem daunting, perhaps it’s just that we need to wrestle the planning back from the technocrats, and start imagining again?

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