Artifice and Agency

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cradle to Cradle: Breaking down the Information Barrier

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things identifies concerns for the sustenance of the environment that are perpetuated by abundant and unusable waste from construction, by energy consumption during construction to build edifices that are not energy efficient and do not allow for the transfer or reuse of the energy the consume to produce other things, and by utilizing tools and natural materials with little to no intention or means of returning the supplies to the environment or making them useful in the creation of other items. Cradle to Cradle lists several suggestions for improving the ability of the production industry to return materials back to nature and for allowing them to be reused for production in a similar or improved way, such as in upcycling. The book’s pages are even a testament to the environmentally sensitive principles stated in the book because they are plastic and the ink can be washed off the pages so that they may be used for other items. While their theories and practices- such as renovating the Ford factory to be an Earth-friendly environment in which to manufacture cars- have proven to be successful, the average consumer may not understand his responsibility to building and buying green dream that McDonough and Braungart are stressing.

The building of the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) house in Roanake, Virginia, which is estimated to only cost about $95,000, seems unfathomable a dream for homeowners, and new home-renovators, such as my parents. Our 2-story, 5-bedroom, poorly maintained home in Los Angeles that we have known since we moved in 1996 has become quite a spectacle on our block. Since August, our doors have stayed wide open from construction, ripping out walls and floor textiles, gutting cabinets and stove fixtures, replacing appliances and lighting systems, and installing Jacuzzi bathtubs, none of which are more energy efficient than the products they are replacing. The aim of the C2C house and other sustainable constructs is to “offer adaptability, significant decreases in construction waste, and reduced building costs” as described by the C2C House article, “Walking the Cradle” ( However, despite the brilliant intentions of the C2C house and other products, do consumers and homebuyers understand such advantages?

Do the homebuyers and renovating homeowners know that the C2C house yields decreased energy and water expenses, which is especially beneficial for families of many people whose households usually accumulate several such expenses not only excessively, but simultaneously? Can they expect that metal roofs can insulate the home to decrease the gas bills acquired when running the heater? I can confidently say that any consumers like my parents do not. Though they did have an environmentally sensitive consideration when remodeling, the closest they have come to eco-efficiency thus far in rebuilding the house is opting for a light sensor instead of manually operated light switches, which saves electricity because it only turns on when it senses that people are outside, at night, and therefore, in need of light. We cannot accidentally leave the light on during the daytime and waste energy. Unfortunately, providing light strictly when it is necessary is not restricted to the detection of human motion. One evening, a possum occupied our backyard all night, which did not need light to make its way into our backyard, nor did we need the light to frighten us at the sight of the unwanted rodent scavenging our private property. Nonetheless, the light stayed on all night pointlessly, leaving my parents with an unpleasant electric bill to anticipate. Additionally, instead of low-flush toilets, my parents opted for the fast and furiously-flushing toilet that shoots waste water into the sewage system at the shutter of an eye. Furthermore, who needs metal roof-tops when they can have a waterproof roof (“WaterpROOF”), with new rain gutter, that keeps rain away from our backyard and front doors, thus keeping rain from entering the house? And just in case rain happens to fall near the house, the thresholds are elevated, which should keep the house out of the reach of casual to intense rainy periods, unless another El Nino escapes our radar and showers us with its company. All in all, consumers seem to find eco-confidence in “less bad” (Cradle to Cradle 71) technological advances of the existing, environmentally depleting products.

So who is to feel guilty about not having the most eco-efficient house on the block? My reality is that most people do not know about such options, or their affordability and ease to work into a traditional, residential structure. ‘ "Right now, the hurdles are overcoming the misconceptions and the notion that things can't be done in a different way and still be affordable," says Coates. "We're showing that it is possible for the average person to create a more sustainable lifestyle." ’, as the C2C house article states. This awareness is a good one to have, and there are obstacles to overcome: “How easy are these things to operate? Who will build this house for me? How much will all this cost?”, are questions that arose when I asked my Mother if she would integrate Energy-and-Environment saving additions to the house’s construction that still needs to be done. She stated that she did not even know that was one of her options, considering that she used catalogues to order most of the materials for the house. One would imagine that the average consumer (to whom C2C is also speaking) has the same questions. Cradle to Cradle posits many informed and feasible alternatives to current production; hopefully, McDonough and Brungaurt are able to make the advantages better know to the consumer, who on the end of the producer, is also their audience.

