The Human Future: A Problem in Design
Address given at EnvironDesign 3, Baltimore, MD, April 30, 1999
People who invite me to speak on occasions like this one are usually in for a surprise, because instead of delivering whatever happens to be my current lecture (or some modification thereof), they get an altogether new creation. That's the good news. The bad news is that they don't get the kind of highly finished product that has been refined though a hundred repetitions.
The first thing one is asked to supply is of course a title. The speech hasn't been written--hasn't even been pondered--but the organizers of the event have announcements to make, brochures to put together, and so on. So the title comes first. The title in this case is a grand one: The Human Future: A Problem in Design. Having THAT all taken care of, one must then begin to wonder what one is actually going to say--and hope that, in the end, the result will sounds like it has something to do with the title. Sometimes one succeeds in this, sometimes not. You'll be the judge.
Among the preoccupations of my work are anthropology, history, archeology, evolutionary biology, and sociology. This is of interest because, although I'm not a professional in any of these fields, I nonetheless seem to have succeeded in saying something useful to professionals in these fields. Design is also a preoccupation of my work, and we'll see if I have anything useful to say to YOU about it.
Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn't possibly be improved on by any means.
Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design--and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans--is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.
Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that's working beautifully--because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however--and we had the leisure to watch-- we'd see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.
Design change is a reaction to pressure--and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.
In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.
The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you'd be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools--and they didn't, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic.
The pressure to increase market share is the driving force of human design at this time. The question for anyone who wants to enter a new market or to increase share of market is going to be, "What can I come up with that is more attractive, cheaper, more interesting, or more efficient than what's currently available?"
In Ishmael I made the statement that we have a civilizational system that is COMPELLING us to destroy the world. This is something people understand very quickly. It seems almost self-evident. I make an additional point, that our civilizational system works very well for PRODUCTS but very poorly for PEOPLE, but I don't really go into this very deeply in Ishmael. I'd like to use this opportunity to do so here.
We've just had a look at why our system works well for products. In fact, it works superbly well. In just a hundred years we've gone from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, from the telegraph to satellite television, from clunky calculators to computers capable of billions of operations a second.
Our system for products works well because it's well understood and accepted by all that there is no one right way to make a cigarette lighter, no one right way to make a camera, no one right way to make a chair, no one right way to make ANYTHING. Products are EXPECTED to evolve and ALLOWED to evolve in much the same way that beetles and butterflies and bananas evolved, by a form of natural selection in the marketplace.
The social organizations we see around us in the community of life. . .
are also products of evolution. They've each survived millions of years of testing by natural selection. It's no wonder they work well for their members. They work as well as eyes work, as well as beaks work, as well as nests work, as well as hands work.
But our social organization isn't the product of natural selection. It's a product of the Rube Goldberg school of design, a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts. In Ishmael I compared it to an early flying machine--of the type that could GET into the air (if you pushed them off a cliff) but that couldn't STAY in the air, because they were not built in accordance with the laws of aerodynamics.
The school, the troop, the flock, the tribe (to mention just a few of the social organizations that have emerged through natural selection) are stable organizations because they work well for their members.
Our organizations are fairly stable, not because they work well but because we FORBID them to change. They're stable . . .
"What's wrong with these boys? What's wrong with these boys who, enjoying the highest standard of living the world has ever known, go to school one day ready to murder. Having gunned down as many as their schoolmates as possible, they then hoped to steal a plane and crash it into New York City. What kind of FIENDS are they?
When our children start becoming murderers, we typically don't wonder what's wrong with the system that's turning them INTO murderers, we wonder what's wrong with THEM. Imagine an assembly line that out of every hundred vehicles turns out one that is horribly defective. Then imagine--instead of examining the assembly line--taking the defective vehicle out and shooting it. Then, when the next one comes along--instead of examining the assembly line--taking THAT one and shooting it. And when the next one comes along--instead of examining the assembly line--taking THAT one out and shooting it.
I was amused last year when, after the Jonesboro massacre, the prosecutor of THOSE boys vowed to go after them so fiercely that he was going to SEND A MESSAGE to the youth of America. And what was the message? WE'RE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS SORT OF THING. Understand that? We're not just going to put up with it!
