The world has always been an internet of things: Introducting a mindset for designers in the Anthropocene


Dissertation written while studying MA Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art.
Chopping tool, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.2 myr


Anthropocene, postdisciplinary, mindset, things, mesh.


In a world increasingly obsessed with virtual connections, this study considers how we have always related to things in an analogue way. Recognising the success of postdisciplinary approaches to research, it mobilises theory from a mixture of disciplines. Four separate — but connected — frameworks are introduced with which to view human-thing relations (technological, metaphorical, biographical, and processual) and it is shown that a mindset founded on a meshwork analogy can be mobilised by artists and designers to address issues of sustainability in conjunction with the Anthropocene thesis.


Throughout this text it has been emphasised that the world is a messy mesh of complex processes and entanglements between human and non-human things and that by understanding the mechanisms by which this mesh is constructed, post-disciplinary communicators conscious of the Anthropocene thesis may use this new mindset to develop more sustainable and ecologically-oriented art and design practices. This is not an appeal for joined up thinking. If the world were a perfectly structured network of connected nodes, there would be no room at all for life or imagination. It would suggest that the world can be entirely mapped out and therefore controlled. Although the growing internet of things relies on a dependable network of discrete and constant connections to function, the internet of things in which we live depends on a mutable meshwork of relations with room for movement. The postdisicplinary artist and designer who recognises his/her place in this meshwork will enable them to manipulate its threads like a weaver, tying new knots and altering the fabric of the world.

To embrace this new mindset is to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, misinformation, and complexity. The world is infinitely complex: things (human or non-human) are nested within other things and the relationships they share are often a mixture of processes (cognitive, physical, social, etc.) motivated by shifting tangible and intangible forces. When information flows through these streams its form and meaning mutates. This is the fundamental problem of communication, “that of reproducing at one point exactly or approximately the message selected at another point.”

Surrender to confusion for it is an opportunity to imagine; amongst the noise you may find new meaning. These are moments for self-discovery and reflection. This study has advocated reflective activities for they cause us to be critical of the origins of our behaviour and empower us to make better decisions in the future. Work serendipitously as an alchemist, embrace the art of not knowing what you are looking for. Don’t feel forced to impose form on matter, but bring materials together and combine them or redirect their flows in anticipation of what might emerge. This is what sustainability truly means and it is a methodology applicable to both the arts and sciences.

What has been offered by this text is a mindset, not a solution. We know that speculation, fiction, and imagination are powerful future changing tools that humans are gifted with moreover any other animal. We can exploit the use of technology as part of our extended minds to store and calculate information so that we can focus our efforts on creative behaviours that require these human qualities.

The way we see the world is changing. The way we see ourselves is also changing. It has never been so important to remind ourselves what it means to be human, and to realise our place in the world. Artists and designers are driven by imagination that is yearning to reach the horizon; it wants to pull them away. But material reality and the materials they work with hold them back. The postdisciplinary designer can hold this forward moving momentum in check with the working of his materials; to look into the distance and see up close too; to understand the Anthropocene despite working at the human scale.

Metaphor has been used throughout to articulate this mindset, recognising that this cognitive device is fundamental to learning, communication and meaning making. But this is not to say that the world is not genuinely an internet of things. The meshwork image is always going to be a metaphor in our heads, we cannot fully comprehend the enormity and complexity of the world entirely, but to begin to explore or become familiar with what it is like at the human scale, is to encounter it indirectly.

Collaborative projects between different specialists are known to be fruitful. It is only through the cross-fertilisation of subjects that the Anthropocene thesis has been fleshed out in social, biological, cultural, physical ways. This shift is important. We learn that conceptual change occurs when a concept is reassigned from one category to another. The mingling of disciplines makes the probability of the repositioning of concepts all the more likely, just like placing chemicals close to one another. Those who sit between disciplines are catalysts for future things. But the nature and operation of relations between those of different professions must be adjusted.

Consider the relationship between art and science. It is unsustainable. Sustainability is not about reaching a solution or a steady state, but about keeping on going in reaction and in line with the flow of relations in the meshwork. In relation to technoscience policy, we are forced to study graphs and images that apparently inform us of the environment and about what is going wrong in the world. We are dazzled by information so that we cannot see what is happening right beneath our noses. It is like being in a darkened lecture there so that we can not see our environment, only projected images. In the context of ecological awareness, this information yields no wisdom. This is why we need some type of postdisciplinary communicator who is simultaneously an artist, a designer, and an academic. Scientists like art because it dresses up their findings and gives them a good face. But really we need art to challenge the foundations of technoscience. We need an art that doesn’t capture what has already passed, but that moves forward in real time with the science movement and communicates with people in the real world where they live. Instead of answering to scientific predictions, artists should join scientists in their hopes and dreams and establish an ongoing dialogue between science and the real world.

In his proposal of natural selection, Charles Darwin challenged the norm — religion — but religion accommodated. Here, designers must promote an Anthropocenic agenda cutting through established norms — disciplines — to alter the relations between humans and things and cultivate a generation of gardeners from a field of consumers.

Full text here