A Dialogue: Documentation for Distant Futures

Emily Candela & Teal Triggs

In the spring of 2020 the world as we knew it changed. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new sense of urgency to our lives. Time sped up and slowed down in equal measure. Our senses of self-identity and community were thrown into flux and radically reframed. Our ability to process the complexities of an emergent global crisis, while coming to terms with our emotional responses, new enforced social behaviours, and the pandemic’s differing effects on all of our personal lives, put everyone to the test. ‘Lockdown’ began, and we returned to our homes, self-isolating and glued to the world’s news. We watched the numbers translated into visualisations of peaks, curves and new waves, which revealed that the virus had no geographic boundaries. Whilst we longed to stay connected, we found ourselves physically distanced from so much that we had known. We had questions, but no immediate answers. We found ourselves in a new present.

This became the context for everything that follows.
In keeping with the collaborative ethos behind ‘Dis/connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation’, the writing of this introduction developed into a collaborative writing project between us (Emily and Teal). Its origins are in the tools of socially-distant dialogue – the joint-edited Google doc and the Zoom conversation – and in our discussions with the MRes Communication Design students over the past four months.

Scene 01:

‘Dis/connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation’ takes its place as one of a series of annual Book Test Unit research publications, dating back to 2015. This year’s publication uses the frame of the archive as a critical starting point for addressing questions about the future. Specifically, we set out to explore an overarching question about future telecommunication challenges. Our frame, our starting point, was the BT Archives.

Work began at the site of an old telephone exchange in Holborn, London, which now houses BT’s archive. Anne Archer, Head of BT Heritage and Archives, and her colleagues introduced our new Book Test Unit cohort of MRes Communication Design students to the treasure trove of possibilities offered by the telecommunication histories held in the archive. From graphic ephemera to original mechanical equipment, the BT Archives charts not only a business history, but also a broader social and technological history of telecommunication. In dialogue with Anne, the MRes students navigated the archive, and honed in on historical artefacts that would help them explore their own individual research questions about the present and future of telecommunication.

The students’ research saw many of them working across historical timelines, and across collective and personal experiences. This required careful and original use of methods. Speculative design, historiography, fiction, autoethnography and drawing as a research method all find their place here. Something that unites the group’s approach, however, is their consistent reflexivity and sensitivity to the ways in which the changes we experienced with the pandemic had to change our ways of working. Even the overarching question shifted to take on concerns about communication and technology in a time of social distancing. And new questions emerged:

What happens when you are researching in the middle of something that’s happening rapidly, and which perpetuates deep changes that impact psychological and physical behaviour?

What happens when you are researching that thing you are in the middle of?


Scene 02:
Repository of Paradoxes

We have not yet had time to reflect on this pandemic in any depth due to the immediacy and the flux of its context, the responses to it, and its possible ramifications. Yet there is, for us, the urge to reflect constantly. Paradoxes present contradictions or juxtapositions that often highlight the sense of absurdity that can arise in such a dynamic situation. Within the pandemic context, we find ourselves simultaneously neither one thing nor another, trapped in-between. A game: what comes to mind when we say…

shared contexts

individual experiences


Scene 03:
From the Archive to the Unknown

Archives are conventionally thought of as static repositories of outdated artefacts – so many grey boxes in a cold storeroom. One of the original intentions of this project was to enliven archival artefacts, to show their true dynamism: history is put to the service of informing the present and future, and the present and future shape the way we think of the past. Michel Foucault proposes that history is a means of ‘critical engagement with the present’ by starting with a ‘diagnosis of the current situation’ (Garland 2014: 367). For this collaborative research, selected artefacts became prompts for critically engaging not only with a history and a future, but with the content of an evolving ‘live’ pandemic.
As we got deeper into 2020, the archive, unexpectedly, became our static, stabilising force. Everything else around the artefacts began to move so rapidly. ‘The archive is fundamentally built on the accidents that produce traces’, wrote the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, ‘All design, all agency and all intentionalities come from the uses we make of the archive, not from the archive itself’ (Appadurai 2003: 15-16). The marks of chance became our bedrock, and our uses of the archive shifted in ways we hadn’t anticipated. The archive was, in fact, the last grounded thing we knew. It was the site of our ‘scene setting’, which was also our last physical meeting in a physical place.

