Soothsaying: The New Science of Designing For Nine Billion
“The wits, therefore, of the Utopians, inured and exercised in learning, be marvelous quick in the inventions of feats helping anything to the advantage of wealth of life.” 1
—Thomas More Utopia
Foretelling the future has been professionalized. Once the domain of soothsayers, astrologists, and mountebanks, now, futurology has become the domain of designers and other improvers of humankind.
Ironically, by dint of self-proclamation, Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries is one of the organizations driving discussion about the future in design. Over the last two years Mau has operated in collaboration with George Brown Toronto City College to develop an analysis of the future of global design called Massive Change. This initiative has resulted in a traveling exhibition, a book by Phaidon, a radio program, a website, an Umbra product line, and a couple dozen student participants with certificates. As an experiment in design education it has been widely praised. But the not-so-faint odor of carefully contrived spectacle clings to the initiative like stale smoke, as Mau, an expert at creating media hype, would probably be the first to admit.
One of the hallmarks of the IwB project is its insistence on the power of the iterative design process to address not only social problems, but all worldly limitations. The power of design is a familiar mantra in the contemporary professional design world. It was the theme of the AIGA 2003 biannual conference in Vancouver just as “defining change” is the topic of the 2006 ICOGRADA Seattle Design Week that grew out of Vancouver. No matter that the complexity of the problems under discussion beggars understanding, let alone humbles solution by consensus, the implication is that careful research combined with design smarts can resolve them. In a sense, Pandora is the demiurge of such thinking, making the continual re-opening of her infamous box the totem act of the will to design.
At IwB grand initiatives are discussed with an almost shameless cheek, reminiscent of the religious fanaticism of the early Protestant era. Here, one need only become an acolyte for a technologically determined future to enter into the brotherhood of hopefulness unparalleled since Sir Thomas More. Mau’s mantra, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” is the starting point for a 21st century valorization of the design professions unimaginable since Buckminster Fuller’s World Game. Rather than follow the syllogistic reasoning one is apt to ponder an obvious counter question: Now that we think we can do anything, are there some things we ought to avoid?
The Rhetoric of Sustainability as an Extension of Commodity Fetishism
“The difference between natural history and human history is that natural processes can be explained by the question “why?” and cultural processes by an additional question, “for what purpose?”2
—Vilém Flusser Writings
Global warming, resource depletion, regional warfare, poverty, rampant disease: one begins to wonder how we got into such an infernal mess to begin with if all that is needed is a massive dose of design chutzpah. Design, by all popular accounts, is the one thing the human race is supposed to have plenty of already. Doesn’t every society on earth possess a design legacy? Have we been locked in an era of naïve thinking, or have we just applied our design ability poorly? Obviously, other things are at play here.
For one, the widespread acceptance of late capitalist models of economic development infects the design profession with a rather serious bias in favor of market-driven solutions for reform. Witness the constant references at conferences and on blogs to globalization and global markets. Secondly, branding renders these discussions suspect, whether in conversations about penetrating Chinese markets, or the breathless online dialogues surrounding the need to stay atop ceaseless corporate growth. And now many seem poised to brand the very idea of change itself.
Mau and his associates identify eleven “design economies” they wish to address in an attempt to assist the welfare of all life on earth. While this approach seems novel at first, it frays upon use. As a paradigm of improved planning this formula does not seem to include unanticipated results in its method. When Mau describes the collectivization of knowledge, a thing that has been ongoing for millennia, he’s on solid if familiar ground. But when describing a hybridized featherless chicken as a means of reducing waste, the ideas he focuses on for designing evolution feel more like designing for symptoms than causes. Although we already know much about genetics, and are learning more each day, the possibilities for disaster are nowhere more present. Granted, the featherless chicken is only one possible idea among many but Massive Change’s apparent disregard for potential consequences reduces its effect for anyone of a slightly more cautious bent.