Sustainable Agriculture: Laboring for Change

Benyus's second and most easily digestible chapter on “How Will We Feed Ourselves?” , proposes the radically different concept of agriculture mimicking wild plant growth. She finds hope in this “new” model because of it's high level of productivity which can be achieved through an emphasis on perennial species and plant diversity (polycultures). Natures System Agriculture is more sustainable economically and ecologically; solving through it's design the need for fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on which our current industrial model is based. In the realm of food production we should look towards a model of blossoming abundance which is the nature of the natural realm according to Benyus. Instead of seeking to conquer the land and leach it of all its nutrients we should work within the climate and limits of the land to reap the benefits biodiversity inherently provides.

It is in Arendt's distinction between labor and work that significance can be found in Natural Systems Agriculture. Arendt defines work as that which creates durable objects and artifice whereas labor is that which is embedded within the biological cycle of life. In our current mode of agriculture we seek permanence in our crops and our land, we have turned the natural food process into one of industrial proportions. By attempting to convert the most laborious activity into one of work our environment and crops are not faring well. Arendt postulates that “cultivated land is not, properly speaking a use object, which is there in it's own durability and and requires for its permanence no more than ordinary care in preservation; the tilled soil, if it is to remain cultivated, needs to be labored upon time and again.” (138) We must not continue to shift the labor involved in agriculture to that of work, of making the cyclical site of our replenishment and life, one of toxic artifice indistinguishable from the factory and just as harmful to its workers.

Arendt states that, “A true reification, in other words, in which the produced thing in its existence is secured once and for all, has never come to pass; it needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain in the human world at all.”(139) Cultivated land is not meant to be permanent, it is always in between the world of human artifice and the natural realm. Through mimicking the natural plant processes we seek to walk the line of taming and cultivating crops while following the ways wild species proliferate. We need to follow the plants cycle of reproduction and plenty for according to Benyus, “the act of growing food as a sacred, biological act [is what] connects us to all living creatures.” (57) An interdependency exists between the environment and the organisms residing within it, although humans have used agriculture as another means of exploitation and capital gains through work, the only way to maintain food security is through finding nourishment in natural systems and labor.

Benyus argues that “The idea that food is more than a commodity is deep within us...[and that] that instinct comes from a biological need to survive.” (57) If we accept that cultivated land is not a use object and that food is more than a commodity then all of our current presumptions about agriculture and “how we feed ourselves” must change. In order to continue feeding ourselves we must stop massive soil fertility loss from erosion and annual plowing, we must turn to more viable and sustainable options.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Benkler and I Are Worried About Authorship

In class this Tuesday, we worried about the figure of authorship in Benkler's account of the "new practical individual freedom" afforded by networks. Specifically, we saw as problematic the notion that freedom inheres in the authorship of our lives by "own our will and imagination" in contradistinction to authorship by "the material and social conditions in which we find ourselves" (Chapter 5). We respond to Benkler by suggesting that, while indeed networks afford a new and exciting space for the creation of new artifacts, and even expand the possibility that those artifacts are made intelligible and real for the various participants in the network, we can only take as an instance of problematic idealization the added suggestion that this means an ontological change in individual freedom qua authorship.

For this to be case, humans being must be capable of occupying an authorial position that is self-sovereign and in a critically mediated relationship with the material, social, and (we would have to add) the historical and cultural. That mediated relationship would allow the subject to be a "scanner of the universe of potential stories", to use Benkler's terms, from which she "chooses". This is presumably in distinction to the passive relationship that Benkler fears, in which she is written into stories that exceed her capacity to influence them or that perhaps proliferate without her knowledge. In light of this, Benkler's lauding of the individual will over social and material coercion may seem convincing.

