Monday, August 29, 2011

Natural Capitalism

A summary of:
Paul Hawken (2004). Natural Capitalism: Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm? In Ausubel, K. & Harpignies, J.P., eds., Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.
&
Amory and Hunter Lovins (2004). Natural Capitalism: Where the Rubber Meets the Road In Ausubel, K. & Harpignies, J.P., eds., Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

I read Hawken’s (with the Lovins’) book, Natural Capitalism. It was quite long, and a little bit tedious. The gist of it, what redeemed it, can be found in these much shorter chapters, summarized here.

First, a definition, from the Lovins’ chapter: “Natural capitalism doesn’t just mean reducing waste; it means eliminating the whole concept of waste through better design, design that adopts biological patters, processes, and often materials. This approach implies eliminating any industrial output that represents a disposal cost rather than a salable product” (169). The Lovins’ argue: “We believe the leaders in waste reduction are going to be in the private sector, but there remains a vital role for governments and civil society. It’s important to remember the purposes and limitations of markets. Markets make a great servant but a bad master and a worse religion. Markets produce value, but only communities and families produce values. And a society that tries to substitute markets for politics, ethics, or faith is seriously adrift” (174). (To me, this suggests that the whole free market ethos that underpins the Internet – e.g. Net Neutrality – needs to be reconsidered.)

Hawken’s definition is this: “Natural capitalism as a metaphor is an attempt to describe an integrated application and program of the economies of restoration. Rather than being an (149) approach to sustainability, natural capitalism attempts to describe a practical relationship between human beings and the biosphere that will improve the quality of life for all while dramatically reducing our impact on living systems and eventually increasing ecosystem viability and productivity” (150). Hawkens draws on the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who wrote in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Hawkens responds: “It is the power of corporations over people and place. The world’s top 200 companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world’s people. This power was never granted” (149).

Another key element of natural capitalism is that, “in the developed world, the limiting factor to human well-being and development is no longer human-made capital; it is life itself. As more people place greater strain on living systems, (152) limits to prosperity are coming to be determined by scarcities of natural systems rather than industrial prowess. …Unlike traditional economic factors of production, these biological limiting factors are not fungible; in other words, they can’t be replaced” (153). And what of our human capital? “We have the highest rates of abortion, drug use, violence, gangs, and teen pregnancies of any industrial nation. The list goes on. So what does that tell us? What young people are saying to us is that they don’t want to be here. At all. On earth. In the United States, besides injury, the greatest cause of mortality among teenagers between ten and fourteen years old is suicide. Not drugs, not violence, not AIDS. Suicide” (156). Surely this is a threat to the natural capital of humans – and our mental health is a necessary consideration of any responsible action. And anyway, even if we argue that humans are better off with certain technological advances, is this really worth it in the grand scheme of things? Hawken asks the most perfect question: “Consider the idea of road warriors rushing onto the red-eye with their Palm Pilots, their laptops, their cell phones – what’s that all about? So we ask the question, Do we really want to be more productive? Do we really want to swap more productivity for the loss of our forests, our riparian systems, our resources? I don’t think so” (152)….“So the real question is, What are we doing? We’re creating a world in which we cannot spend enough time with our children. To accomplish that, we are sacking the planet” (152).

Another element is: “if we’re going to create an economic system that has any semblance or resemblance to biological systems, we can no longer think of ourselves as episodic manufacturers of goods but must recast ourselves as deliverers of a flow of services. After all, that flow of services is what we receive from nature. The materials, molecules, and compounds themselves must be carefully marshaled and monitored. Either they must be made from living systems and be capable of being biodegraded or reconstituted, or they must be technical nutrients that are returned to industrial systems in a closed loop. There are no exceptions. There is no landfill in this society” (155).

And Hawken also argues that we must restore natural capital, (although he doesn’t phrase it like this) as an indicator of progress: “We cannot simply organize ourselves to be effective, efficient, or productive. We have to organize our industrial systems in such a way that our oceans, our soil, our waters, our riparian systems, and our climates are restored, step by step by step. Restoration has to be a natural outcome of what we do, not an altruistic of a legislated outcome” (155).

