“Everything-as-an-object died its permanent death the minute the Web came along.”(1)
Currently—and more than at any time before—the duration of an object’s life is extended indefinitely and multidimensionally by means of (digital) sketches, scans, photographs or virtually 3D rendered images. These can all be considered tools for extending an object’s life both on and offline—both backwards and forwards in time, and both physically and immaterially. In a way, we could say that designing an object in the 21st century equates to designing immortally, since its material outcome and digital afterlife will most likely outlive us. It may be hard to imagine, but design used to manifest itself merely physically or materially. Throughout recorded history, design has evolved from mere physical object-based tools towards a wide variety of not-so-physical design.
Oldowan choppers dating to 1.7 million years BP, from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia. Source: Didier Descouens (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Think, as an example, of the 2-million-year-old Afro-Eurasian tools within the Oldowan classification. Oldowan tools were long considered to be the oldest stone tool industry in existance and one of the earliest signs of cultural behaviours enacted within human evolution. (2) Early humans, or homo habilis, created so-called “choppers” which are best described as stones with sharpened edges that were used to chop, cut or scrape another material. You could call them the ‘gadgets of prehistoric technology’. For a long time objects, or designed cutting tools, within the Oldowan classification existed without having 2D surrogates such as drawings, written descriptions or photographs to support them; let alone a digital (after)life. Since then, these tools have been collected, (re)stored, documented, analyzed, described, and photographed. Perhaps photographs of some of these tools have even been digitised, or 3D scans made to create virtual renders of these objects. Now, if we take an Oldowan cutting tool as a metaphor of the past, what metaphor best describes the designed objects and tools of our time?
Different from the Oldowan tool, we now live in an era where the 2D or 3D representation of a thing will most likely outlive the thing it represents; if a ‘thing’ was made at all. With the digital tools of the late 21st century, almost everything can be made by everyone—at least in the digital realm. Let me explain this further… Where the Oldowan tool has had a long physical life and a rather short (digital) image-based life, the opposite counts for most of the objects or tools designed in the past few decades. Many a prototype or sample is initially rendered digitally before it comes into physical existence. Most digital objects never even get to that physical stage, whether intended or unintended. Some objects were created exclusively for the digital realm and, thus, they live a mostly digital life.
“The triviality of […] utensils is rather a guarantee for transience than an appeal to preserve it as extraordinary heritage.”(3)
When looking at some of the developments within design and tools used at the beginning of this century, we might be able to get a better grasp of what I would like to call “the phantom of design”. A design’s phantom is everything but its physicality: its aura, its phygital (i.e blending of digital and physical experiences) remnants, its mental imprint, its diaphanous character and its spiritual relic.
Phantom OS screenshot for 17 Oct 2019. Source: Dmitry Zavalishin (CC BY-SA 4.0).
In reflecting upon how designed objects came to be what they are today it seems rather strange to delve into an operating system that is already over 60 years old and left the realm of computing and programming long ago. The Phantom Operating System (Phantom OS) was created by Dmitry Zavalishin back in 2009—an era in which we were first introduced to Lady Gaga, women still wore leggings as pants, and in which we transitioned from flip phones to touchscreen smartphones. These trends (as the word suggests) were not built to last. The primary goal of the Phantom OS, however, was to become immortal. With Phantom, powering down a computer would not cause running programs to change state because it accomplished automatic state preservation. It did so by snapshotting system memory onto disk. Now, years and years after Phantom OS shifted away from the market and our screens, it appears it is not the actual operating system, but its legacy, that lives on in expected ways.
We could say that the Phantom OS, as a way of thinking or as an approach, is still among us yet more on a human rather than digital scale. Whereas before we were limited by the basic intelligence within our human brains—caused by the conditioning of our minds by the powerful idea that things need to be physical for them to be real—we now know that we can do much more with much less. The act of snapshotting has become our main way of consuming things, objects, thoughts and ideas instead of acquiring the actual, physical, ‘in-the-flesh’ object. Going to sleep (mode) does not necessarily mean we will forget the objects present in our daily lives or in our memories. Although we are still waiting for the possibility to actually ‘save’ what is stored in our brains, the human brain and its neural networking have undergone a tremendous transformation over the past couple of decades, making the recent past seem like a tale from olden days.
