May 16, 2018
Last December, National Geographic published a story about the discovery of one of the oldest known time capsules. It was concealed by a chaplain of the Cathedral of Burgo de Osma in Spain, in the buttocks of a statue of Jesus Christ. Hidden inside were some documents that detailed life in Spain in the late 18th Century, along with some thoughts on the political and religious systems of the time. Historians have concluded that this was one of the very first time capsules, given that the creator clearly intended it to be discovered at some point in the distant future. This has been the standard approach to time capsules for hundreds of years; a chance to leave behind some artefacts or thoughts for a future generation to learn about the past.
This is problematic in the 21st Century because pretty much everything we do leaves a permanent imprint. The challenge for future historians won’t be uncovering the past, but sifting it for what is genuinely worthwhile.
This leaves the creators of time capsules in 2018 with a conundrum. What do they put inside? This question will be addressed during next week’s Clerkenwell Design Week by Bisley and Dirty Furniture who are staging an event that explores the role of objects as storytellers in the modern era (details below).
One possible solution to their question might be to ignore the bigger picture completely on the basis that future historians will know all about the news and latest technological developments already. Instead the capsule could be full of kipple, the word Philip K Dick coined for the sort of mundane stuff and detritus that we accumulate as we go about our day to day lives.
So, on that basis, here are seven suggestions for a time capsule of kipple that might tell our descendants something about ourselves and the legacy we think we are leaving them.
An empty plastic water bottle
The great environmental symbol of the past couple of years, our consumption of single use plastics and the casual way we discard them will be something for which our descendants will have to forgive us. Given that it can take 500 years for a standard lump of PET to decompose, they’ll be finding them anyway, but their inclusion would at least communicate a level of self-awareness about what we have done to the world.
It is one of the great paradoxes of the digital age that we have seen a resurgence of interest in clunky, low capacity formats like vinyl and books. It would be easy to dismiss this as the nostalgia of those who remember an analogue world, except that according to this piece in Fortune, half of all vinyl purchases are made by under 35s.
A similar pattern has emerged with the sale of actual books. Younger consumers are returning to paper in preference to electronic formats, according to Nielsen sales figures.
What’s the explanation? Clearly a hankering for something physical. This is mirrored in the desire for experiences rather than possessions, one of the main characteristics of so-called digital natives, who are quite clearly not what they are often assumed to be in many ways.
A rail season ticket
We already know that there is something not right about everybody flooding the transport networks at the same time twice a day. It was once necessary for us to convene in the same place at the same time to get work done. But now habit and a fear of unsupervised labour keep us to the same routines.
This is changing rapidly with people offered more control about when and where they work, but the rush hour ritual continues for the majority. It’s not a zero sum game, of course, and working from home will never replace the need for people to meet and work alongside each other, but the commute will look like madness at some time in the future. Even more so than it currently does.
The most obvious manifestations of the new era of artificial intelligence and automation won’t be very obvious at all, as AI systems inveigle themselves into our devices, and robots pick and pack our shopping in sealed warehouses.
The most visible manifestation of the change will come on our roads, as we pass the steering wheel to a new generation of autonomous driving systems. This is not as far advanced a development as some people might assume, with a range of technological, cultural and legislative barriers still to overcome, but it is coming. So too is a day when driving becomes something people do only for fun.
A mobile phone
There is a healthy trade in old fashioned phones with their limited functionality. This started originally amongst business leaders who picked them up on eBay, attracted to a tool that didn’t distract them continuously from what they needed to do.
In 2017, Nokia relaunched its 3310 in response to this growing demand. This was not merely about nostalgia. Carphone Warehouse described demand for the phone as ‘astonishing’. So, tempting as it is to chuck an iPhone X into the capsule, a better symbol of our difficult relationship with tech might well be an old favourite with a handful of non-intrusive features and a one month battery life.
We’re sick of distractions, especially in the workplace. Not just the volume of noise, but its type and source, as we are informed by the field of psychoacoustics. However much designers incorporate screens and baffles into the workplace, nothing quite says ‘leave me alone’ like a pair of earphones.
And if you want to put on a bigger display of your need for solitude, you could even try some headphones which have enjoyed an increase of sales of over a third in the past five years. The question the inclusion of headphones poses those who open our time capsule, is why so many of us chose ostentatious headphones over discreet ear buds.
In 2013, an academic called David Graeber became something of a phenomenon with an essay called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. In it he describes how a large number of people work in jobs that not only don’t make them happy, but which seem to be completely pointless.
He’s now written a new book on the subject. Graeber is professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and his argument is that we need to reassess our relationship with work, especially in light of the potential of AI to free up our time to look for meaning, especially when offered a basic income.
We’re still exploring the idea but the people who open the time capsule will be able to assess how well we did with the benefit of hindsight, and that goes for all of the items we have included.
For its inaugural Clerkenwell Design Week event in a new home, Bisley has collaborated with Dirty Furniture to create Matter of Fact, an exhibition that explores the role of objects as storytellers in an age of digital media and fake news. Contributors include Jurgen Bey, Sam Jacob, Parsons and Charlesworth and Tobias Revell, some of whom will attend the opening night at Bisley’s new showroom. Bisley has manufactured the ‘time capsules’ in which the exhibits reside.
Bisley is also launching a competition to win a MultiDrawer, using ##Bisleytimecapsule #CDW18 tell @weareBisley what object you would put in a 2018 time capsule.
The exhibition opens on Tuesday 22nd May (email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend) and will run for the duration of Clerkenwell Design Week.