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Design... talk to the Designers Association

Speaker’s transcript: Theodore Zeldin

Speaker’s subject: Emotional Ergonomics

Richard Seymour said that first of all I should explain to you who I am, because you will feel that it is very odd that I should be asked to address people like yourselves, I who belong apparently to a different profession. I have spent my life trying to understand how I should live, and I have written lots of books which purport to be about different countries or the world, but which are really an attempt to work out how one should design one’s life. Therefore, I would humbly say that I too am a designer.

I am not a technical man and I know nothing about technology, but I would say also that I am not interested in success, but in failure. And technology’s concerned with failure, because nothing ever quite succeeds in technology; and the purpose of technology is to minimise failure, which also is my aim.

This is an explanation why I am interested in meeting you and hearing what you have to say. Unfortunately, in order to do that, I have first to speak to you, otherwise you will not speak to me. But I have been listening to you, and my feeling is that they are really difficult questions that you were putting first of all: that you feel powerless, that you would like to do things that you cannot do, that you feel that you would like to influence big corporations which don’t listen to you, and that even if you have all the power – because some of you here must be CEOs – you can’t use it and there all sorts of obstacles which prevent you from using it.

Somebody asked an interesting question, saying how can designers get together, because they can’t even agree among designers, they can’t even agree on one institution to hold them together. In other words, you are, within your profession, alone.

I’m going to try and answer some of these questions. I think first of all that we are alone, and this is the originality of our century. You’ve all been complaining – Naomi Klein began by complaining and Mark Leonard complained and so on, and it’s jolly good complaining – and humans have complained since the beginning of time, but they complained about different things. In the past they used to complain that their ancestors were dissatisfied with them and therefore caused storms and natural catastrophes. Then they decided that God was not happy with them, or that they were sinners, or that the world was bad because the governments were bad or the king was bad and so on.

Today the big issue is that we’re complaining because something has changed. We are no longer the same kind of human beings that we used to be. We have discovered that each one of us is unique. In the past it was very difficult to be unique because you were forced to see yourself as belonging to a class. You were born a peasant or an artisan and you tried to behave like one, whereas today, anyone who has been educated realises that they are unique, and this is a very lonely business.

Now, attempts have been made to solve this problem. The Renaissance was the first time when people began to say, ‘I am original’, but it didn’t work very well because they were scared about this and required applause from everybody – ‘aren’t I wonderful?’ being original. And of course, very few people applauded you, and the great problem of the original person is that you feel alone.

Humanism, you might say, is an attempt to answer questions by thinking about the problems of humans and putting aside the understanding of those problems through supernatural powers. Humanism has been useful in many ways, but it also got stuck in battles against the church and it got stuck, above all, in introspection. One of the snags with this uniqueness idea is that you look into yourself and say, ‘Who am I? What is so special about me?’ You go to experts who tell you what is special about you, but this gets boring and eventually you decide you are more interested in other people.

So we have to ask ourselves in a society just trying to design its life, how can we deal with the fact that everyone is different? Now many of you, inevitably, have to work for corporations which have adopted a method invented in the 18th century of mass production, that is to say, not making an object for a particular customer, but making an object, which we hope will sell to a million people. The originality of the 21st century is that we are now presented with a technology which no longer requires mass production to be profitable. It is possible to produce on a much smaller scale for a particular individual, but we have not yet worked out how to develop this on a full scale.

So we have an opportunity – we have many opportunities – to change the way we organise the world. What I would like to suggest to you in the five minutes I have got is how I think it can be changed, what we can do! Mark Leonard rightly gave us some very good questions. I am going to try and say what I personally think is an answer and describe what I am searching for – and you will possibly knock it all down.

My first answer to the question of what you do about the fact that you are alone and everybody else is alone and different: the traditional solution to that is, all right, you are alone, well, you’d better make your own way in the world, and everything depends on the individual. Well, we know that many individuals don’t get anywhere on their own. The alternative, much practiced in ancient times, is that you get together in big collective movements, and you pool your strength and bump off the people in power. Then you put yourself in power and wait until the next tide that comes along which knocks you off and replaces you.

I therefore do not see either these solutions as being satisfactory. They have been tried out. I am a historian, I have spent my life studying history, and I have seen how they have failed repeatedly, how every time people have sought power, they have been corrupted by power. So the search for empowerment that has been bandied around this morning does not appeal to me.

I don’t want power, I want respect. And I think every individual wants respect, that’s to say to be appreciated, to be understood, to have somebody know what this mystery of being individual means – that you will never know what goes on in another person’s head, and that it is the spice of life to discover to a certain extent what other people are like. We are beginning to do this, and it is happening because of the most important revolution of our lifetime, and I would say in history, which is that women are now moving into the public sphere; women have come out of their traditional role and are beginning to talk and are beginning to be educated and require equal treatment. The conversation between men and women is to me the beginning of something quite new which has never happened before – men and women have not talked in history. Women were told to keep quiet and not to study and so on.

The reason that it is important is that, in these discussions between men and women, we reveal our vulnerabilities. We want to get to understand what the other person is thinking, what the other person is like, the other person who is different. Whereas in public we have to maintain our appearance of strength and importance, in private we are able to say things that we can’t say to colleagues but can say to somebody close whom we like.

My solution, therefore, to the problem of being alone is not to say the individual or the collective, but the duo. Men and women have given an example, but when any two people meet, of whatever sex, there is a possibility of them entering into each other’s minds and discovering each other. The question is: how can we develop what is still in a very embryonic state? Most people still do not have conversations in which they are willing to be transformed and transform the other person in exchange. So we have to learn how to talk to each other, and we are just beginning to do it. The next question is: how do we find the people we wish to talk to? How do we get to know where, among the six billion people in the world, we could have fruitful meetings.

