Sunday, September 28th, 2008
“Natural resources … pollution … world’s food supply … pressures of population growth … Every trend in material human welfare has been improving – and promises to do so indefinitely.” – Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource
With those provocative words on the cover, economist Julian L. Simon launched his magnum opus, a paean to the ingenuity of man and a rebuke to the doomsayers who have been more or less continuing to predict man-made catastrophe for the world since the time of Malthus. Simon was an unapologetic free trader and man of the economic right. While his favorite philosopher was David Hume, he also lavishes considerable praise on Friedrick Hayek and the book opens with “an appreciation” from Milton Friedman. Simon became known as a “cornucopian”, someone who saw the ultimate resource as human brainpower and creativity, and in that resource he believed would be the answer to the problems of the future. Simon would, no doubt, view the current oil price spike in a positive light, saying it will stimulate new energy production and the creation of efficiency technology that will end up leaving us better off than if the crisis had never happened.
I had always associated conucopianism as a position of the right. Then along came this book that I would have to view as a “left cornucopianism” counterpart to Simon. Massive Change is a project conceived by Bruce Mau (of Life Style and S, M, L, XL fame). It is a book, but also a web site and a couple years ago a traveling art exhibit. Massive Change explores the intersection of design and technology across a range of disciplines, showing the world on a precipice of radically different ways of doing things. Mau celebrates this as a good thing. His project is overtly utopian, and explicitly chartered to realize Arnold J. Toynbee’s goal of “an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” Mau’s rationalistic utopianism, anti-militarism, and strong social justice/social equality orientation mark him as a man of the left. However, in a sense he’s a bit of a reactionary as well, a throwback to the pre-Silent Spring days when we stood in awed wonder at the latest technology and saw science as a force of human progress instead of a threat to its existence. Back to the days when a company could promise without any trace of irony, “Better Living Through Chemistry”. That phrase, perhaps more than any other, sums up Mau’s vision for the world. That, or “We have the technology.” He wants better living for mankind as a whole, especially the least fortunate, through the new technologies we are on the verge of unleashing.
Even if you don’t care for his politics or vision, Mau’s book (which actually appears to be ghostwritten by someone named Jennifer Leonard), is a must read for anyone who wants to have their thinking stimulated about the new world of the 21st century. And there is a new world. If you thought the 20th century brought change, you ain’t seen nothing yet. While he doesn’t call it out directly, Mau seems to implicitly argue that we’re on the verge of some type of “punctured equilibrium” in which convergence between radical innovations in materials, processes, markets, life sciences, social structures, and much more is going to revolutionize life as we know it. We are approaching a sort of godhood, where we have the ability to design and shape the world on an unimaginable scale. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, etc. give humans the capacity to literally shape the stuff of life. Mau sees this technology combined with a new, humanistic and progressivist ethos, as finally allowing technology and design to capture that long ago promise.
As a writer on cities, the prescriptions aren’t clear to me, but the considerations are pointed. As we read about the crazy things we can do with nanotechnology, “cradle to cradle” materials life cycles, artificial tissues, the exploding internet user base and increasing rate of technical innovation and so on, it seems odd that the current trends in urban thinking still seem to revolve around retro-notions of re-creating a 19th century urban vision of the city (sans horse manure). As we talk about things like life sciences economic development strategies, it seems clear that we aren’t seeing the whole picture about where the hockey puck is going.
The 21st century is going to be very different from the 20th or the 19th. It will require new visions of what a city can be, and what the urban economy can be. Perhaps it could be some type of erzatz 1950’s Greenwich Village, with all of our technological wonders going to enable us to enjoy that existence without any of the attendant downsides, such as the pollution and byproducts of the production, distribution, and energy processes of the day. Something tells me that’s too simplistic a vision. We need to challenge ourselves to consider the implications of the technologically driven change in our world and try to figure out what the real possibilities are.
The book itself is episodal and breezy. It is divided into chapters covering various economies (in the original sense of the word): materials, energy, information, images, markets, politics, etc. For each one there are examples of what is going on, along with interviews with subject matter experts including Freeman Dyson, Lawrence Lessig, Hernando de Soto, Bruce Sterling, and Jeffrey Sachs. And there are pictures galore, which are worth the price of the book by themselves (currently less than $20 from Amazon.com brand new in hardcover). This makes it an easy read. You can easily pick up the book, read a couple of pages, and put it back down none until the next day without losing the thread.
Many of the topics covered aren’t that mind blowing in and of themselves. To anyone in the know, they’ll probably sound simplistic and dated. For example, it is difficult to get too excited hearing about Linux and GNU again. But the power of the book comes not from any individual example (though there are a few standouts). Rather, it is the sheer broad range of areas where change is coming and multipling, and the convergence across these areas that shows that we stand. This book lets you see the forest, when all too often in the popular media we only see the trees. It’s not the individual stories, it is the cumulative effect. To an extent, Mau is hinting at a non-AI based Singularity.
Massive Change is definitely worth reading for anyone questioning where the world is heading, or could head in one optimistic vision, in the century we just stepped into.
For another take, see the review of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit by David Hoppe.
“For most of us design is invisible. Until it fails. In fact, the secret ambition of design is to become invisible, to be taken up into the culture, absorbed into the background. The highest order of success in design is to achieve ubiquity, to become banal. The automobile, the freeway, the airplane, the cell phone, the air conditioner, the high-rise – all invented and developed first in the West, but fully adopted and embraced the world over – have achieved design nirvana. They are no longer considered unnatural. They are boring, even tedious. Most of the time we live our lives within these invisible systems, blissfully unaware of the artificial life, the intensely designed infrastructures that support them. Accidents, disasters, crises. When systems fail we become temporarily conscious of the extraordinary force and power of design, and the effect that it generates. Every accident provides a brief moment of awareness in real life, what is actually happening, and our dependence on the underlying systems of design. Every plane crash is a rupture, a shock to the system, precisely because our experience of flight is so carefully designed away from the reality of the event. As we sip champagne, read the morning paper, and settle in before takeoff, we choose not to experience the torque, the thrust, the speed, the altitude, the temperature, the thousands of pounds of explosive jet fuels cradled beneath us, the infinite complexity of the onboard systems, and the very real risks and dangers of takeoff and landing. Massive Change is an ambitious project that humbly attempts to chart the bewildering complexity of our increasingly interconnected (and designed) world. We have done our best to open it up by breaking it down, and putting as many fascinating fragments as we could find back together again, between the covers of this book. We hope to make evident the design decisions that go on and are made manifest across disciplines. Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” – Bruce Mau, Massive Change, text accompanying the opening plates.
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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.