This is Hawken’s grand, inspiring vision:
“What is possible in fifty years is a world that is wonderfully messy, shockingly magical, and deliriously creative. It doesn’t fit a single scenario written anywhere by anyone. It is not a world defined by technologies, tools, and products. It is not a world that can be measured by money. It is not a world that can be reduced to demographics. It will be a world defined by the acts of restor-(159)ing life on earth, a world that celebrates dance, costume, song, ritual, magic, prayer, worship, and play. It will be a world that cares for its old people, its children, and its storytellers. This is the work of carefully reconstituting what has been lost by creating conditions conducive to life on earth. It is born of a culture in which no materials used in industry cause damage to anyone, now or later. It is created by a society that imitates and emulates the design brilliance of nature that we reside within and walk upon and have never fully appreciated. Ours is a time of extraordinary work, because it is not the work of a decade or a century, but the work of a millennium” (160).

Ethnospere and ethnocide

A summary of:
Wade Davis (2004). A World Made of Stories. In Ausubel, K. & Harpignies, J.P., eds., Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

In this chapter, Davis (re-)introduces his term ‘ethnosphere’, “to describe a concept suggesting that just as there is a biosphere, a biological web of life, so too there is a cultural fabric that envelops the earth, a cultural web of life, the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, beliefs, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s great legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all that we are and all that we have created as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species” (215).

The central argument about the importance of preserving this ethnosphere comes from Margaret Mead: “Just before she died, anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke of her concern that as we drift toward a more homogenous world, we are laying the foundations of a blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that ultimately will have no rivals. The entire imagination of humanity, she feared, might become confined within the limits of a single intellectual and spiritual modality. Her nightmare was the possibility that we might wake up one day and not even remember what had been lost” (218). And what would be lost? “Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes life’s possibilities and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the problems that confront us all. Knowledge is lost, not only of the natural world but also of the spirit realms, intuitions about the meaning of the cosmos, insights into the very nature of existence. This is why it matters that we tell these stories and make these journeys” (226). And importantly, he argues: “Whether this notion [i.e. the mythology] is ‘true’ or not is hardly the point. What is interesting and consequential is how a people’s conviction or belief mediates the relationship between human society and the natural world. In the high Andes, people believe that a mountain is an Apu, a sacred being that has the power to (225) direct the destiny of all those living within the shadow of its slopes. A young child coming of age in such a place will have a profoundly different relationship to that mountain than a kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of inert rock ready to be mined. Is a mountain a god or a pile of ore? Ultimately, who is to say? The important point is how the belief itself mediates and defines the relationship between the human and the natural landmark” (226).

But because of our faith in the mythology of progress (in Greer’s The Long Descent), we believe we are continually improving upon how to live on this planet. Davis reminds us: “Human beings as a recognizable social species have been around for perhaps 600,000 years. The Neolithic revolution, which gave us agriculture and with it surplus, hierarchy, specialization, and sedentary life, occurred only 10,000 years ago. Modern industrial society is but 300 years old. This shallow history does not suggest to me that our current way of life has all the answers for all the challenges that will confront us as a species in the coming millennia” (218). Even worse, however, there is a Western elitism at the heart of this so-called “progress”, which Davis describes (only to shatter) thusly: “There lingers a conceit that while we have been busy inventing the Internet or placing men on the moon, other societies have somehow been intellectually idle. This is simply not true. Anthropology has long taught that whether a people’s mental potential goes into technical wizardry or unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is merely a matter of cultural choice and orientation. In the Sahara, for example, the raw potential of the human mind has been tapped in astonishing ways, some metaphysical, some boldly concrete, like the very capacity to orient oneself in an endless expanse of sand where there is no separation between horizon and sky, nothing on a human scale, no point of reference save the hallucinogenic waves of delirium that sweep over the unfettered imagination when the throat is scorched with a thirst impossible to describe, impossible to bear” (221). And then Davis writes the most wonderful few sentences:

“Genocide, the physical extermination of a people, is universally condemned by civilized societies. Yet ethnocide, the destruction of a people’s way of life, is often endorsed as appropriate development policy. Who is to say that American culture matters more than that of the Tuareg? At a more fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves, What kind of world do we want to live in? Most Americans will never see a painting by Monet or hear a symphony by Mozart, but does that mean that the world would not be a lesser place without these artists and their unique interpretations of reality?” (224).