I think first of all that we have to discover who people are. Here you are in front of me, and I haven’t a clue who you are. You carry these name badges, but each one of you has a biography, each one of you has things that even your children will not know about you, unless you do something about it. Well, my answer to this is to say: let us think how people have gone beyond this stage in the past. Humanism was begun in universities which began around the 13th, 14th, 15th Centuries. People got together and tried to think in a new way about things that mattered instead of repeating the old rituals. That was early humanism, Erasmus and all those people.

Then, at the end of the 17th century, there was another solution, which was the foundation of the Royal Society, which introduced for the first time a way of looking at the world, excluding all magical and superstitious and other forces and just experimentally examining what the world was like. That was the beginning of natural science, modern scientific method, and that was done outside universities, because the universities had gone to pot by then and were not satisfactory; Newton and his friends built up the Royal Society as independent and autonomous of the universities.

Now, if we’re talking about superhumanism, what it means is that humanism hasn’t gone far enough, that it has been developed in a rather general way and in abstract terms. For example, when we talk about rights in general, we don’t talk about individuals. So what I am doing is trying to say, well, we need something, not to replace universities, because they are very useful places, but to supplement them, because they don’t give you everything that you want. All of you, I think, who have been to university know that you come out of them somewhat disappointed. They don’t tell you how to loaf, how to be happy, how to meet girls – they don’t tell you anything much. They give you a certain amount of knowledge, but not information about what you can do with that knowledge. They don’t give you wisdom.

This is what interested me: how one can go beyond all this information which is being made available? How can one reach beyond the competence which training gives you and obtain that spark which distinguishes the exciting from the banal?

So what I’m starting is a new kind of – I don’t want to call it an institution, because institutions always end up as bureaucracies. I wanted to invent something different, and I called it the Muse, the Oxford Muse, because I live in Oxford. The Muses traditionally were females of legendary ancestry who inspired people. They did not teach, they did not require to be worshipped, but they were a source of inspiration which enabled people to do something above the ordinary. They taught you how to cultivate your emotions through the different arts in order to reach a higher plane.

What is lacking now, I believe, is something which we cannot find anywhere, somewhere where you can reach, and get that stimulation – not information, but stimulation – where you can meet just that person, or find just that situation, which will give you the idea of invention, of carrying out some project which interests you, and show how it can become a project which is of interest to other people. So I need to find ways that each one of you can have can have his or her biography written so that we know who you are, which can be useful to anybody else who might want to know and because you will not reveal yourselves in the brief conversations that you have here. This will also be useful to all those people who have never got to know their parents, or who have never been able to speak openly to their children, because although there are things that you cannot say in your family, you need to leave behind some understanding of who you are. And also, it is desirable that you should be able to distil the experience that you have accumulated in your lives, which otherwise is just going to disappear and will be forgotten. What’s accumulated in books is just the information of those who are writers, after all, and everyone else has something to say too. So I hope that this muse will be what these previous institutions were not, and that it will create an opportunity for people to both discover themselves and discover others, and to discover themselves through contact with others, because it is really by only having conversations with others that you discover things about yourself.

When we write these things, we will realise that we are only partly alive. The great difference between the present century and previous centuries was that in the past people thought, okay, life is pretty miserable, but we are going to the next world, and since we die quite young, that’ll come along quite quickly. So this life was a preparation for the next world. Now it is different. We want nine lives, not just to live one life. Women have shown us this because they want to do different things, and are not willing to go into a career at the age of 18 and remain at the same thing until they retire and gradually rot.

So we need to think how we can become really human, which means how we can do all the things humans can do. This means that we can no longer be specialised. Of course, it is necessary to get an education to learn, but when you have learnt something, there are all those other branches of knowledge which we know nothing about, and we hardly exist without them. I hope that the Muse will enable people to find ways not to become experts in different spheres, but to learn the language of food production, of manufacturing, of commerce, of education, of public service, of voluntary service, of the creative arts, and of explaining to others what your profession is and what you have learnt.

I would like to invite you to Oxford to come and say what is it that you know – it will really shake you up to have to think what you know. Then you will be put under the pressure of people asking why do you think this and that, and in the course of this, I hope, there will be some kind of mutual penetration between the different branches of knowledge, and we will begin to be not just capable of moving from job to job, but able to create jobs that are not so narrow and constricting , but which broaden the mind and make you a better person – not just an efficient person, but a person people want to talk to and who’s able to talk to others.

It is interesting that you as designers ask this question about your society being an inward looking society. At the moment, this is true about everybody; every society complains about the same thing. We have all these professional societies all over London which never meet and have nothing to say to each other. This is something which I think the time has come to do something about. It needs, not an institution, because I hope this will not become bureaucratic. This is one of the great challenges of our time, how not to be bureaucratic, that is to say how to be personal and not impersonal, we invented bureaucracy for good reasons, that is to say, we thought it was unfair that the people who got privileges should get them by favouritism and nepotism, so we made the laws equal and established rules and examinations so that everybody got what they supposedly deserved, which, of course, never quite happened. That was all impersonal: we established a welfare system that is impersonal; that is to say, you are helped, but you are helped with a cheque, and the clerk who gives you the money doesn’t know who you are.

Now that we have this new technology, I think its great possibility is that we may return to a personal society without inequalities of the kind that we had the past. We have to find a way of avoiding favouritism by finding a personal relationship between people. This comes back to what I was saying at the beginning about the fact that we are alone. What can we do is to benefit from the reverse side of being alone, which is that we are all different. It is fascinating to discover how different people are and how much more human we can be if we can absorb some of this difference.

© Theodore Zeldin, 2001 for the D&AD SuperHumansim Conference – 29 May 2001.

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