Viewpoint (June 01, 2008)

In a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) entitled Design and the Elastic Mind, Department of Architecture and Design curator Paola Antonelli leads a fascinating exploration into the convergence of technology and design through a largely optimistic display of ideas that “marry the most advanced scientific research with attentive consideration of human limitations, habits, and aspirations.” One of the most interesting themes to emerge is society’s ability to adapt to the changing perceptions of personal space and identity through unprecedented scientific and technological advancements over the past 25 years. We now carry communication and GPS navigation systems in pocket-sized devices while enjoying a variety of sophisticated social networking tools at our disposal. Moreover, those same devices often contain thousands of songs or news podcasts that we can listen to with our headphones, further contributing to the creation of invisible shrouds of personal space in the public realm while fundamentally reconstructing the definition of community. Fuelling this dynamic, designers have responded accordingly by proffering new gadgetry that feed our “needs” and “fears,” whether they are imagined or imposed upon us. But should society place a limit in embracing these new technologies?

If society is having difficulties adapting to rapid changes in technology and science, so are the artists, architects, industrial designers and engineers who must decipher the range of design challenges in our contemporary world, only to then translate them back into objects, concepts or services that we as a society can understand, use, and ultimately afford. It is therefore not surprising that the commodifed products of our time remain largely at a small scale, as it is far more difficult to effect technological advancements on our city’s infrastructure and architecture.

In a recent interview on Charlie Rose’s epony-mous late-night television talk show, Antonelli candidly dismissed “form as pass.” Clarifying her comments, she explained how advanced technology often appears to have a greater influence on the experiential or sensorial aspects of design than does the traditional perception of “form” itself. Thus, non-object web-based applications such as Facebook, Second Life or even the effects of the ubiquitous iPod present examples of designed solutions where the built form is either absent or subservient to the technology. The transformative effect of these devices and applications on the built world is substantive, enabling society to adapt its technologies to effectively modulate public and private space. The ramifications of improved interfaces on designed objects further enhance the ability of even small-scale objects to have an effect on public life. Witnessing this evolution (or devolution) of community, the architecture profession must remain vigilant that these experientially based technologies do not undermine our efforts to strengthen community through positive contributions to the larger built environment.

As much as Design and the Elastic Mind intends to be a survey of some of the latest concepts in science, technology and design converging in the world today, the exhibition also illustrates how experienced-based technology may contribute to the deterioration of social interactions within our physical environment.

We can only hope that we will be able to transcend the overwhelming commodification of technologically based design and evolve as a society. As Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, noted in the exhibition catalogue, “It is the Elastic Mind–with the flexibility and strength to embrace progress and to harness it–that is best suited to confront the world of seemingly limitless challenges and possibilities.”