But we can provide an understanding of authorship that is 'passive' but not coerced. This is to say that the occupation of an authorial position fundamentally requires a 'passive' (which is not to say unthinking and unfeeling) receptivity and openness to the world. One must live with history and with texts and with people before one can begin to 'scan' them. One's very critical capacities are not immediate, nor are they willed. Etc. From such a position of being written upon by the world before one writes back, the practical individual _freedom_ of authorship is the capacity to testify to the multifariousness of what one has received in the form a subjectively, culturally, materially influenced projection of new artifacts, statements, and questions. Networks do indeed afford a new realm for the reception of world, for others' projections, and networks do indeed provide more tools for one's own projection, but we cannot pretend that suddenly users have become self-authors.

It would appear that Benkler relieves our worries in Chapter 8 when he discusses how networks afford the opportunity for a sophisticated culture that is plastic and transparent, in which the background assumptions behind its symbols are stated, criticized, and re-cast, in an unending proliferation of reflection. This runs from contestable symbols like Barbie, to the open-ended themes of films, to the diverse perspectives revealed in collaborative action. We might see Benkler as prescribing a modality of cultural engagement that affords the kind of passive/active freedom of authorship that is less idealized than the lonely, self-sovereign scanner/chooser/weaver of life's tapestry. Networks would give us blogs, videos, e-texts that would aid us in our openness to the diverse influences the world can have on us.

Yet Benkler falls into a similar trap as he did in the authorship question, by privileging a concept of the originary and a critical relationship to the cultural that is a sort of scanning/willing. We see this in his concept that the increased transparency of culture, along with our ability to create cultural artifacts out of past artifacts, provides us deeper insight into the essence of that culture: "because in retelling anew known stories, we again come to see what the originals were about and how they do, or do not, fit our own sense of how things are and how they ought to be" (Chapter 8). In the notion that the past strictly does or does not fit with how we as a sovereign subject see the world, Benkler is setting a self-sovereign subject against the world. That subject scans the world in order to find in it that which fits with her a priori prejudices and ambitions. He aptly describes this an increased ability to be "self-conscious" about how we incorporate cultural influence into our own lives: "We become more sophisticated users of this framework, more self-conscious about it, and have a greater capacity to recognize, challenge, and change that which we find oppressive, and to articulate, exchange, and adopt that which we find enabling." (chapter 8).

Something is lost in wanting an increased cultural consciousness to be necessarily self-consciousness. This radically excludes one's receptivity, instability, and malleability, and conceives of cultural participation as a constant struggle to both find oneself in that culture and to be oneself in that culture. Undoubtedly, this is as valid a concern as is the concern that we are not coerced by an authorship that exceeds us or of which we aren't even aware. But I see this as overly delimiting of a boundary between selfhood and otherness, selfhood and culture. It undermines a universal solidarity that all may feel that we are authorial receivers and projectors. It casts us as competing wills, self-overcoming, for sake of the conscious and visionary.

In large part, ambitions like Benkler's serve to undermine potentially altering histories and phenomenal/existential experiences. It takes history as a collection of original stories to be rehearsed and clarified, and diverse perspectives (whether in others or within one's self) as background assumptions that can be made legible and brought to the fore, that are scanned, examined, and judged. This falls short of the kind of expansive understanding of action that we see in Arendt, in which one can never know oneself entirely, nor can one anticipate the consequences of one's actions, much less fully examine or 'scan' the meaning of other's stories. The past may speak to us in surprising ways, in the very terms of our current material and social conditions. The very structure of our world may be an insurmountable component of 'authorship' (blog structures, or the graininess of YouTube, etc.) As Arendt articulates it, "man's inability to rely upon the price human beings pay for freedom" (244).

Not Just Designers

In Cradle-to-Cradle, McDonough and Braungart criticize the rhetoric of traditional environmental discourse that says consumers should “stop being so bad, so materialistic, so greedy. Do whatever you can, no matter how inconvenient to limit your consumption.”(6). Rather, to them, environmental changed will be pulled by designers operating on cradle-to-cradle design principle. Man need only choose from the various products that “celebrate an abundance of human creativity and culture.” (16) How true is this statement? Can environmental change be brought about by choosing cradle-to-cradle products? A closer look at McDonough and Braungart’s argument shows otherwise.