We have been here before. Rhetoric about the unbridled future has been percolating for 150 years. Thomas Richards writes:
“The Great Exhibition of 1851 represents a pivotal moment in the history of advertising, for the particular style it created for the commodity ultimately transformed the advertising industry and contributed to the formation of a new commodity culture in Victorian England.”3
Since the days of the Crystal Palace members of the public have been promised visions of a splendid future that few could afford, and fewer still could afford to believe in. We’ve idealized prosperity at the expense of our surroundings, until progress, growth, and comfort have become euphemisms for environmental degradation. Utilitarianism is so deep in our marrow that we consistently suffer the abuse of advertising rather than question our fellow’s right to profit. Escapism infects large numbers of us like a plague. The goal of living has been reduced to leisure, and leisure has been demoted to entertainment addiction. Bedeviled by compulsive commerce, we seem to no longer comprehend that creativity is the most direct avenue to well being. But with an ever-increasing efficiency the media has cemented our reliance on a belief in the false panacea of technology, which began in the mid-nineteenth century and is still accelerating. According to Richards, “The spectacle of Victorian commodity culture had transformed the commodity into a technology of representation, a working model of the shape of things to come.”4
Of course, those things arrived, in due time, providing society with mass-produced gee-gaws that have been piling up in corners ever since. Massive Change seems to understand this, but talks instead about the Next Industrial Revolution in a brief section about rapid prototyping and Bill McDonough’s theories about the Sierpinski gasket. It never seriously addresses commodity-driven mass production. Which begs the question, just who’s gonna pay the piper?
The Theoretical Celestial City
“The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” 5
—Karl Marx Capital
At Cranbrook in April 2006 Bruce Mau spoke to a full house as part of the ongoing Wired Speaker Series. If ever there was a forgiving audience, this was it. Mau talked about ways to take the future in hand, peppering his presentation with favorite analogies, statistics, and anecdotes. As he was criticizing French post-structuralism an anti-intellectual wave of recognition rippled through the bourgeois crowd, a solid collection of elite pragmatists.
Mau stated that the automobile’s great fecundity has to do with its success as an object of design. He did not discuss the evolution of economies of scale or the lack of criticality that has made it modernity’s curse as well as totem animal. He espoused William McDonough’s mantra that Waste=Food and freely quoted from the brilliant people with whom he associates. He suggested that Wal-Mart’s rise to world domination has to do with the cleverness of its inventory and distribution methods, but did not address the local effects of its tactics. And to top it all off, he suggested that one ought to adopt examples of success like Wal-Mart in an effort to apply them to improving the 21st century.
While freely referring to globalization, nowhere in his presentation did Bruce Mau criticize the hegemonic concepts of our time: capitalism and technology. Nor did he admit that he was talking about an elite corps of people attempting to redesign our future world. He didn’t have to directly address these issues; his Cranbrook audience, privileged insiders at the table of life, knew instinctively what he meant about inclusiveness. They were not merely an audience, but complicit participants in the Massive Change spectacle.
There was something quasi-religious about Mau’s evening at Cranbrook, both his talk, and his overall reception. In Society of the Spectacle Guy DeBord writes:
“The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion…The absolute denial of life, in the shape of a fallacious paradise, is no longer projected onto the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself.”6
There is a portent here. Bruce Mau refers to human habitation as the “global city” and unapologetically speaks about scaling our design planning to the size of the world’s ecology. Massive Change is not “utopic” (placeless) because Mau sees the city as synchronously everywhere, a terraformed worldwide entity. While he talks about entering into a dialogue with different social groups, young people for instance, when one contemplates the disparate small social subdivisions and indigenous groups comprising humanity Mau, his IwB protégés, and all of his famous friends combined seem woefully underqualified for the enormity of the research task at hand. But they are succeeding brilliantly at two primary tasks: framing the discussion in their own terms, and controlling audience reactions. This is possible only under spectacular conditions.
Data As Spectacle
“Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar décor.”7
—Guy Debord Society of the Spectacle Thesis 169
Bruce Mau designs exhibitions in much the way that Fred Astaire used to design stage musicals. He gathers his favorite people together, in Mau’s case this would mean Dean Kamen and Jaime Lerner rather than Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers, then he proclaims, “Let’s do a show!” But beyond showmanship, what does it mean to the natural world to discuss housing the entire human family to even modest western standards?
People have been examining the effects of humans on the global ecology at least since the days of George Perkins Marsh.8 While Mau admits North American standards would necessitate four globes to sustain the entire human family at current levels, there is never any reference to the idea of designing for reduced population numbers. When he talks about the need to build up from our current 6 billion to what will soon be 9 billion, he overlooks the observation that a more appropriate number for the human global carrying capacity at current North American standards is somewhere near 100 million.9 By not discussing the possibility of using the power of design to convince the world’s poor that they would be far better off if they reproduced less, Mau misses a golden opportunity to argue the inherent logic of population control. Mau prefers to tread the razor’s edge of facing down a global environmental collapse and accompanying catastrophic human die-off through his undiminished faith in technological solutions.
