Friday, June 11th, 2010

Replay: Bruce Mau’s Massive Change

“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. 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. And he’s clearly a “Yes, we can” kind of guy who believes we can really make it happen.

Even if you don’t care for his politics or vision, Mau’s book, 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 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 multiplying, 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.

This post originally appeared on September 28, 2008.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Globalization, Sustainability, Technology

12 Responses to “Replay: Bruce Mau’s Massive Change”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    The fact that must always be mentioned about Simon is that he seriously believed humanity will never run out of resources because the number of points on a straight line is infinite.

    Another fact that must always be mentioned is that the cornucopians opposed every single regulation that resulted in the pollution reductions they rave about. They said DDT was harmless, they said forcing cars to have seat belts would bankrupt the automakers, they said smoking didn’t cause cancer.

    Your article doesn’t portray Mau’s book as much better than Simon’s crankery. To me, one of the key remarks you make is “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.” Another is the mention of “singularity,” whose proponents are as a rule completely ignorant of real-world neurotech research. My girlfriend, who’s starting grad school in this, could point out more factual errors in a singularitarian tract than I could in a Wendell Cox position paper.

  2. Matt Petryni says:

    Alon makes a great point here. Regulation sometimes spurs innovation. Even saying that sounds so counter-intuitive to the narrative we’ve been spoon-fed for so long now, it’s hard to believe there could be even the smallest grain of truth to it. Let alone that it would be true in a great many situations a great many times.

    Both of those things being said, this post sort of reminds me of this ad from 1999:

    or this one from 2001:

    or this one from a year ago:

    or this one from earlier this year:

    There’s some techno-optimism going on out there to be sure. It’s very loud and proud.

  3. Alon, I believe the core of Simon’s argument is that resources are economically infinite because the price mechanism will prevent us from every physically running out of something like oil. Price rises will prompt conservation and the development of substitutes.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, you’re giving Simon too much credit. His full argument is, “the length of a line is finite, but it has infinitely many points, because you can always squeeze something through, so we’ll always be able to use the planet’s resources.” It’s only partly allegory, but even if it were 100% allegory, it’d be ignorant.

    It’s definitely not about economics spurring substitutes (which, itself, is dubious; extrapolate Simon’s projected growth rates, and within a few centuries humanity would use more energy than is physically available. Thermodynamics is a real downer sometimes). It’s vaguely about efficiency, and vaguely about innovation, but there’s no substance to it.

  5. Simon’s record of predicting plenty of resources has proven far more accurate to date than the various doomsayers who have been going non-stop for 40 years on now about how we’re going to run out of nearly everything. Perhaps there really are some physical limits (though I doubt we’ll ever really exhaust the physical capacity of the planet, given vast nuclear resources if nothing else). But if so, the doommongers have cried wolf far too often and given the public the right to take a very skeptical eye towards their claims. The typical response is to claim these people were cranks and not serious. But I can remember being shown films as a school kid in the 1970’s telling me seriously that the world would run out of oil in the 1980’s. Fool me once…

  6. Alon Levy says:

    No, the doomsayers were mostly right. Hubbard got the USA’s oil peak correct to within 5 years. In 1973, the reduction in consumption made his original prediction of a world peak in 1995 less valid, and peak oil proponents modified the year well in advance; so far, 2006 seems like the peak conventional-oil year, which is in line with the 1970s’ predictions.

    The films people showed kids in the 1970s did not really reflect scientific thinking at the time. They reflected a dumbed-down alarmist version. For example: in the 1970s, the new understanding of ice ages led a minority of climate scientists to predict an imminent ice age, unless global warming happened first and overwhelmed it. But the media latched onto it, tacked on unrelated nuclear winter concerns, and turned it into mass hysteria; to this day, climate change deniers pretend that scientists predicted global cooling in the 1970s with the same certainty they predict global warming today.

    And vast nuclear resources aren’t that vast – proven uranium reserves are enough for about 40 years of current world energy consumption. Some cornucopians talk about alternative sources, such as uranium impurities in coal, but those are so expensive and dirty to produce that they have zero benefit over renewables.

