A Short Version of the Long History of Concrete

I’m pretty fed up with the future.
The design world seems so absolutely obsessed with the idea of inventing the future that today, yesterday and anything that isn’t nearly as exciting as a jetpack or an augmented brain is seen as quite lame. Reality, as always, gets chucked out with the bath water. Most often, the “design of the future” centres on today and how we think that tomorrow should work itself out. I for one, am quite sick of this. This notion is fundamentally flawed not only because those damn crystal balls don’t seem to work that well most of the time, but that they don’t think about what happened before today, or how today was in part created by the past. Instead the future of whatever, whether it be of the city, education or government version whatever point zero, is usually focused on what we wish today was like.

So lets say there is a problem with infrastructure of the city – lets say clean air and availability of fresh, sustainable produce. City farms! Hurray, problem solved! Of course nobody talks about zoning, where all the water is going to come from or even what is going to be grown, but those pesky problems aside, you can’t invent or imagine your way out of today’s problem. Moreover, nobody is talking about why we don’t already do this. This is today’s problem, not 10-20 years in the future’s problem because this we can’t know. We make the assumption that 10-20 years will kind of be kind of like today, and thus still have the same issues and problems. Most of the time it doesn’t quite work like that.

“The secret of concrete was lost for 13 centuries until 1756, when the British engineer John Smeaton pioneered the use of hydraulic lime in concrete, using pebbles and powdered brick as aggregate.” (Wikipedia)

I think it would be a hell of a lot more interesting to know what the Roman’s futures were. They at least had the sense to know it was out of their hands.

That’s right. We didn’t have the seeming most basic technology for 13 fucking centuries. That’s a long time. The Romans had it, and they built a lot of stuff out of it. If you asked an architect in 5th century Rome about what they thought was going to happen in 50 years, I bet the last thing on his mind would be that they wouldn’t know how to build anything out of concrete anymore all of the sudden for 13 centuries. I think it would be a hell of a lot more interesting to know what the Roman’s futures were. They at least had the sense to know it was out of their hands.

The funny thing about the future is that people make it what they want it to be, not what it will probably end up being. The future of Country X will surely be moves towards democracy and Y protocol will enable Grandma to teleport to me on alternate Sundays. Almost always, this vision relies on technology instead of people to play itself out in this coupling of the design futurist and industry in this eternal, blinding, unpragmatic optimism. The future is always about progress isn’t it?

No. History has showed us time and time again this is nowhere near the truth, as we have seen with Rome and concrete. If you would have told someone in the 60’s or 70’s in Damscus, Beirut, Baghdad or Cairo that in the new millenium there would be an extremely large effort by people in their societies to go back to the middle ages and in the meanwhile they would do a pretty good job at killing each other they would tell you you’re flippin’ crazy. Pan-arabism was its height, women had already taken off their veils and hemlines rose exponentially. Most colonial powers had already gotten the boot, oil money was starting to come in to the hands of regular people, despots were tolerated, social programmes started and everyone was getting ready for the pan-Arabic dream state. Can you imagine what their version of design futures would have been? They sure as hell wouldn’t have included suicide bomber as a career option for people coming out of college. Whether its about Black Swans or neocon misadventures in nation building, optimism and dreams don’t make it true.

I don’t really agree with the notion that to predict the future you have to invent it. You can’t predict the future, or even make it because you can’t invent what the context will be. We’ve seen countless technological inventions and innovations swept under the rug due to unforeseen or negligent forecasting and a general lack of taking a look at the fact that the social is just as important as the technological or political, and the social is impossible to predict and harder to invent. No, we can’t predict or invent the future, and it most certainly won’t ever be decided by designers, that’s for goddamn sure.

So why the big stink you ask? Well for one, for me as a designer its about design. Designers seem to have got caught up in the glitz, glamour and excitement of an imaginary future instead of trying to figure out stuff for today, and today is where we need all the help.