What does this mean for the development of Web technology? Well Davis has a quite easily realizable plan: “to turn the Internet into a virtual campfire around which we might gather to share tales from all reaches of the ethnosphere” (224). I think this would be a noble effort, but it seems too limited by what we know of as the Internet now. I think what this chapter suggests, instead, is that we need to consider alternative visions for the Internet that make sense within other worldviews, in a way that doesn’t erode these cultures and homogenize them all into the kind of culture that created the Internet as it is now. And I think it means not encouraging uptake of our current Internet by other cultures as a desperate attempt for them to be heard. Maybe what it means, ultimately, is reconceptualizing cyberspace as something that need not be a purely technological creation. How would other cultures think about cyberspace?

(Davis also points out the fundamental flaw in the Western way of living, which is that it only works by establishing ranks of haves and have-nots, winners and losers; therefore it is foolish to think that it is our great philanthropic mission to bring Western development to the rest of the world. “Indeed the Western model of development has failed in so many places largely because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of Western nations. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would so severely compromise the biosphere that the earth would be unrecognizable. In reality, development for the vast majority of the world’s peoples has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past and propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that leads nowhere” (217).)

(Davis also touches on the alienation as mentioned in the previous post: “We long ago liberated the individual from the constraints of community and with such finality that we forget what an astonishing innovation it represented in human affairs…. We forget that in most of the world the community still dominates, for without its strength the individual cannot survive. In embracing the cult of the individual, we secure an irresistible sense of liberation and freedom, but it comes at a cost, as is evident in the alienation and isolation that characterize too many lives in the West” (222).)

The Human-Nature Dance

A summary of:
Malcolm Margolin (2004). The Human-Nature Dance: People as a Keystone Species. In Ausubel, K. & Harpignies, J.P., eds., Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

This chapter is incredibly eye-opening. Margolin describes a worldview that seems so foreign:

“For California natives, managing that land began with a deeply detailed knowledge of place – climate, seasons, soil, plants, and animals – around which their own lives were organized. Encoded in their intricate and eminently practical relationships with the land was a conscious ecological ethos, a living land ethic that recognized people as playing a central environmental and spiritual role in the web of life” (72).

My first reaction is that we are clearly getting dumber. For example, I have no real understanding of climate, seasons, soil, plants, and animals – and I certainly feel no relationship to them, except that they are external to my existence. And then I feel a great sadness for what we have all lost in severing these connections. This is precisely what Huston Smith (and many sociologists and psychologists) referred to as ‘alienation’, and it is no wonder this alienation creates a void in our lives. If we are not part of something greater than ourselves, what is the point of our individual existences?

Then consider: “Food was shared communally – a marvelous social device that prevents overconsumption and uses resources very efficiently. When people hunt and gather food individually, they have to stockpile because the next week they might be sick or have bad luck in their hunting. When it’s shared among people, there is less need to stockpile. Sharing becomes an amazingly efficient way of using resources” (74).

This, too, is incredibly foreign. (It also smacks of Communism, which people seem so afraid of.) Nevermind how we do this with environmental resources – that seems evident enough; instead, let’s think how we do this with information. When I spoke to people at a recent computing conference about Web 3.0 and I asked them why it was a good idea, one of the common replies was that we need it to be able to find as much information as we could, so that we could make sense of it all. (Notice this shatters the common fallacy that the Internet is a magnificent specimen of collective activity. It is, rather, an opportunity for all to realize their individuality.) But this was something that societies used to do collectively. This hoarding of information is highly inefficient, but worse, it is arguably less meaningful, in that it is stripped of its collective understanding and communal belonging. But the way we hoard is both symptomatic of, and contributing to, a lack of social cohesion that traditional forms of society offered. I’m reminded of Emile Durkheim, who argued that modern societies tend to be highly individualistic because they are so complex that they have to rely on divisions of labour which intensify differences between people, meanwhile dissolving all bonds between people except that they are all “individuals”. He writes, “Since human personality is the only thing that appeals unanimously to all hearts, since its enhancement is the only aim that can be collectively pursued, it inevitably acquires exceptional value in the eyes of all. It thus rises far above all human aims, assuming a religious nature” (REF: Suicide; in Lynch: 103-4). Durkheim believed that the “cult of the individual’” would eventually become the new secular religion – “‘a free, private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs and understanding” (in Heelas et al., 2005: 149) – and that all others that were “‘handed down by tradition’” (ibid) would slowly fade to extinction. But the lingering question is, Is this secular religion fulfilling in the way that participating in the “collective effervescence” would have been? Or even more importantly, Is this individuated living sustainable? I would argue it’s not.