Examine the idea of dual metabolism—the biological metabolism and technical metabolism. Just as the earth’s biological flows renew itself in the biological metabolism, so do non-renewable technical resources renew themselves by upcycling after their use. Initially, the idea makes sense: eco-effective products with zero ecological footprint.
Why should individuals and communities be burdened with downcycling or landfilling [,] worry-free packaging should safely decompose, or be gathered and used as fertilizer, bringing nutrients back to the soil.(105)
The burden of this environmentalism rests in the hands of the designers. Indeed, why should individuals have to worry? Humans don’t need to change their lifestyles very much. That is, they don’t need to redefine their relationship with goods. Humans can still be consumers, but consumers of products with cradle-to-cradle designs.

This designer led revolution in the technical metabolism is problematic. Technical products, composed of various precious non-renewable metals and resources, need to be recycled within their own metabolism, the “technical metabolism.” The fact that this “technical metabolism” is proposed in parallel with its biological counterpart gives it a false sense of naturalness. However, in order for technical metabolism to work, a paradigm shift in people’s buying has to occur.
Products containing valuable technical nutrients—cars, televisions, carpeting, computers, and refrigerators, for example—would be received as services people want to enjoy. (111)
This is not just substituting one product for another within the same consumerism framework. Rather, oeople need to stop being consumers and start being customers, and redefine their relations with products. McDonough and Braungart are highly uncritical of this even though they are proposing a momentous change.

Moreover, transitioning from consumerism to “customer-ism” would require a complete reversal of the trends of modern society. People more and more are opting to be consumers of the big-box-store lifestyle of IKEA, Costco, and the like than customers of smaller stores. Even the names of these companies reflect what “consumers” are demanding, low costs to facilitate high consumption. Indeed, McDonough and Braungart are proposing to reverse the entire trend of people’s shopping patterns and change their relation to their goods without motioning, even briefly, as to how this change will be effected.

How will cradle-to-cradle designers leading this new eco-effective environmentalism draw people to this new paradigm of dealing with products? How will they lure buyers to their products which are more expensive? These are just some of the questions that McDonough and Braungart leave unanswered and that are critical to their argument.

Ultimately, their designer-led cradle-to-cradle revolution is not much different from traditional environmentalist’s position. Underlying the transition from consumer to customer is the same “stop being so bad, materialistic and so greedy” discourse—any of this sounding familiar? McDonough and Braungart are reverting to the same traditional rhetoric of environmental discourse under the guise of a new design principle. Perhaps this is a sign that abandoning consumerism is unavoidable, or simply that major changes in the way we think must occur before any real environmental change is effected.

Autonomy and Freedom in Wealth of Networks

In class last week Dale objected to Benkler’s use of the word “autonomy” in Part I of Wealth of Networks. He suggested that “freedom” would have been a more appropriate term, since autonomous technically refers to one who chooses one’s own laws (hopefully I’m not misconstruing what you said, Dale). However, Benkler gives his own definition of autonomy many times throughout the text. I think that his use of the term “autonomy” serves two purposes in the text. It constructs a narrow category to work with in Part II, and it circumvents the political connotations associated with freedom and justice.

Dale’s objection raises the question of how Benkler’s use of the word “autonomy” works for his argument? In Chapter 3, Benkler defines autonomy as, “…the freedom to interact with resources and projects without seeking anyone’s permission that marks commons-based production generally, and it is also that freedom that underlies the particular efficiencies of peer production…” (pg. 3). In this passage he defines autonomy as a specific type of freedom: the freedom to use the resources available within the common peer to peer environment. This narrow definition also binds autonomy to the idea of efficiency. It is important to understand that “efficiency” is not an economic term for Benkler, it instead refers to the amount of information produced with available resources.

Benkler justifies his goal of autonomy by saying that it fosters more efficient production. He uses the example of “open-source software” as “more efficient software production” (6). This example also sheds some light on his choice to use autonomy instead of freedom. In what seems like an aside, he mentions that the term “open-source software” was chosen to avoid the political connotations of “free software.” Benkler’s choice of terms also escapes the political connotations of “freedom.” The point of avoiding the political sphere in this context is to concentrate on the intellectual benefits of common resources.