Scene 04:

Where are we now?
What is the new ‘normal’?
How are we to think about the future now?
What is this new place that we know and all inhabit differently, together?

‘Dis/connect: Communication in the Age of Isolation’, and this collaboration itself, ends with a note of optimism. But it also documents the building of new critical faculties over the experiences of the past few months. Urgent questions nip at our heels: What can design now do to inform how we rebuild, reboot, reset, and reprioritise? What are our responsibilities in ensuring a more sustainable and socially just future? 

Each member of the MRes Communication Design 2020 Book Test Unit took on research questions from their respective corners of our new present, with antennae out to past and future:

“At a time of global crisis, people are forced to adapt to a new normal, and big decisions are made by major institutions in a relatively short period of time. However, we should not let this confusion cloud our judgement on what risks surveillance technologies may bring.”

Ain Kim taps into a collective imagination of the future of surveillance, a Minecraft-fueled dreamscape in which real questions about the agency of humans over their own data emerge in the context of a near-future-normal.

“During the pandemic our condition is...deceleration.”

Laia Miret receives signals via celestial and virtual portals to track and trace the markers of slow-down.

“[The artist’s] digital traces, I believe, are...tele-connected and tele-communicated through the processes of editing and collecting.”

The gesture of Il Sun Moon’s hand as editor traverses time and physical bodies as her own digital traces merge with moving image artefacts from the archive.

‘feed me shocks of electricity
and we may exist in harmony
if you allow me to die flat
then you might miss
what comes next’.

June Huebner documents a very personal push and pull of technology, during an experience of the mundane amidst the extraordinary.

“The pandemic has affected all aspects of social norms and behaviour—the issue of food, how we acquire it and consume it, has become pivotal.”

Xiaojuan Pang imagines how we’ll break for meals amidst the unpredictable, speculating on the near future of eating at work as working lives, shifts, and labour patterns change.

“Can you buy memories? Memories of your lingering rosy childhood, ancestors’ epic migrations, and ephemeral technologies that belong to a fleeting community…”

Human and data are enmeshed in Yuzhen Cai’s fictional world of a speculative future currency used for trade in the ephemeral.

“whether in physical or virtual space, even just in people’s feelings, the network built by music and livestreaming has been forming communities everywhere.”

Ming Ling sweeps us across time and dispersed communities, from nineteenth-century livestreaming technology, to her experiences as a socially-distanced metal fan raising up devil horns to her computer, to visual speculations on the future of livestream and networked fandom.

“In the age of the pandemic, many of us are constantly being bombarded with immediate forms of telecommunication that require our attention at all hours of the day. ...As a result, the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life is increasingly taking its toll on our mental health.”

Melissa Lu invites us into new visual language for this experience, one that sits in that paradoxical place between the universal and the personal – a language with its own system of transmission that enforces delay, pause, and reflection.

This publication is a series of eleven student’s individual responses to a question: what is the future of telecommunication? Yet, it is so much more. It was produced by a community of creatives whose connectedness was borne of physical proximity in classrooms at the RCA, and which was sustained as they dispersed in haste around the globe this spring. We are now in a space of virtual globalisation, networked and dis/connected. It is from this position, with all of its uncertainty, strain, as well as hope for how things could be different, that they are now poised to shape the present and future of communication.


Arjun Appadurai (2003) ‘Archive and Aspiration’, Information Is Alive. Rotterdam: V2 Publishing.

David Garland (2014) ‘What is a “history of the present? On Foucault’s genealogies and their critical preconditions’, Punishment & Society 16:4: 365-384.