Massive Change’s method is to data dump. When once responding to a question about tunnel vision as a means of defense from the “image-prison” surrounding us William S. Burroughs said: “Very definitely, yes. But this is an ability which very few people have…For one thing, because of the absolute barrage of images to which we are subjected so that we become blunted.”10 While acting as filters, the Massive Change book and website don’t go terribly far toward relieving this barrage. Light on text, heavy on images, relying ponderously on interviews for its substantive copy, the Massive Change book is more “designerish” than scientific.
In demonstrating imaging the Massive Change website references the known spectrum of visual imaging techniques, but is clueless about Flusser’s prophetic call for a “critique (of) the entire appparatus culture and all its totalitarian tendencies, including the apparatuses that program us.”11 When discussing mobility the site refers to the obvious drawbacks of car culture and the advantages of the Segway. But in his lecture Mau said that Dean Kamen drives an H3 for his off road frolics. “Appropriate” is the correlative here. And yet, aside from the obvious response to H3s, one has to ask, “Just how many people can afford to own a different complex vehicle for each unique simple task?”
Mau’s approach to representing data seems inclusive at first. The Massive Change website contains opportunities to “make Massive Change smarter” through personal participation. One can register to vote in a poll of MC visitors on a series of ethical issues troubling the commercial advancement of biotechnology, for instance. But Massive Change de-contextualizes compilations of data in a sweeping manner. Artists, like the late Mark Lombardi in his global networks drawings, use statistical data in their work in a much more responsible manner, creating new perspectives on human community en route.
Numerous UN and government agencies maintain publicly accessible databases and, increasingly, data sets are available online. The US Dept. of Commerce has published its Statistical Abstract for decades. But the way this data is being re-contextualized in Massive Change is never directly addressed. In applying the argot of science and engineering Mau is apparently banking on the public’s hunger for technology to dull their perceptions. Rather than objectify the problems confronting us, Massive Change represents information like so much ad copy: breezy, rhetorical, and entertaining.
Surrounding Oneself With Smart People, or ‘Gilt’ By Association
“We may observe, even now, how monastic communities come into being… It is not difficult to imagine that a worldwide network of elitist groups linked by material and immaterial cables might crystallize in the not far distant future, and that such a network might elaborate rules that would govern society at large without being discovered by the masses.”12
The UN Millennium Development Goals have inspired a rush of well-intentioned responses to their call to arms. The Institute without Boundaries’s World House Project is one of these measures. In an attempt to preempt a future of squatter megalopolises in the tropical latitudes, Mau & Co. are proposing to develop a domicile capable of emitting its own oxygen, accruing its own energy, and promoting its own sustainability through techniques like biomimicry. Such buildings already exist, like the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College spearheaded by David Orr.
The ostensible goal of Massive Change’s World House Project is to, “Promote the long-term health of nature and human culture” and to “Build it so everyone can use it.” No arguments there. IwB maintains an open call for interested participants, citing a need for architects, engineers, new media experts, sociologists, economists, and urban planners. Here one is inclined to think “Gee, design really is integrative.” But a closer look reveals a not-so-inclusive side: professionals are invited, but not farmers, housewives, masons, day laborers, brick-makers, bicycle porters, or carpenters.
Perhaps this is because, according to his own testimony, Bruce Mau’s got nothing against experts. In fact, he’s depending upon them. The Massive Change book and website currently (4/’06) carry up to four dozen interviews with carefully selected experts from a variety of disciplines, including Fritjof Capra, Freeman Dyson, Felice Frankel, Jaime Lerner, and Bruce Sterling, to name but a few. Although Massive Change purports to be about collaborative models, including “world thinkers, industry experts, and the local community,” there is much in the way of professional elitism here. If the world as we know it has been commodified by mass production and mass marketing, seems to go the reasoning, we should be able to design, build, and distribute a world housing unit as a universal commodity. Again, Guy Debord:
“Meanwhile, beyond the unbound claim that the dissolution of the communicable has a beauty all its own, one encounters the most modern tendency of spectacular culture— and the one most closely bound up with the repressive practice of the general social organization— seeking by means of a “global approach” to reconstruct a complex neo-artistic environment out of flotsam and jetsam;… Wherever one looks, one encounters this same intent: to restructure society without community.”13
Debord’s criticism of late capitalism is supremely applicable to Mau’s undertaking precisely because of the latter’s blithe assumption of a series of overarching technical solutions to human problems. This assumption hovered in the air at Cranbrook, it pervades the Massive Change website, and colors IwB’s primary assumption that the future is annexable by design and marketable to teeming billions.