Benkler does not entirely avoid the use of the word freedom. It is found in the title of his book: Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Infact, he makes multiple references to freedom and justice. In Chapter 4, he actually says that, although the rest of the book argues “from the perspective of … freedom and justice,” effeciency is mostly irrelevant in this realm (11). He clearly keeps the two issues seperate. Therefore, his use of the word “freedom” does not dislodge his argument, but supports the democratic political agenda that he explicitly lays out.

These observations demonstrate the flexible construction of the text in general. While Benkler repeats himself often, each time he further contextualizes his terms. In other words, each time he reintroduces a concept he also introduces several contingencies that go along with it. For example, in the case of autonomy he builds on his definition of the term throughout chapter 5, placing it in a new context each time. His topics include autonomy’s interaction with mass media, information environment, and private property vs. commons. We can conclude then, that simply using the term freedom would have been too broad for his purposes. The differentiation he makes between freedom and autonomy structures his argument to serve both political and apolitical purposes.

The Internet Solves Everything

In light of the spectacular failures of both communism and previous “third mode” economies, it is odd that Michel Bauwens would choose to ground his account of peer to peer technology in these systems, both of which are nearly synonymous with corruption and poverty. The other disconcerting aspect of Bauwens’ account of P2P processes is his presentation of community organizing and use-based goods as a new and unique phenomenon, when throughout history, people have organized themselves around some sort of common good. This is in fact the organizing principle of government. It is only in modern societies that private property and strictly commercial organizing have become the standard, as such, can be considered historical anomalies. Cooperative, common interest based organizing only seems revolutionary if we accept private property and capital based economies as natural or default organizing principles

In his focus on the revolutionary potential of distributed networks, Bauwens ignores what may become a significant barrier to this technology, the encroaching monopolization of the infrastructure of the Internet. In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler writes of the threat this monopoly presents to the free flow of information we have come to expect from the Internet. Since the introduction of high-speed DSL, it has become the standard, and accessing the internet with dial-up has become a slow and painful process as websites have only become more embedded with sound, video, and pictures that take prohibitively long to load when using a dial-up connection. Unfortunately, there are only a few companies providing DSL service, most people get DSL from either their phone company or cable company, companies that have already shown themselves to be monopolistic and not at all concerned with providing a platform for the free flow of information. As Benkler emphasizes, these companies have the power to prioritize which packets of information are received by the user, meaning that they can deny anyone surfing the internet access to any website they wish, and it will appear that the website is malfunctioning, not that the company is denying the user access.

This has been a hot button issue recently as congress was debating legislation that would decide the future of “net neutrality”, that is, the ability of all information to be accessed equally, regardless of source or monetary payment. That this issue was hardly discussed in mainstream news outlets only highlights the informational power of the internet, as without independent net based reporting, this issue would have remained completely out of the general public’s scope of information. In Code, Lawrence Lessig writes about the power of architectural constraints that can be covertly built into various systems. He finds, with good reason, that covert favoritism of the kind proposed by Internet service providers is anti-democratic and has no rightful place within our society, arguing instead for a necessity of transparency in policy planning so that citizens know how structures are built to constrain or reward certain characteristics.

While a case could be made for accepting the arrangement of payment for priority loading of a website so long as the practice is disclosed, I think that the democratizing potential of the Internet should be honored as an overreaching public good. Increased access to all types of information, and the ability of anyone to publish, or be “a pamphleteer” fills an important function in our society that has been lacking since the development of passive mass media. The importance of the Internet as a space for political engagement is reason enough to preserve net neutrality as the ease of participation and information acquisition gives the Internet the potential to overcome general lack of political knowledge and civic engagement.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Peer-to-Peer: Market, Marxist, Moderate, or Mucked?

In reading the works by Bauwens and Benkler, it is clear that they both see the arrival of peer-to-peer production as the heralding of a new era. However, both writers have radically different ideas about how peer-to-peer should work, and what a p2p world would look like. Putting Bauwens and Benkler in a dialogue exposes these extreme differences and suggests that their works are influenced more by predominant political philosophies than an interest in developing a new mode of economic production while refusing to give proper credit to the free market roots on which peer-to-peer production would inevitably need to rely on.

