Issue #47: Artifacts and Belonging

“The beauty of artifacts is in how they reassure us we’re not the first to die.” ― Simon Van Booy

I hurt my shoulder in a pretty traumatic way almost two weeks ago. One of the first two artifacts that I saw when I hurt my shoulder was of course, the hospital bracelet from my ER visit. I also have the the sling that I’ve worn every day since that visit. So this week we are looking at artifacts from the future. In case you weren't familiar with this concept, look to archaeology for more details. When archaeologists go on a dig, they uncover objects that are from the past. These objects tell a story about the values that people who lived in that time and place as well as the problems that they need to solve, because oftentimes, we create objects in order to solve problems. Artifacts give us a window into how people think. We can understand the logic behind the design of things, learn more about where they were found, and the appearance and adornments tell us about notions of beauty. Objects tell so much about ourselves as individuals, family units, and societies about what we hold dear, and what's necessary in a given time.

Artifacts from the future include the objects that a time traveler might encounter if they went on an archeological exploration 10 or 20 years from now. It’s a method to embody the future today. If you're not familiar with the #PandemicArtifacts, futurist Wendy Schultz, has been excavating and tracking artifacts from this very bizarre time. This digital time capsule of the objects from this time illuminates rapidly changing notions of safety, connection and sensemaking in the mass trauma we all are living through. Bloomberg CityLab asked readers to create maps that visualize what their worlds and personal landscapes look like in the time of COVID19.

How might our artifacts change as our digital lives grow in scope? Unlike ancient cultures, we aren’t leaving behind pottery or weapons. Maybe in our age of climate volatility we will have lost civilizations like Pompei or Atlantis. But more likely, our digital detritus — smartphones, laptops, gaming consoles, etc hold gigabytes of data only unlocked if they can be read. But really, are these data the same as the stories that we can tell from ancient objects? How much of these data will survive planned obsolescence or the end of software and firmware updates? Over the next two, five or ten decades, how will we identify and interpret stories of belonging from this time?

France recently introduced two regulatory indices that will change the design and utility of electronics to reduce avoidable waste both in electronics and other appliances and reject our global throwaway culture. The national legislature voted to introduce an index of repairability ratings for appliances like washing machines, lawn mowers, televisions, and smartphones, allowing consumers to make purchases based on capacity to repair wear and tear rather manufacturers compelling consumers to accept planned obsolescence. The goal is basically to increase the repair rate to 60% within five years. The legislature also introduced a durability index. Scores from the index are added to product packaging to indicate potential for longevity at the point of purchase. Now with the power of transparency, consumers will have more choice in the market to make purchases that can save money over the long term and not export the human costs of consumerism to landfills in emerging economies. It’s also a subtle way to foster long-term thinking in consumers and build behaviors that counter the pervasive consumerism in our culture.

If we were to imagine artifacts from the future, so imagine artifacts related to belonging 10 or 20 years from now, what would those objects look like? What materials are these objects made of? What is the job that they would be designed to do as Clayton Christensen describes? How might they be designed to adapt and adjust for the fluidity, mutability and the volatility of our relationships, infrastructure and systems? And what would that tell us about the values that we hold as a society and in terms of how we think about belonging and how we value belonging and meet the need for belonging? How might these objects change how we understand our humanity?

The MIT Press Reader recently published a book excerpt exploring how objects shape us cognitively. As humans shape technology, and technology shapes us. But of course, this interconnected relationship isn't restricted to only digital software. Physical objects, whether they're tools of our trade or toys that we are using, integrate with ourselves. On a biological level, your neurons respond to objects that are close to you in anticipation of use. Your neurons respond to objects, as you're using them, making new connections and simulations of of potential use even as you contemplate using objects. Even if the brain just pretends that the tool is part of the body, then in effect, the tool becomes part of the human body, encoded in our brain cells. Part of that impulse that we all feel to reach for our smartphone first thing in the morning is that in a sense, the smartphone isn't merely an extension of us, but in effect, it is us reconnecting with a part of ourselves. Or at least our brain has fooled itself into thinking that is who we are. So it's just something to think about as we imagine how external objects become who we are, or reveal, even to ourselves more of who we are.

The movement to erect monuments of the Civil War in the Jim Crow era were intended to enshrine white supremacy, rewriting emerging stories of racial equality. The New Yorker profiled the Monument Lab, as they embark on experiments in object destruction, creation, and reinterpretation to unlearn the negative lessons from history and bring new future stories forward. What makes monuments unique is the public shared context of their creation and consumption. In imagining artifacts from the future, it can be tempting to imagine them divorced from context. But when you do, you have the scene from The Little Mermaid where you watch Ariel comb her hair with a fork because she’s never seen one used at the dinner table. Context plays an essential role.

We must imagine belonging against a backdrop of ongoing mass trauma. BBC Future recently explored how we might heal from the mass trauma of our current pandemic.

Trauma can be understood as a rupture in "meaning-making", says David Trickey, a psychologist and representative of the UK Trauma Council. When "the way you see yourself, the way you see the world, and the way you see other people" are shocked and overturned by an event – and a gap arises between your "orienting systems" and that event – simple stress cascades into trauma, often-mediated through sustained and severe feelings of helplessness. …

The how and what of a purely psychiatric response would require an article unto itself. Addressing mass trauma will also take more than psychiatry, Basoglu urges. The scale of the problem means that meaning-making tools "should be delivered through media channels: in writing, in booklets and videos, kids' channels, TV channels, newspapers, all avenues of information, any information channel, the internet".

As we come together to imagine artifacts from the future building belonging at work, we must keep that context and landscape of mass trauma in mind. We will need meaning making tools and approaches of a scope and scale we have not yet achieved in recent decades. And we will need to experiment and persist in finding new avenues for healing not just our bodies and minds, but also our trust and sense of safety.