Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence':

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

5 thoughts on “Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid”

  1. Great Stuff Dan!
    Do we not just need to be prepared to question things more readily, confront situations with which we don’t agree or aren’t comfortable…be more sceptical and better at communicating and respecting such doubts and alternative perspectives. Be better prepared to stand up as an individual rather than temper our feelings for fear of how everyone else will react.

    Education at present seems to me to be more about conformity and fulfilment of tick box criteria than promoting (self) awareness and empathy for the world around us and the sense of empowerment this understanding promotes. Generic curriculums producing generic and ultimately unemployable graduates (who may have also lost valuable years otherwise spent developing their capacity for independent critical thought.

    Mass media very often seems to be following ‘popular consensus’ rather than informing it. Great work on putting an alternative perspective out there, being prepared to do so and prioritising doing so seems (and has proven) useful to me!

  2. I agree with sentiment, but I think that I might utterly disagree with the conclusion. I’m feeling like you’ve just outlined a manifesto for the complete privatization, or individuation, of responsibility for sustainability. I want to say something like, the problem has been an overvaluation of autonomous independence, the complete deskilling of society in relation to interdependence and trust.

    For example, households are very unsustainable because they are no aware of their consumption levels or the consequences of what they are consuming. But on the other hand, do we each want to run our households like accounting firms, calculating carbon footprint offset budgets every time we turn on the tap. Isn’t that what businesses are for, or good at, at least in theory? Aren’t households before all else places to retreat from the ever encroaching economization of society (as diagnosed by Hannah Arendt in _The Human Condition_)?

    This is why I favor near-total outsourcing: usership rather than ownership, performance-based eco-service economies. Let a business work out how to clean my clothes and house (and me – i.e., the utility company) in the most eco-efficient manner. Let them invest in the most durable, most repairable, most efficient equipment to perform those tasks, because, as a business, they are in the business of whole-of-life-returns-on-investments. Let them internalize ecological impact costs and tie profits directly to resource productivity. Let them learn all that, just as I let others learn how to bake me great bread and make me great coffee so that I can spnd more time doing low-impact things like reading and listening to great music (online). Let me live, rather than be forever biopolitically monitoring my living.

    Now, clearly, such businesses (car share, carpet leasing, green cleaning, energy service companies, etc) are marginal, because the whole (pre-crash, unregulated, cheap oil) economic system taxed labor (a renewable energy source according to Walter Stahel) and subsidized (unsustainable) manufacturing. And so until the system is restructured and such businesses flourish, we must each do our self-monitoring bit. But I hope this is only transitional and not the sort of calculating isolated existence that we are fighting for.

    Which still leaves lots of room for architectures of control. For a great example of the need for behavior-steering products within outsourced sustainable service systems, see:

    Designing environmentally efficient services; a ‘script’ approach
    Jelsma J.1; Knot M.
    The Journal of Sustainable Product Design,
    Volume 2, Numbers 3-4, 2002

  3. Dan,

    “a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate”

    I think it’s called “History”. Unfortunately what is conventionally taught in schools as “history” (at least locally in South Africa) is little more than thinly veneered political propaganda. Yes, the content of that propaganda has certainly changed a great deal since I was at school during the Apartheid Years (and flunked out of History because I couldn’t swallow the nonsense!) but I think that this is pretty-much what the school subject of History ought to cover. Luckily I had an English teacher who thought I little broader than his Official Subject Matter! ;-)

    I believe that, at core, we’re pretty-much only taught Linear Thinking. “If this,… then That…”.

    What we need to learn is circular thinking… Whenever I pass through towns that are far from oceans and rivers, I am led to wonder… “Where does the poo go?”. “And after that?”… “And after that?”… I think that this Linear Thinking thing is something we (as a species) have learned only quite recently. I know that some human tribes have (in the past) had more circular/cyclic notions of time, space and relationships-between-things. It’s that that we need to recapture. (?)

  4. Careful not to go too far with your utilitarianism. Many of the the things that make life worth living are quite useless (without torturing the word).

    Imagine if food was just a nutritious but grey tasteless matter you shoveled into you mouth. Imagine if all we had to listen to was marching music. Imagine if all stories were entirely didactic.

    Life without usless things starts to sound a bit like North Korea. Uselessness sometimes has a very important use — its often what keeps us going.

  5. Thanks everyone for some great comments.
    I suppose what I mean by ‘useful/useless’ is not as strict as what niblettes suggests – I wasn’t very clear about it. If something makes life worth living, or keeps us going, it is useful as far as I’m concerned.

    On Mike’s point – do you think it is worth teaching history of science/technology as an integral part of school history curricula? Or should science subjects be taught partially at least through history, i.e. developing students’ understanding in the same way that human understanding evolved? You are certainly onto something with the linear/circular distinction.

    I understand Cameron’s point, and I’m not advocating an isolated existence. But maybe I am advocating a situation where people have more understanding and take more responsibility in communities perhaps, rather than necessarily individually. If we’re going to outsource everything to eco-service companies, I would prefer that we understand what those eco-service companies are actually doing, and understand and appreciate what our impacts are going to be, and maybe some of us even aspire to innovate in, and run, these eco-service companies.

    Just as not all of us become medical doctors, but we can all learn ways of living that are more likely to keep us healthier, surely a similar state of affairs could come to pass with sustainability? You might like to let someone else bake you great bread, but the bread will be even more satisfying (and will go on improving) if the customers understand and care a bit about what they’re buying.

    I think Ferg’s argument that we “need to be prepared to question things more readily, confront situations with which we don’t agree or aren’t comfortable…be more sceptical and better at communicating and respecting such doubts and alternative perspectives” is especially important here. As he puts it, “promoting (self) awareness and empathy for the world around us” does create a “sense of empowerment” and it’s that connection from the individual to the impact he or she can have, deliberately or not, on the world, that is going to be crucial here.

    Otherwise the outsourcing sounds a bit like the current situation of continually passing the buck with, say, packaging waste, where it’s always the problem of the next person/company/authority along the chain. It might be cynical, but a lowest-common-denominator prioritisation will inevitably happen somewhere along this chain, and so the shorter and more transparent and understandable the chain is, the better it will be.

    Let a business work out how to clean my clothes and house (and me – i.e., the utility company) in the most eco-efficient manner. Let them invest in the most durable, most repairable, most efficient equipment to perform those tasks, because, as a business, they are in the business of whole-of-life-returns-on-investments. Let them internalize ecological impact costs and tie profits directly to resource productivity.

    That does all sound great if it’s achievable, but I worry about whether mechanisms really exist to encourage/force the business to internalise the ecological impact costs. Unless and until ‘eco-efficient’ coincides completely with ‘best for business’, I think we are going to have to take some responsibility ourselves, including learning to understand our place in any system and what we can affect. As you say, “until the system is restructured and such businesses flourish, we must each do our self-monitoring bit.”

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