I also really like this excerpt: “A beautiful example of conservation was a rock quarry near Oroville that was a source of chert, a hard rock used for making scrapers, arrowheads, and the like. This area doesn’t have a lot of obsidian or other minerals, so the chert was extremely valuable. The Indians had been quarrying this spot for who knows how long. In a sense it was owned in common. Any local male could (77) go into the quarry, which was dug into the hill like a cave, once each year and take out as much as he could get with the single blow of a hammer. He had to leave an offering of money beads on the way out. These laws were encoded in religion, and if a person broke them, there were grave repercussions. That the rules were strictly observed was a tribute to the power of this place, and in part clearly reflected a conservation ethic. Limiting access to the quarry and making certain that nobody took more than his share assured that the chert would last for several generations” (78).

I realized when reading this that there are no such taboos surrounding the use of Web resources. There are no rituals surrounding its appropriate use either (not like these offerings, anyway). What if such rituals and taboos were somehow introduced into and intertwined with our use of the Internet. Surely we would not see the levels of addiction-like behaviour we see today. Surely we would begin to treat it reverently, as the gift that it is. And surely it would last longer as a result. How can we possibly expect the Internet to be there forever if we expand and reap it mindlessly?

There is another issues being touched on in this chapter, about the silencing of voices that have some really excellent, wise things to say. Margolin writes, “To be a human being in this way, to learn such practices, required more than one generation. Among California’s Native Americans, this knowledge was learned and transmitted over many generations, and a lot of it is still around. Perhaps above all, it gives us a view of humanity as not living apart from nature and being destructive to the natural world. These traditions and peoples show us splendidly how, by our way of living, we can actually be a blessing to the world” (79). I suppose this poses an interesting inclusion problem for Web technologies. If what I’m suggesting is that a more holistic, nature-oriented worldview would be a beneficial contribution to the way we currently develop, what then? If we try to force this thinking – these cultures, these people, even – into cyberspace, surely this will forever change the nature of that worldview, thus exacerbating its extinction. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we could certainly use the notion of ‘being a blessing to the world’ in the way we develop our Web technologies. I suppose it just means, like the previous post, asking ourselves honestly how we want to live.

Some thoughts on Biomimicry

A summary of:
Janine Benyus (2004). Biomimicry: What Would Nature Do Here?. In Ausubel, K. & Harpignies, J.P., eds., Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

The argument presented here is that we need to learn from nature how to “create the conditions conducive to life.” This does not mean learning how to create better and better simulations of ourselves (see Turkle’s Alone Together), but rather to learn the fine art that nature seems to do so instinctively, of being OF NATURE. Our problem begins by thinking of ourselves as something outside of nature, and therefore positioning ourselves in opposition to it. Sadly, we need to learn how, or remember how, to be nature; and our teachers are all around us. Hence the sense in biomimicry: “Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature, looking to nature as a teacher.”

What we find, if we are humble enough to see it, is: “In fact, organisms have done everything we humans want to do but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future” (5). So since we seem to have lost our way in this respect, we should “step outside and ask the local geniuses that surround us.” This means changing our questions, e.g. “…when we want to clean a surface, we get hung up on questions such as ‘What’s the least toxic detergent to use?’ or ‘How can I reduce the energy involved in sandblasting?’ A more helpful question might be ‘How does nature stay clean?’” In short, we should be asking questions along the lines of “What would nature do here?” The result: “Instead of seeing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher” (8).

What are some of the lessons, then? One is that we are living completely out of proportion to our share of the planet. Things that we assume as human rights now – e.g. the right to Internet access, the right to electricity – are predicated upon this disproportionate use of nature’s resources. Consider: “And how does nature power itself? Obviously, not the way we do. Of course we all rely on photosynthesis, on sunlight captured by plants. But in our case, it’s ancient sunlight trapped 65 million years ago by plants that we now dig up and ignite in a huge bonfire. We burn 100,000 years of ancient plant growth every year” (7). Wes Jackson (quoted here) points out that our greed is founded upon a disrespect for nature as a teacher (“When we begin to see nature as mentor, gratitude tempers greed and the notion of resources becomes obscene”). Benyus argues that we need to finally realize how amazing nature is in order to realize how self-evident the rationale is for protecting it. My question is, how are our technologies helping us realize this? I would say that this is precisely what many of our technologies push further and further from our awareness. What if they were instead designed in a way that mimicked nature, thus bringing that to our awareness?