At the beginning of the century, many museum curators were worried about the preservation of textile garments which were especially prone to decay after decenniums of inertia within collection depots. They questioned whether digital photographs, scans, or even virtually rendered images would be able to transpose the tactile sensation of the actual garment. In 2018, Utrecht-based design collective Studio PMS launched their ‘In Pursuit of Tactility’ collection: a collection that explored what fashion could be(come) in the digital realm. In response to crippling fashion industry systems that suffered from overproduction and excessive waste, Studio PMS proposed an alternative that mitigated overproduction and overconsumption by creating a collection of digitally rendered fashion pieces. In order to achieve a sense of tactility, they had to rediscover physical characteristics of fabrics and fashion such as composition, texture, movement and touch. Back then, this project served as a future-forward anticipation of what fashion could be in the digital realm. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world of fashion in which the material garment or object is preferred over the digital sensation and consumption of a product. Especially given the fashion industry’s former toxic character and the ecologically and ethically disastrous consequences that arose from this.
Another example of how transient digital utensils made way for a (re)interpretation and elongation, of an object’s life was Unfold Antwerp’s research project ‘Atlas of the Lost Finds’. This project invited a selection of designers to collaborate on creating tools to reanimate and dematerialise objects lost during a fire that ruined most of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2017. Felideo became the first case in the ‘Atlas of Lost Finds’ project. An original stirrup vessel, produced by the Chimú in Peru, was located in the archives when fire raged through the museum and destroyed around 18 million other artefacts. Amandine David, one of the participating designers, wanted to investigate how physical information is lost and recreated and how each step within this process transforms the initial design. In an attempt to reproduce the piece, both traditional and digital craft techniques were employed that explored the value and implications of this act of rematerialising this object from its ‘data ghost’. The project resonates with the ways in which we view visual culture today, and how lost material treasures are being preserved within our endless virtual and imagined wunderkammers.
Going back to the question asked at the beginning of this essay, I wonder what can be considered a metaphor that would best describe the designed objects and tools of our time. The digitalisation and ASMR-ification of visual culture in the first two decades of the 21st century made us turn to more adaptive and sensorial digital crafting tools instead of mere physical ones. We now can imagine life without objects, something that was impossible at the beginning of the century. In opposition to the process Oldowan tools went through, nowadays our virtually created 2D and 3D objects no longer need a physical or material surrogate. Beforehand, what we thought we could make was dictated by the physical things or tools available around us. Now that the physical outcome is merely a possibility and in itself no longer a necessity, the possibilities to create ‘things’ directly from our brains is endless.
To conclude: any previous (digital) sketches, scans, photographs, or virtually 3D rendered images of objects can be considered as “phantoms of design”—representing physical things albeit, without physicality. However, today we can also consider (digital) sketches and prototypes, mock-ups, or virtually 3D rendered images, without material surrogate, to be creators of a phantom of a design. If we are confronted with an image of a thing, we can automatically think of that thing as existing physically, therefore making the physical production of a design redundant. The only tool we need to convert the mortal physical thing into an immortal phantom, and vice versa, is our brain. Is it then our endless imagination and immortal dataset of intermingling memories, images, texts and clips—the never shut-down brain as a Phantom OS—that can be considered the ungraspable tool of our time?
References in this text:
- Comment by user tidux, on osnews website, https://www.osnews.com/story/130792/what-is-phantom-os-about/, (accessed October 2020).
- Heiden, K. and de Niet, M., ‘Design en vormgeving in het digitaal archief’, Boekman 93 (2012), pp.74-80.
- On Phantom OS: “Russian rides Phantom to OS immortality. The iPhone that never dies.” by Ted Dziuba. The Register, February 2009, https://www.theregister.com/2009/02/03/phantom_russian_os/, (accessed October 2020)
- “The Phantom Operating System”, via Github, https://phantomdox.readthedocs.io/en/latest/, (accessed October 2020)