Sunday, 26 October 2014

Objects in the digital age - The School of Life

I recently attended a talk at The School Of Life (recently was last month, but you already know I'm perpetually late posting!) I've been interested in this organisation for a while and attended one of the 'Sunday Sermons' given by Alain De Botton on 'Art As Therapy' last year. I like their approach to helping you live better through a wide variety of talks and courses. You know, the stuff no one actually teaches you, like how to be good with money, how to get over a relationship or how to communicate better. I'd love to go to the work/life balance class that's coming up, but curiously it's in the middle of the afternoon when I'm, er, working! Anyway, I was intrigued by the title of this talk: 'Why Humans Need Objects In The Digital Age' and the precis (here) I guess I'd never really thought about it (something our speaker Tim Milne from Artomatic brought up immediately... why would we? We rarely have time to think about anything that's not immediately pressing these days) so I signed up.

The evening started with a glass of wine and some nibbles and the chance to talk to other attendees. After the initial awkwardness you'd expect in theses situations, I got chatting to a digital designer who does a lot of work for museums, and a sub editor for Elle Decoration. Talk aside, this is also a great opportunity to meet like minded people and have a good discussion about something that doesn't usually come up over a pint down the pub. The mid session break afforded us time to catch up again and further discuss the points raised during the talk.

The talk itself lasted about an hour, accompanied by some slides. Tims main points concentrated on how humans are hardwired to objects because we have evolved in a physical environment, not a virtual one. Evolutionarily speaking, we used to communicate solely through objects, which speak to us through their characteristics. They occupy the same space as us, they're emotive. Humans don't have time to think about these things though and rely on non-cognitive processes. I'd been processing this idea for a couple of weeks, thinking about how much I love my solid wood coffee table in a way that I've never felt the same about a chipboard IKEA one (for the record, I love IKEA, I have plenty of it!) but I never really got a proper handle on the concept until I was in the Conran shop last weekend and picked up a dimpled mug by Emma Lacey.

Everyday mug by Emma Lacey for The Conran Shop £24.99

All her pieces are hand thrown and have a matt glaze that's very tactile. As I picked up a black one (of course) and held it, what immediately grabbed me was the way it felt, my thumb resting perfectly in the depression on the side. I felt an immediate connection, something quite soothing and secure, something entirely different from the mass produced mug I normally use on a daily basis. I feel a pay day treat coming on and yes, £24 is probably quite extravagant for a coffee mug, but If I'm only buying one and using it several times a day five days a week I think it's worth it for the sheer thrill of picking it up every day.

Anyway, back to the talk... The digital age is evolving faster than our brains. The natural reaction to the digital revolution therefore is hardly surprising. Look at the current trend for letter press typography, raw industrial elements in restaurants, anything 'vintage' or 'retro' and the values still assigned to anything old or handmade. We're seeking comfort in tactile surfaces and familiar shapes. We are also living in a world of extremes, of fast, cold, unfamiliar technology and mass production offset by the handmade, limited edition and antique. These things all have a direct connection with the maker, it's why we fetishize signed books, paintings and handmade furniture, they retain a direct link with the maker or artist, they have handled the object directly. Antiques on the other hand, have a connection with the past as well as with the maker. These objects have lived a life, moved from owner to owner, have the patina of age and handling and the marks of use. Tim says that as these objects age, with their imperfections, so they remind us of our own mortality, an idea central to the Japanese concept of Wabi- sabi. They also define themselves through age, acquiring authenticity and value, both culturally and monetarily. Take my Ercol table again, they are still being produced, I could have bought one new, but I like the depth of the polish, the restoration my friend did and the slight imperfections that age has administered to it.

Where the digital and mechanical tend to be 'fast', their opposite, hand produced objects tend to be slow. So while I might want my iPad to load immediately and my broadband connection to be fast and constant, I'll take my coffee slow roasted, prepared with care and drunk from a hand made mug that's an absolute delight to hold. And yes, I get the whole e-book thing, but I want real ink and the smell of real pages and to turn down the corner of an interesting page and I'll take that over the convenience of having a whole library on one small device, even if my current read is a handbag-breaking wight. As Tim said, you read digital books, you own real ones.

Even if we're plugged in and fully wired at home, 'home' is still a physical, tactile retreat from the world. Our homes and the things in it are on a human scale, finite and measurable, a retreat from the abstract, infinite internet. While some of those 'home of the future' innovations that were featured on Tomorrows World or the Ideal Home Show in the sixties have materialized, at a basic level, our homes still have more in common with their Victorian counterparts than they do with the space age pods that we were predicted to be living in by the year 2000. 

In summary, Tim asserts that objects are essential to being human. They commemorate, help form memories and offer continuity. This thought was with me recently when I was an at antiques fair with my parents. So many of the objects there were the same ones my elderly relatives had in their homes when I was a child. Things I wasn't even aware I remembered came back to me, the pattern on a china plate was suddenly, quite alarmingly and overwhelmingly familiar.

At the end of the evening we took part in a group exercise, making models with Play-Doh. We were first asked to make a vase (easy) then something to represent 'culture' less easy and finally 'the internet' which threw up some interesting discussions on how to physically represent such abstract terms. At a very basic level is was just fun to be molding with our hands, making something, however temporary.

The School Of Life also produce a range of books and other items, Here are my favourites, along with two upcoming courses. For a full list of all courses and talks click here.

1. How To Thrive In The Digital Age book £7.99
Tom Chatfield 'examines what our ‘wired’ life is really doing to our minds, for better and for worse'.
2. Ilse Crawford Studio Day £250
There are still a few places left on this day, but hurry, its on the 1st of November!
3. Imperfection Pot £50
Beautifully imperfect pot based on the traditions of Wabi-Sabi
4. Daring notebook £15
I like this daily reminder to take more risks, beautifully illustrated inside with a classic painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Chanel.
5. Emotional Baggage tote bag £15
We all have it, at least now you have somewhere witty to put it...
6. How To Stay Sane book £7.99
Author Philippa Perry argues that there are four cornerstones to sanity you can influence to bring about change... Next on my reading list!

7. 100 Questions Toolkit £20
A set of cards designed to make for better conversations
8. Donald transitional object £60
'Donald was designed by Donna Wilson and each one is handmade and therefore individual. Designed to bring comfort to adults and children alike.'
9. City Of Tomorrow utopia candle £35
'The scent of freshly cut grass with green pear, rose, lily, jasmine and balsam helps to evoke the perfect world described by the architect Le Corbusier, a realm of elegance, lightness and speed', your own perfect utopia in a jar!
10. How To Be Creative talk £40
There are several dates available for this evening talk designed to shift the blocks that often stop us from working most effectively.

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