Another lesson is that the world is a web. We do not contribute additively to our environments. As Postman pointed out, introducing a technology into our social lives, for example changes the entirety of social life. Furthermore, this means that the only way to approach the world is in a holistic way. “In order to deal with that kind of complexity, we need to start paying attention to how organisms live in context. We need to throw a party where people who are asking, ‘How does life operate in a way that enhances place?’ can get together with people who are asking, ‘How shall we live?’” (12). So how DO we want to live?

Benyus finds hope in humanity’s distinct skill: “One thing that seems to make us different from other creatures, as far as we know, is our ability to act collectively – as a whole species – on our understanding” (12). If we take this statement as true, it means that there is hope for mass change in our thinking about the world, which would then prescribe an entirely different relationship with it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Internet doesn't understand friendship

Great quote from Bill Maher on his show 15/7/11:

"Now that the social network, Google+, has arrived expressly to try and destroy Facebook and Twitter, the way Facebook and Twitter blew away MySpace, right after MySpace obliterated Friendster . . . the Internet must admit that it really doesn't understand the concept of friendship." (Bill Maher 2011).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cyberspace as a dwelling?

A summary of:
Papanek, V. (1993). The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture. Thames & Hudson, Ltd.: London.

It was interesting timing to read this while simultaneously reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, because it sparked an epiphany about cyberspace as an architectural entity. Turkle’s work elaborates the extent to which we are living our lives in cyberspace, that cyberspace has become a kind of home, although she is the first to point out that this is an impoverished one, a lame substitute. Papanek writes, “I use the word (99) ‘dwelling’ to denote a living or working space that balances life and nature; it then indicates life in an organic harmony with environment and ecology” (100). Given this definition, it would be difficult to call cyberspace a ‘dwelling’. This made me wonder what it would take to make it more dwelling-like.

One point has to do with customization. Papanek writes, “Yet architecture can only flourish if the dwellings built are in harmony with the people who live in them, with nature and culture” (104). With the Internet, we have a one-size-fits-all solution. Clearly, as we can see with the previous post (the talk by Genevieve Bell), people will have very different needs for the Internet, and yet the Web is designed to fit a very particular person that everyone is expected to conform to. (Lanier might say that we have to make ourselves into this person in order to satisfy the Web.) The Web is about homogenization, not customization. It is about globalization, not localization. It attempts to make a virtual community to which everyone belongs. But Papanek references research by Professor George Murdoch of Yale University who has studied the ideal (‘magic’) number for communities and found it to be around 450 to 600 individuals, after which point the community tends to suffer. Further:

“Behavioural scientists consider that 250 people constitute a ‘small’ neighbourhood, 1500 a ‘large one’, about 450 to 600 a ‘social’ neighbourhood. / From these numbers we can go further. With our objective a benign, neighbourly way of life, rich in interconnections and cultural stimuli, we can say that ‘face-to-face’ communities will consist of 400 to 1000 people (the ideal is around 500), ‘common neighbourhoods’ will accommodate roughly 5000 to 10,000 residents (or 10 to 20 face-to-face communities), and the ‘ideal city’ will house about 50,000 souls (or 10 to 20 common neighbourhoods). Special functional reasons may decrease city size to 20,000 or increase it to 120,000 – byond that lies social chaos” (112).

Of course there may be a different ideal size for a virtual community… but clearly these numbers suggest there would be an ideal community size, and it wouldn’t be 6 billion. In order to satisfy the first condition of a social community, we may need to carve out little virtual cities, little pockets of socialization, or even different Webs. It might be that if we truly felt like we belonged to a community, rather than that we were tourists in cyberspace, we might behave more neighbourly to one another.