Massive Change feints at being inclusive, but the question remains as to how the majority of the world’s poor, illiterate, and offline, estimated at 2 to 3 billion, stand to benefit other than as accepting bystanders having design “done to them.” Tossing around housing unit statistics like juggling pins, Massive Change does not stop to ask whether the Millennium Development Goals are realizable or even probable.
The underlying fallacy of all massive undertakings, whether proposed by the UN or any other organization, is that most effective change is small, incremental, aggregate, and localized at an almost cellular level, as in biology. To overlook this is to ignore past disasters, like engineering the hydrology of the Everglades, or constructing the Aswan High Dam.
While referencing Fuller’s attempt to limn the future through an application of comprehensive “design science” carries on an impressive speculative tradition, and citing world events like the Rio or Kyoto accords is de rigeur, Massive Change does not take into account key documents like The Limits to Growth, or the Bruntland Report. It is probably not possible to be exhaustively comprehensive in any realistic way and still capture the popular imagination, but Massive Change is guilty of being too selective for its own damn good.
Raising Golgonooza (with Aero-gel Bricks)
A persistent question then arises: Are there reasonable alternatives to Massive Change’s domineering vision and manipulative use of data? To which one can only reply, where do you want to look first?
Wes Janz and Cameron Sinclair both borrow facts from target 11 of the Millennium Development statistics, but Janz’ onesmallproject and Sinclair’s open source design initiative are refreshingly free from IwB’s hypertrophied, big money spectacle approach to the problem. Both of these initiatives, while recognizing the enormity of the task at hand, assume a human-size tone, preferring to think in localized terms, a thing Fuller belittled. While village-size thinking is less sexy than IwB’s global terraforming, it retains its idealism while being infinitely more realistic about outcomes.
It may, indeed, be past time for humanity to begin a more holistic approach to self-realization. That we have proceeded by fits and starts to this point in history would not elude any reasonably intelligent person. If nothing else, Massive Change attempts to define this limit. How the world of the future should be, however, will be very hotly contested. Flusser argues for playful, irrational, aleatory approaches to creativity. The Massive Change vision, one of many possible other scenarios, is problematic for the numerous reasons cited above. That there exists a one-size-fits-all solution to the future of life on earth will remain a dubious question so long as human independence is at issue. That it should take the form of a cultural spectacle, carefully crafted by media professionals, and distributed through the cultural/entertainment infrastructure leaves this author very much in doubt.
I am reminded of two famous slogans, both originating in one of the darkest decades of mass control humanity has yet encountered: “Science discovers—Technology makes—Man conforms,” and “Work Will Make You Free.” The first was the catch phrase at the Chicago Century of Progress exhibition of 1933. The latter overhung the entrance to Auswichtz.
Human accomplishment can never be the domain of a select or self-selecting few. Knowledge will not be delimited by standards of any sort, not even perceived standards of excellence, and life, by any sane definition, must remain heterogeneous. The UN has learned this the hard way, and now seems to be working to include the elements of civil society in its approach to world problems.
It is only through rigorous creative and intellectual re-evaluation and mutual civility that we can loose our bound perceptions, overcome preconceived models, and admit how dimly we perceive the future. Humility will seem counter-intuitive to modern day design demi-gods, but it is humbly that we will raise Golgonooza, Blake’s mythic City of Art & Manufacture, brick by precious aero-gel brick.
1) Utopia. Sir Thomas More. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1999 p. 167
2) Writings. Vilem Flusser. University of Minnesota Press, 2002 p. 147
3) Commodity Culture of Victorian England. Thomas Richards. Palo Alto: Stanford U. Press.1990 p.53
4) ibid. p. 166
5) Capital. Karl Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 p. 49
6) Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord. New York: Zone Books 1994, Thesis 20
7) op cit. Debord, Thesis 169.
8) The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. George Perkins Marsh. 1874. See also The Earth As Transformed By Human Action. B.L. Turner II, ed. 1990.
9) Norwegian philosopher and deep ecologist Arne Naess’ estimates of the carrying capacity of the earth for an advanced, post-industrial human population.
10) Utopia Limited. Marianne DeKoven. Duke University Press. 2004 p. 173
11) op cit. Flusser, p. 49
12) op cit. Flusser, p. 61
13) op cit. Debord, Thesis 192
David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.
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