    The key here is to read what scientists say, not what popularizers say they say. The mainstream media is mostly useless here. My girlfriend reports that even Scientific American gets elementary facts in her field wrong; my limited experience with it tells me it doesn’t really get research-level math, either. You can’t learn science from those sources any more than you can learn economics or world politics reading The Economist.

  7. Failure is an orphan, as they say. I don’t recall the “new ice age” thing ever being more than a blip, but resource exhaustion dominated policy debates in the 1970’s in the wake of the Arab oil embargo.

    I’m all in favor of conservation and alternative fuels, but we have vast energy supplies in the world. There is no danger of running out of almost anything anytime soon.

  8. John Morris says:

    I might read the book. Sounds interesting, however, one could agree with the author about the possibilities of markets, human ingenuity and the like and still be quite pessimistic.

    First of all, the world of today is hardly lead by F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman type thinking. The overwhelming number of people in the world still live under some level of tyranny and anything resembling free markets is still pretty rare. The bulk of oil, is controlled by state oil companies and mining is similar. Farming is rarely allowed to follow market principles. Even worse, most of the world has no concept of private property so most land has no real owner with an interest in preservation or conservation which is why slash and burn farming is still common. The oceans have no owners at all and are the prime example of the tragedy of the commons at work. A fisherman’s ownership stops with his boat.

    Also, even someone optimistic has to concede that economic adjustment through the price system can be a pretty bumpy road and that it cause a lot of pain along the way. (which is why it’s so rarely allowed)

    The freedom and property rights these people are counting on does not exist.

  9. John Morris says:

    Ooops, I sort of skimmed this post and need to spend time on the website.

    Still the kind of organic incremental change and renewal that makes a big functioning city great and the design innovation they are counting on implies lots of freedom.

    That’s just not what the world today is about.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, the bulk of the world’s non-renewable energy supply is coal, which is effectively a weapon of war against low-lying areas.

    And John, people in countries that have had to take IMF direction might disagree with your comments about free market principles not holding in much of the world. And people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic might disagree with what you say about conservation. You can sometimes tell the border between those two countries just looking at satellite photos; the Dominican Republic is on the side where there are still trees. The difference: Trujillo engaged in conservation and banned people from destroying the environment too much; Papa Doc and Baby Doc didn’t, and let people cut out trees on privately owned land. While there are examples of environmentally conscious capitalism – Hong Kong, Switzerland – there are even more examples of environmentally rapacious capitalism.

  11. John Morris says:

    98% of the even semi capitalist places in the world don’t need an IMF loan.

    What does a global government funded rigged bank giving subsidized loans to mostly statist bankrupt governments have to do with Capitalism?

    Haiti is hardly a paragon of Property rights.

  12. cdc guy says:

    Alon, recent discoveries (shale gas) and technology (fracking) are moving natural gas up the ladder of non-renewable sources in the US. That’s why its price has crashed.

    But gas extraction is becoming almost as environmentally unfriendly as coal. Coal doesn’t consume massive quantities of freshwater in extraction; coal’s water consumption occurs when it’s used in thermo-electric production. Shale gas extraction uses water and fouls it.

    Aaron, the water-energy nexus is something that the “abundance” crowd has never really addressed; they tend to look at sectors in isolation and rely on “technology” to bring out new supply. But if we (“we” in the sense of “society”) keep using potable freshwater to support fossil-fuel extraction and electric production, there WILL be trouble down the line: freshwater is a finite resource. Even though it falls from the sky. :)

    Since energy but not water follows market prices, the general practice of externalizing costs of energy extraction and conversion into the water realm will continue.

    John, to loop back a few days…this is an example of a qualitative “economic” observation. I know that it’s far from hard science, but one of the iron laws of economics is that the tragedy of the commons plays out in specific industries in specific ways where no regulation or market mechanism exists to internalize certain costs of production. You pointed out another classic case, fisheries.

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