Papanek also references a study done in the 1950s by Dr Abraham Maslow to determine the effects of environment. “He built three rooms: one beautiful, one ‘average’ and one ugly (77)…. Volunteers were given photographs of people and asked whether these faces displayed ‘energy’ and ‘well-being.’ The volunteers were supervised by these examiners who were themselves unaware of the real objective of the experiment, that is, people’s reaction to work-spaces. The results reveal that in the beautiful room the volunteers found the faces energetic and happy; in the ugly room, they thought they looked tired and ill. The behaviour of the examiners also varied: in the ugly room, they rushed brusquely through interviews, exhibited ‘gross behavioural changes’ and complained of monotony, fatigue, headache, hostility and irritability” (78). Now, note the descriptions of the rooms: “The ugly room has a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, an old mattress on the floor, battleship-grey walls, torn window shades, brooms, mops and a good deal of trash and dust. The beautiful room had large windows, a superb Navajo rug on the floor, off-white walls, indirect lighting, a bookcase, soft armchairs and a wooden desk, paintings, plants and a small sculpture. The ‘average’ room had ‘the appearance of a clean, neat “worked-in” office with grey metal furniture’” (77). Which description best matches the Web? I would argue that the ugly one does, because of the randomness, chaos, and trash (think of the unwanted advertisements that pollute every webpage). It certainly wouldn’t be the ‘average’ room, all neat and ordered. And it definitely doesn’t seem ‘beautiful’. But given this lack of beauty, what kind of emotions and behaviour and other responses does cyberspace evoke? Could the fact that it’s ugly be a contributing factor in the rampant ‘flaming’ we see online?

So what would be a beautiful Web? Papanek writes, “There is a point at which beauty and high utility through good design interconnect. If both conditions exist simultaneously in an object, and are furthermore clear expressions of the social intent of the people who designed it, it is possible to speak of the spiritual in design. We have seen that the old Modernist saying, ‘If it works well, it will be beautiful,’ is false. We are surrounded each day by hundreds of objects that nullify this approach. At the same time we know that the reverse, ‘If it is beautiful, it will work well,’ is ridiculously wide of the mark” (57). So obviously, just because the Internet works and we are mesmerized by it doesn’t make it beautiful. Papanek leaves some clues as to where we might find beauty.

1. “Ecology and the environmental equilibrium are the basic underpinnings of all human life on earth; there can be neither life nor human culture without it. Design is concerned with the development of products, tools, machines, artefacts and other devices, and this activity has a profound and direct influence on ecology. The design response must be positive and unifying. Design must be the bridge between human needs, culture and ecology” (29). This brings us back, once again, to the fact that in order to be beautiful, the Web would have to be customized to fit the user – not just the user generalized, but specific users in specific contexts for specific cultures.

2. “I firmly believe that it is the instinct of the designer as well as the intended use of the designed object that can yield spiritual value” (53). This suggests firstly that beauty is linked with the spiritual, and secondly that it is important that the designer consider his/her intention in producing the ‘thing’, in this case the Web. It cannot be a mindless production – every development needs to be for a purpose. This means asking him/herself questions like, “Will the design significantly aid the sustainability of the environment? Can it make life easier for some group that has been marginalized by society? Can it ease pain? Will it help those who are poor, disenfranchised or suffering? Will it save energy or – better still – help to gain renewable energies? Can it save irreplaceable resources?” (54). This is also captured in this handy list:

• When we become the hired guns of greed-driven corporations, we are driving to conform.
• If we generate status kitsch for a jaded √©lite, and allow ourselves to become media celebrities, we perform.
• When we twist products to reflect the navel-gazing of market research, we deform.
• If our products divorce appearance and other functions – a telephone that looks like a duck and quacks instead of ringing, a clock-radio that looks like a female leg – we misinform.
• When our designs are succinct statements of purpose, easy to understand, use, maintain and repair, long-lasting, recyclable and benign to the environment, we inform.
• If we design with harmony and balance in mind, working for the good of the weaker members of our society, we reform.
• Being willing to face the consequences of our design interventions, and accepting our social and moral responsibilities, we give form (53).

