Objects and Artifacts: Physical survivors in a digital world

Objects and Artifacts: Physical survivors in a digital world

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation

Raphael Gielgen is Head of Research & Trendscouting at Vitra.

In 2018, it is widely accepted that “anything that can be digitised, will be digitised!”

The Cologne Dome

Source: Raphael Geilgen

If we look around, we find a world where we want to stay relevant in the face of increasing digitalisation. From bikes to cars, home heating to the chairs we work from, if they are not completely connectible they will soon be no longer relevant. We are adding digital layers in any surface or product to reinvent the customer experience. When we think of any design projects in these times, we are thinking of a modern and digital future. We trust in a connected world where each experience contributes to the whole system. Products are personalised, knowing their users at every point; a customised solution guarantees customer satisfaction. Whatever we need, it is simple, seamless, accessible and actionable. Real-time feedback gives us direction for optimisation and further developments.

But ask yourself: what remains from this digital world?

Software determines the lifespan of hardware. I think every one of us knows this phenomenon from their everyday lives. The smartphone is upgraded to the latest version of the operating system, making it unbearably slow; the driver software for the old printer cannot be installed on the new computer. Nevertheless, software will also become obsolete if the functionality no longer exists.

Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California

Source: Raphael Gielgen

I quickly realised there is no digital companion who has outlived a cat on my farm!

Is there really no hardware or software that could celebrate a double-digit birthday? The hardware lands on the electronic waste pile while the software drifts like a lost satellite through the infinity of the Internet. The digital world suggests to us the possibilities of the future. If we take a closer look at its tools, we realise that they will not outlive the now. There will be no memory beyond the now. The digital world is a backdrop. It changes permanently and has no consistency. When I take a mental journey through time, these forgotten things of the early digital age show up in front of me: handhelds, cell phones, translation devices, navigation devices, video cameras, computers. I just forgot them and I do not really miss them. Our tools tell us what we may think, do or invent. Software is even less tangible; it is kind of a tool that nobody needs anymore.

Simba the cat

Source: Raphael Gielgen

One wonders what happens to this wonderful digital world around us that makes life so comfortable and easy – even if we wanted to, we cannot keep any software or app alive or repair it

This thought is liberating and it guides us to the essential: the physical world. We live and work in physical spaces and surround ourselves with physical objects. These are certain places and certain objects that attract us. We are connected with them based on our first impression and the experiences we had with them. In particular, these places and these objects that we sense as meaningful touch us. They are deeply connected with our memory.

“What is your earliest personal memory?”

Once during a lecture, a man in the audience asked me this question. I spontaneously answered, “The forest, the forest around our house. I grew up in the forest”. I was surprised how present this memory was. In the days that followed, I could not let go of this experience. My memory was strongly connected to an object, something physical made by nature and a part of a cultural and societal interest.

Forest near the farm

Source: Raphael Gielgen

Thinking in a wider context, you understand nothing and no one is alone: we are always connected, to each other and to objects. Objects appeal to our senses. We find things worth having, especially if we find them meaningful.

Objects are powerful; they open a window into time and are invaluable

We all also have artifacts as well as objects. These artifacts have a special and personal value for us. They are entryways into our personal experience or values; they are mirrors to our own humanity. It seems as if these objects have a permanent presence.

The will of meaning determines our life. Physical spaces and objects give us this wonderful sensual experience. Flair and taste, knowledge and awareness, these are what makes us human.

We associate places and objects with sensory impressions and the feelings that affect us. That is how we learn, understand and explore the world.

By trying to keep up in these digital times, we have failed to realise that the more connected we are virtually, the more we crave real human connection

During my travels, meeting digital pioneers and disrupters to try their tools and understand their predictions of the future, I experienced something very special. I began to realise that the physical world is invaluable.

I began to realise that the physical world has a remarkable meaning for us. It grounds us as humans and connects us with our remarkable experiences and will last forever. Different times and different circumstances call for different leadership skills. Our duty now is to rethink the human spirit.

Raphael's studio

Source: Raphael Gielgen

Banner image: Pawel Kuczynski


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