We're not going to CHANGE anything--no no, everything's perfect the way it is. We're just going to punish the hell out of you. And that'll send a message. So the NEXT bunch of boys who think of massacring their schoolmates will stop and say, "Wait a second! Hey! What was that message about massacring your schoolmates? Oh, I remember now. If you massacre your schoolmates, they're going to send you to jail for a thousand years. Or is it two thousand years? Well, I guess if it's going to be a thousand years, we'd better not massacre our schoolmates. If it were only twenty years or fifty years, then we could go ahead. But a thousand years, wow. I can't do a thousand years."
Was that the problem in Columbine--that these boys just had failed to get this message? Were they under the impression that they were just going to get slapped on the wrist for gunning down their classmates and blowing up a school and crashing an airplane into a city block? Did they do all that--or plan to do all that--because they had the mistaken idea that no one would mind?
No, it's perfectly clear that they were not under any illusion about the consequences of their actions. They expected NOT to survive their adventure.
The question I want to leave with you as designers is this. How have we gone about nurturing children who have so little to live for and so much to hate that they'll happily throw their lives away if they can murder 500 classmates, blow up a school, and crash an airplane into a city block? Please don't tell me about violent video games and violent music. Instead, tell me how we've gone about nurturing children who WANT violent video games and violent music, who THRIVE on violent video games and violent music.
In general (it can be said with reasonable justification) natural selection works on this principle, "If it doesn't work, do it LESS." Any gene that works against reproductive success tends to be eliminated from the gene pool--is found less and less in the gene pool until it finally disappears. Doing less of what doesn't work is a principle that is practically instinctive to the human designer. But when it comes to our social organizations, the people of our culture follow a very different principle: If it doesn't work, do it MORE.
I almost always get a laugh with this statement. I'm not sure whether it's the shock of recognition or if people just think I'm kidding. I'm certainly not kidding. The principle is best seen at work in the institutions dedicated to maintaining the stability of our structures and systems. It's an anti-evolutionary principle, a principle that keeps anything new from happening. Here are some examples.
If spending a billion dollars doesn't win the war on drugs, spend two billion. If spending two billion doesn't work, spend four. Sound familiar?
If hiring a thousand cops doesn't stop crime in your city, hire 2000. If hiring 2000 doesn't work, hire 4000.
If sentencing criminals to 10 years doesn't work, sentence them to 20 years. If 20 years doesn't work, sentence them to 50--to 500, a thousand!
If building a thousand prisons doesn't work, build 2000. If building 2000 doesn't work, build 4000.
If assigning two hours of homework doesn't work, assign three. If assigning three doesn't work, assign four.
I became aware of this principle when I was the head of the mathematics department at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. Someone gave me a white paper that had been put together by the National Association of Teachers of English examining the state of teaching and objectives for the future. In spite of all the themes we give them to write, they said, kids aren't learning to how to write. So what we have to do is--guess what?--give them MORE THEMES to write. Writing 20 themes a year doesn't work, so give them 30. And if 30 doesn't work, give them 40.
If you're taxpayers, you've seen your tax bills for education escalate steadily, year after year, decade after decade, as every year the schools struggle to do more of what doesn't work. Everyone connected to the system is completely convinced that if spending nine trillion doesn't work, then you just need to spend ten.
Naturally there were counselors at Columbine High School. But after the massacre, Janet Reno stood up and said, guess what, that we need to push for MORE COUNSELORS. Having counselors didn't work, so NATURALLY we should have MORE of them, and if one for every hundred kids doesn't work, then we should have two, and if two doesn't work, then we should have three.
We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products. But we don't have a system that works wonderfully well for people. That's the lesson to be learned at Jonesboro and Columbine--and at the places that are going to follow, because these two aren't the last two, they're just the first two.
We have a system that works fabulously well for products. But the one we have for people stinks. This is the lesson we've got to learn--or the human future on this planet is going to be a very bleak one indeed.
So this is the message I'd like to leave with you. For the sake of the human future, don't take your designer's hat off when you leave the office. Don't limit your work or your thinking to the objects and physical structures that people need and want. Look at everything that's going on here with designer's eyes. For the sake of the human future, go after it all like designers.