3. This also means that beauty is not to be found in appealing to the “fun”. Yes, the Web can be fun, but is it the beautiful kind of fun? Papanek writes: “When I use the word ‘fun’ in an almost pejorative sense here, it speaks to a passive experience, the sort of fun that has been pre-designed, pre-chewed and pre-digested by designers and corporate directors. The childlike in us is grounded in Earth and close to nature. It responds to beauty, to activities that help us use our body and mind by extending and challenging physical and mental powers, or that result in spontaneous laughter. It is when we have to rely on manufactured fun (theme parks like Disney World or Disneyland) or the specious amusement we might derive from a banana-shaped telephone that the hubris of the fake is breathing down our backs” (155).

4. Something that’s beautiful ‘fits’ its user and its use. Papanek bemoans design fashions that add nothing to the design, for example the ‘streamlining’ of objects like CD players, which hardly need to fly through the air at great speed (153). You might say that the Web also does this unhelpful ‘streamlining’, in that it forces us to move at breakneck speed, not because our brains actually work like this and need the Web to move us around this quickly, but because it is fashionable, i.e. it suits our current culture of needing to do things as fast as possible, to multitask, etc.

Now, back to this idea of cyberspace as an architectural space. Papanek writes: “Architecture has been called ‘frozen music’ since it brings this same sense of rhythm into play by the repetition and spacing of windows, floorboards, wall spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright would manipulate these signifiers of rhythm, as well as room heights, to ‘tune’ the design of his houses to his clients’ eye-height and provide a wholly new sense of psychic comfort from such visual modulations, best experienced in his Meyer May house” (90). What kind of music would the Internet be? When I think about this, it’s an incredibly rapid, monotonous, synthesized, high-pitched song that never ends. How might we go about changing the music of cyberspace? Yet again, part of this might be helped by varying it more, making it less homogenized. My favorite website is this. Notice that this space would be a totally different song? It would be a peaceful, cheery little ditty, free of annoying beeps.

Papanek makes the case throughout his book that it is the designer’s responsibility to pay attention to things that would make people happier and healthier in their spaces. For example, architects are familiar with this phenomenon and design for it (or at least should): “Behavioural scientists have found that a room with daylight flooding in from windows set at right angles to each other will increase serotonin levels and – in many cases – provide its inhabitants or users with a more positive attitude” (80). We don’t really know yet what the equivalent Web design elements would be that have a similar effect. Sherry Turkle shows that being “connected” increases dopamine levels, which effectively makes us addicted to it. This is NOT what we want. But how can we design the space of cyberspace so that it increases serotonin?

Similarly, Papanek mentions Japanese stepping stones: “The architect Gunter Nitschke has this to add: ‘We can find a presentation of space as a time and mood-structured process in the layout of traditional Japanese stroll gardens and, on a smaller scale, in the placement of tobi-ishi, [skipping stones] used to make garden paths. By a sophisticated placing of the stones, our foot movements can be slowed down, speeded up, halted or turned in various directions. And with our legs, our eyes are manipulated, and our visual input from spatial phenomena is structured over time” (84). Where are Web developers every tasked with this kind of thoughtful structuring of the space and the pathways that users take? And yet, as Carr and others would quickly point out, these pathways are structuring our brains over time in a very specific way.

I also liked the description of a traditional Japanese garden: “In the quiet of traditional Japanese gardens, one is startled about every fifteen minutes, by a loud clack, like the sound made by hitting two wooden blocks together. The sozu consists of a bamboo tube, closed at one end and balanced on legs so that it can tip. It is constantly filled by a stream of water trickling from a bamboo water-pipe. When the tube is full, it tips forward, empties and falls back to tits original position, loudly striking a rock. Originally these sozu or shishi-o-doshi were used to frighten away birds, deer and even wild boar that invaded farmland and gardens. Zen Buddhists, however, will explain that they were first introduced by the Zen mentor Rikkyu some six hundred years ago ‘to give a sudden “clack” a few times during each hour so that one can hear the silence more clearly’” (89). This really highlights the ways in which silence is not valued and therefore not cultivated (or even accommodated) in cyberspace. How would we, for example, even hear the clack over the other beeps and whistles and constant noise of life in cyberspace?

I want to end with this thought. Papanek quotes Eugene Raskin: “We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sick and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives – social, economical, spiritual” (75). We are living online to some extent. What does it say about our culture, our values, that the Web is arguably devoid of beauty, and treated so carelessly? And what will happen to our Internet if we don’t begin to approach it from an ethical perspective? As John Vassos was quoted saying, “Design can only succeed if guided by an ethical view” (7).