The Gods Must be Crazy

John Hockenberry on Viral Design

You could say that it was a little glass bottle dropping 30 years ago that caused design to go viral and changed everything. It happened right around the time Metropolis came to be. That’s right, merely an empty bottle or two dropping from the sky started it all; no genie required. We should call this the Metropolis millennium. I’m not speaking of the mathematically precise advance of the Gregorian calendar. It is the more nuanced, conceptual millennium that concerns me, and you will have to adopt my peculiar calendar to understand.

By my reckoning, we’re already about 30 years into this century, which makes the publication of Metropolis a millennial event: Volume 1, Number 1. Whatever the date on the masthead, no trickery is required to make the case that in the past three decades design has evolved from an obscure art form, like the mysterious images painted on dark walls for cave dwellers, to a universal language for describing and anticipating radical change. We can quibble that design might not have needed this publication to tell its millennial story, but it is certainly the case that in the span of a single generation the pace and scale of technological change can no longer be understood or managed without the language of design.

It’s not like anyone would have wanted the 20th century to hang around. The only favors it did for civilization were to start late (August 1914) and end early (somewhere in the 1980s). In between the first shots of World War I and the rollout of the IBM PC (1981), humanity did little more than procreate and crawl out from the muck of two centuries of nonstop industrialization, with generous time off for the conduct of genocide, planetary-scale warfare, and the occasional nuclear-science project. But if it had been the PC alone, just another appliance on the consumer’s pile, nothing would have really changed. The 21st century also needed the FCC’s licensing of commercial cellular-phone networks (1982) and the introduction of the Mosaic Internet browser (1993) to get fully started, leaving plenty of time to usher out the so-last-millennium century without actually having to wait for the disappointing and pointless Y2K. Why would anyone want to prolong the 20th century after the Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why,” the Top 40 hit of the ’80s?

All right, forget pop tunes. In 1981 the comfortably retro Raiders of the Lost Ark was the number-one movie, but the changes to come were signaled a year before by a tiny indie picture. The precise image heralding the premature millennium comes from the 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. It’s the dropping of that empty Coke bottle from the twin-engine bush plane over the Kalahari Desert in the famous opening scene that best conveys what has happened since in the world of design. On-screen, the Coke bottle transcends mere functionality and its narrow commercial identity to become a real movie star. In a spasm of rebranding akin to an episode of Mad Men guest-written by Margaret Mead, the bottle starts the film as a magic lamp, becomes a prophet from heaven, and finally gives birth to an evangelizing movement with the message that irrevocable change has arrived.Long before the word viral was even viral, The Gods Must Be Crazy spun the fable of how change goes viral. Looking back from my imaginary year 2031, I can see that the twin-engine plane never stopped flying. It just reloaded and continued the flyovers, throwing everything from laptops and VCRs to smartphones, iPads, e-mail addresses, and Google searches overboard, onto the unwitting tribes of 21st-century consumers below.

To be sure, there are in this passing generation the familiar narratives of industrial pollution and industrial slaughter and the annoying (some have said “inconvenient”) truths about the unsustainability of global energy demand, all narratives that have been widely reported, even in the pages of this journal. These 20th-century phenomena are worthy of attention and may constitute the eventual undoing of civilization, but psychologically and culturally we’re beyond the new guns, germs, and steel and well into solving the riddle of all the empty bottles dropping from the sky. We have turned a page or reset a cultural clock from zero. The past is no longer prologue but a lapsed subscription. It’s been discontinued. The drivers of this millennium and its agents of change are as unconnected to the linear, 20th-century rise of industrial and consumer culture as Warhol is to the Hapsburgs or napalm is to the Napoleonic Wars. And today all of those artifacts are equally archaic. Like the aboriginal heroes of the movie, we may retain our traditional face paint and loincloths in the present moment, but they’re no help as we seek to download the latest app.

This is not the typical hyperbole screeching forth from the cover of a snarky futurist tract, declaring once again that some media platform is dead or some other app is the killer future, or that all of reality can be represented by some clever graphic. Beyond the wagging of long tails looking for a congratulatory scratch behind the ears for announcing the obvious, we begin to see that the discourse itself is the message. (When in doubt, rip off McLuhan, I always say.) Developing a language of radical change has been the most important human activity of the past 30 years, and design has been the vocabulary.

Future Shock = the Tipping Point = the Matrix = the Perfect Storm = Serious Play = Googled. These are all synonyms for the same process if not event. Each author and his or her fashionable jargon are unimportant compared to the grand collective quest to understand what is going on. It is design thinking that formulates the capacity to signify the emergence of connectivity on a planetary scale, or can convey the importance of the sudden portability of data sets equivalent to one billion Libraries of Alexandria or anticipate the excitement of compressing time and space to the specification of each individual user through technology. The ability to create an Alexandria-scale library of self and publish it to the entire planet as an afterthought is, all by itself, a more revelatory beginning point for the millennium compared to its many dreary and predictable end points.

Mass-producing MP3 players or feature-festooned smartphones and dumping them on markets is an obsolete industrial gesture and not much of a business model. By contrast, anticipating the utility of an 80-gigabyte hard drive in the pocket of every human being and then creating an intuitive object for inscribing distinct experiences is design applied to radical change to produce the narrative of the iPod or the iPhone. It is Steve Jobs—piloting the Apple aircraft high above the Kalahari Desert of his woeful competitors—who sees the iPad not as a mere device but as a portal to an individual human personality, one that also looks terrific leaning against those magenta cotton slacks in the ads. It is Jobs who turns a bitch fest over content pricing into an opportunity to make iTunes the place where the Beatles finally reunite. It’s not a “download service” but a place to hang out with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There they are, inviting you to romp in Strawberry Fields forever. Or merely give a young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, a Facebook account and the imagination to re-create a world and Egypt’s 30-year dictatorship falls. How’s that for a millennial event? In the future there will be no customers or mere citizens, and everyone will be a designer for at least 15 minutes. (In the new millennium you can always rip off Warhol.)

The story is told that this magazine was created to answer its founder’s personal questions about why things are the way they are. (Hopefully, it was not a response to that dreadful Eagles hit.) If that is so, then congratulations are in order. Thirty years later, the “whys” are being supplied by the experiences of individual users. The gods’ empty bottles are no longer empty. They are slowly being filled with meaning, supplied by users who have acquired expectations born of a design sensibility that modern spaces, objects, and technology should serve people, not the other way around. That’s an event worthy of a millennium.

One more thing: this old baby boomer never thought he would make it to the year 2030. At this rate, I could easily make it to 2060. Thanks, Metropolis.

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