We design events, not things

December 2, 2022

I’ve been always fascinated by time. This fascination is a mixture of curiosity, allurement, and slight unease. The unease comes from the cruel second law of thermodynamics and the fact that we’re constantly being pulled by the arrow of time into one direction. This is the only way we can exist.

But the way we exist in time is different than our everyday perception of existence. We live our lives surrounded by a world that largely seems permanent to us. Buildings, mountains, and rivers are entities that last longer than our lifetimes and we see them as always being there.

But if we look closer, none of these things are lasting entities. The world is not frozen and permanent. Everything lasts only for a little while before it transforms into something else. A carpet, you and me, a tree, a government, an island. Things are not things, things are processes, events.

One of the most interesting and approachable scientific books on time I’ve read is Carlo Rovelli’s “The order of Time” (the author is an amazing storyteller, given that the book is about quantum physics). Chapter 6 is entirely dedicated to this problem, and Carlo gives a beautiful example of how a simple stone is not a thing, but a process:

The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is, in reality, a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust, a brief chapter in the history of interactions between the elements of the planet, a trace of Neolithic humanity, a weapon used by a gang of kids, an example in a book about time, a metaphor for an ontology, a part of a segmentation of the world that depends more on how our bodies are structured to perceive than on the object of perception—and, gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality.

Think about anything that exists, really, and you’ll see that everything is an event.

Design can adopt this worldview. If we zoom out from the present moment, our narrow daily scopes, and fast-paced environments that rush us into delivery, we can gain much more comprehensive, long-term perspective on what we’re bringing into the world. How the things-events that we’re designing unfold over time, and what change they bring to the world. We could be more conscious about how things-events exist, at least for a little while.

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  • Stephen (December 2, 2022)

    Good one. I think this worldview is necessary to transform our economy and business into circular/more sustainable. For example, a product lifecycle. What happens to a bicycle after it’s not for use anymore. Does it end its life on a landfill? Did you see those photos of massive bicycle graveyards? Horrible.

  • Mika (December 2, 2022)

    The other recommended title is: Felt time