Tomorrows of History

“… the future is not a void. The future ever arrives before us as the consequence of the past and the present.” - Fry1
To say that the future is filled with the past, seems trivial, but on more careful consideration it becomes the basis for us to recognise and understand our contemporary world. Our future is not a blank canvas onto which to compose our ideals, rather our possible futures are already somewhat limited and prescribed by the designed things, systems, institutions and structures already present.

Fry brings this notion front-and-centre to a critical conversation about the role of history in the future that we are designing and making. In his co-authored text, Design and the Question of History, he argues that “in the deepening complexities of the late modern world there is an increasing need for an understanding of the presence of the past” and that a revival of “the historical” and its practices are needed(2). His interest in the designed world is directed at design’s complicity in our unsustainable and inequitable ways of living.

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” - Orwell3

History is powerful, but it is easily corrupted by power. Today, Orwell’s Party slogan written nearly 70 years ago is far from fictional. Controlling history is a valuable geo-political tactic that hides the real rationale for global trade, war and colonialism, allowing the current agenda to be pursued uncontested. Similarly, our understanding of design history “has unwittingly acted to conceal the historical significance and agency of the designed world of human habitation”(2), and kept hidden from us the many harms of modern design. 

While Fry develops his discussion into an important critique of our current understanding of design history it also prompts us to consider our own histories.

Reflecting on the past makes each of us the historian of our own lives. We can see the effect of the world on us and how our lives came to be what they are. This is valuable if we are to resist today’s Party menace, and build a future that is equitable, fair and sustains the societies and ecologies that we rely on. Power can be redistributed and localised by re-appropriating our histories, and giving strength to our individual stories. We can harness the potential that lies in our plural understandings of our world.

But, considering how things have affected us individually is the easy part. What is a little more difficult to face is the other side of this mutuality: how each of us affects the world. This requires us to take responsibility for our own actions, and for designers and makers as directly complicit in world-making, this is particularly important.

Bringing our designing selves together with our historical selves can help us understand our responsibilities and our agency in making sustainable futures.

1. Fry, T. (1999). A new design philosophy: an introduction to defuturing. Sydney: University of NSW Press Ltd, p. 41.
2. Fry, T., Dilnot, C., & Stewart, S. (2015). Design and the question of history. London: Bloomsbury, p.3-6.
3. Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen eighty-four. England: Penguin Books, p. 199.