When the imaginable becomes reality
Humankind has always wanted to reach for the stars and scarcely another literary genre is loved as much as the one that dares to look into outer space. An explosion of feelings like a meteor shower. Sometimes it is all about the thrill of the unimaginable, other times the fear of the unknown and the sense of being somehow insignificant vis-à-vis the universe. Space, infinite worlds. The earth has already existed for millions of years. Humankind? It scarcely warrants a mention on this scale. On the other hand, whilst we expand our horizons technologically, we are nevertheless unable, it seems, to maintain our very existence: the natural world. No doubt, this is another reason why we are drawn to other worlds – as a way of ensuring our future.
One is reminded of a poem by Carl Spitzweg, in which writing 200 years ago, the German painter pours scorn on the human being’s destructive nature, that “only when everything is in bits and there is nothing left to spoil”, will humankind resign itself to the “broken pieces” that remain. You might see this playing with ‘broken pieces’ as analogous to the aspirations of the sustainability movement in its efforts to prevent a dystopian future, we all know from science fiction, a scenario where resources are exhausted, the air polluted, water scarce, humankind in discord, the world ruled by a thirst for power with money its enduring currency. Ranged against this is the advancement of the Enlightenment and democracy, progressive technologies that, amongst other things, bring together and strengthen like-minded people from all over the world.
In short, we are approaching the point when knowledge catches up with imagination, when real technology appears more crazy than fictional, when we get closer and closer to the stars. Today, what appears to be science fiction, is no longer so. We see Tom Hanks struggle in a vacuum, whilst rocking in the safety of our cinema armchair. However, the film ‘Gravity’ from 2013 is based fundamentally on what does really exist and not on fantasy. Only last year a joint project between the University of Hawaii and the NASA, the US space agency, saw a group of researchers spend a year living in an enclosed facility to test out what it would be like to live on Mars. Mark Watney, alias Matt Daman, gave a powerful impression of this in ‘The Martian’. Conditions would be cramped and movement very slow. The red planet is like earth in terms of its construction and climatic conditions, although in a way that is very inhospitable. With no atmosphere, the sun poses a danger to life. Water hardly exists in liquid form. Temperature differences throughout the day are massive and result in high winds or even storms that sweep the barren cratered landscape.
So, let us take this scorched earth scenario. Although it is almost upon us, we make it the stuff of movies to enable us to live with it. Let us use it as a catalyst and take a moment to think which existing technologies might make it possible to manufacture textile products on Mars. Whilst wind and sun would provide excessive amounts of energy, two resources would be missing that are extremely important for textile production: earth and water. It would be essential, therefore, to be able to recycle raw materials, closed-loop systems are a precondition. We would only use plant types that are particularly resilient, those that require little water, possibly hemp. Synthetic fibres, because they are well suited to controlled production in a closed system, would take on much greater relevance than vegetable-based fibres. They can also be used time and time again, even post consumer. Zero waste – zero loss. Clearly, they provide a real all-round solution. They can conduct electricity, provide light, heat and send and receive data. They are extremely light and very resilient, dirt-repellent, flame resistant and have a very high tear strength. Indeed, synthetic fibres would also score for their frugality of production, with respect to their use of water, for example. In any case, production would only be ‘on-demand’, made to order so to speak. At Heimtextil, the leading international trade fair, the ‘Digital Textile Micro Factory’ shows how this might play out – a manufacturing chain from design to the end product that is fully digitalised and automated.
Sustainability will become paramount, because in a world without resources it will be impossible to maintain the economic model based on overproduction and waste, predicated by growth. As a result, notions such as planned obsolescence – i.e. calculating product durability – would be obsolete, with product lifecycle extended significantly: this would place completely new demands on design. However, woe betide anyone thinking that the end of mass production is synonymous with the end of fashion. Studies show that people’s passion for something new, so-called neophilia, does not wane even in the most hostile circumstances. The same is true of the requirement for beauty and sensuality, whether this be in art or entertainment. Clothing’s role in social interaction, whether for differentiation or conformity, would persist. However, its form must be re-conceived, giving rise to a new design concept that would bring these social aspects together with the demand for sustainability.
Notwithstanding, more important would be breaking the link between work per se and human dignity. Today we mostly measure social status, intellect and ultimately a person’s sense of happiness in terms of career success. Industriousness, diligence and ambition are considered important virtues. However, worst case scenario of life on Mars would be just killing time. We will produce only a fraction of the goods we produce today and do so on an almost fully-automated basis. Most people would be unemployed, or to put it another way, they would not have to work. In fact, many alternative thinkers today already believe this is the status quo, demanding that the notion of a secure livelihood is disassociated from work per se by means of an unconditional basic income, for example. Yet, the welfare economy continues, adding new parameters to classic economic theory. The focus is on the wellbeing of the individual and the responsibility of business for effects in the medium term, such as internalising external costs, i.e. the inclusion of costs that are not caused directly by the manufacture of a product but which are implicitly related so to speak e.g. water pollution. On Mars one would probably no longer give this a second thought. Unimaginable? Just a precursor to thinking the unthinkable, followed, as a rule, by proof of the contrary.
From 09 to 12 May 2017 in Frankfurt Techtextil and Texprocess will present what is not only thinkable in outer space, but also already applicable. Headlined ‘Living in Space’, these two leading international trade fairs for technical textiles and non-wovens and for the processing of textile and flexible materials feature a special area to show amongst other things high-tech textiles and textile processing technologies from and for space travel. This headline theme is the result of cooperation between the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.