Let’s Get Physical

It’s in this physical reality we have developed key diagnostic human behaviours such as tool making, symbolic expression and language.

No matter how a cloud-based future divests us of the physical reality — monetary currency, paper, storage devices for music, property — we still look to the natural world for examples of the seamless incorporation of form and function in what remains an unrivalled design.

“For a powerful and well designed fortress, you must despose and arrange the elements in the same way Nature, the true teacher of all things has ordered,” noted Vincenzzo Scamozzi in his book The Universal Idea of Architecture.

It was King Louis XII of France, who adopted not a ferocious bear or tiger as his emblem but rather the humble porcupine.

His motto, “From near and afar, I can defend myself,” was inspired by the porcupine, whose defensive mechanism when attacked, sees it horripilate a display of sharp quills in convincing deterrence.

It formed a natural blueprint for the Spanish tercio with its mass of pikemen, the key innovation of sixteenth-century warfare.

Over the next century most fortresses to withstand sieges integrated this design.

Animals have provided the earliest engineers templates with which to solve problems in regards to aerodynamics, agility and flight.

Artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci turned to the natural world repeatedly in his many ingenious designs.

He left behind blueprints for parachutes, self-propelled carts and even armoured tanks, inspired by turtles, to deflect enemy fire.

To this day it’s not uncommon to hear an engine or vehicle compared to a beast. At one time they were our preferred mode of transport.

Indeed, horsepower still remains a unit to measure the power output of an engine.

In more recent times engineers have emulated shark skins to optimise fuel use on navy vessels, camel toes have helped design lunar rover tyres, camera lenses were improved by studying gecko eyes, fireflies for LED light extraction, woodpecker skull shock absorbers for aircraft black boxes among a litany of others.

Mimesis, the process in which we imitate the world around us to interpret it, is inherited from animal ancestors because it is an essential trait according to French anthropologist René Girard.

Owls, wolves, eagles and lions, to cite some creatures that have come to embody wisdom, loyalty, freedom and nobility, depending on the going anthropological bent, are all now part of a lexicon of corporate brands we associate in our every day lives.

All have, incidentally, at one time in history adorned shields or been flown on flags as markers from which allies might identify themselves. Don’t underestimate the importance of mythology. Fuso haven’t with the Shogun.

The Ford Mustang or the P-51 Mustang, for that matter, are iconic as feats of engineering because they captured the imagination of the public. We aren’t wired to aggrandise things simply because they work.

Indeed this magazine won’t be the first nor the last to point to the brawny similarities between the haunched bonnet of the Mack Anthem and its iconic impregnable bulldog mascot.

MAN has underplayed the design of the new TGX, winner of IAA’s International Truck of the Year, which, at least conceptually, shares a likeness with an alpha lion if you stare at it long enough.

The integrated daytime running lights might be mistaken for lower incisors and the imposing grill as the nose of the king of the jungle.

Overarching digitisation has laid bare political and cultural divides that have long existed between the country and the city, coastal elites and rustbelt rurals.

For the moment a growing technocracy that exists in an incorporeal domain with its immaterial transactions, data mining and global connectivity is fast becoming estranged from those in the tangible world of making, growing and using real things.

Selling your DVDs to rent them online soon shifted to loaning out your private car as a resource to be exploited by the rideshare gig economy.

The digital sphere has in less than a decade invaded all aspects of our lives.

In commercial road transport the introduction of Electronic Work Diaries has been a major advancement.

But as society thrusts the spotlight deservedly on the mental wellbeing of workers, virtual battles are waged on partisan tech platforms, goods are delivered to homes which double as offices where video conferencing in an immersive digital landscape is now commonplace all while the physical environment around us disintegrates.

Will we recognise the point when there’s simply too much of the digital, non-physical realm in our lives?

Which begs another question: what kind of ‘smart city’ ends up looking like Melbourne?

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