Bauwens’ piece consistently tries to delineate peer-to-peer as a third mode of production, but clearly aligns itself with a Marxist ideology, borrowing heaving from socialist philosophy in his description of a utopian peer-to-peer system. Bauwens is not subtle about his alignment, calling upon Marx’s writings on the Birmingham industrial complex in the first paragraph. Bauwens constantly disavows the market, stating that peer-to-peer should work to "…make use-value freely accessible on a universal basis, through new common property regimes…" Later on, when discussing how peer-to-peer production can transcend capitalism, Bauwens makes a seemingly passing comment that "… P2P could be expanded and sustained through the introduction of universal basic income…", making anyone to the right of the International Socialist Organization on the political spectrum potentially quiver at the thought of wealth redistribution through a government allowance.

In discussing the transcendence, however, Bauwens follows in the model of Marx in accepting that some tenets of capitalism will continue to be pervasive. One of the key characteristics of peer-to-peer for Bauwens is that "…autonomous agents can freely determine their behavior and linkages without the intermediary of obligatory hubs…" The market is not mentioned here, but the passage suggests that the p2p system is possibly open to strong market forces through the natural demands of the network users. Later, Bauwens admits that "… [despite] significant differences, P2P and the capitalist market are highly interconnected. P2P is dependent on the market and the market is dependent on P2P." To the bitter end, however, Bauwens seems set on removing the market from as much of the system as possible:

P2P exchange can be considered in market terms only in the sense that individuals are free to contribute, or take what they need, following their individual inclinations, with an invisible hand bringing it all together, but without any monetary mechanism. They are not true markets in any real sense: neither market pricing nor managerial command are required to make decisions regarding the allocation of resources.

Benkler, in The Wealth of Networks, takes a completely different tact from Bauwens. As early as the title of the book, Benkler is already asking to be compared to and set alongside Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a move that strikes a sense of irony given Benkler’s appeared substitution of the commons for the concept of property that is championed by Smith. Additionally, Benkler focuses on the idea of expanding autonomy and personal freedoms – ideas that have arguably been made possible by state supported property rights.

It is important to note that while Benkler places democratization on a pedestal and sees peer-to-peer production as an avenue to improving democratization in society, Benkler does not promise a utopia in the way that Bauwens refers to it. There may be a better world, but it is certainly not a planned utopia.

Most importantly for this conversation, Benkler emphasizes the concept of benefit maximization versus cost minimization working in the information-based economy proposed as the heart of peer-to-peer production system. This cost-benefit analysis is the cornerstone of a rationally-based market economy. However, Benkler writes that “… [n]onexclusive strategies for benefit maximization can be pursued both by market actors and by nonmarket actors…” (42) This is but one instance of Benkler’s repeated attempts to separate peer-to-peer production and the capitalist system, starting as early as page three when he refers to peer-to-peer as a non-market system.

Benkler’s insistence of separating of market systems from peer-to-peer systems represents the most significant failure of these two writers that is discovered in their dialogue. Neither Benkler nor Bauwens adequately stress the importance of market forces in the new peer-to-peer system, nor do the writers address the fact that the entire infrastructure on which a new peer-to-peer system would work – computers, network servers, wires, etc. – would need to be developed in a market-based economy. The companies in the economy would seemingly have the control over the system that Benkler and Bauwens explicitly condemn and would potentially stand in the way of a peer-to-peer development shift.

Ultimately, the efforts of Benkler and Bauwens focus on a need to distinguish peer-to-peer production from market systems without acknowledging the capitalist roots of the new proposed world order. In doing so, they not only leave holes in their argumentation towards the practical implementation of peer-to-peer, but also expose the radical libertarian or extreme Marxist political philosophies that underlie what is portrayed to be a unique movement in the societal development of man. More than anything, a dialogue between the two pieces suggests the need for a comprehensive and moderated philosophy for the future of peer-to-peer production that recognizes its strong roots in a free trade system while standing on its own as an entirely new economic mode.

Innovation Inspired by...Hot Potatoes?

In her book, Biomimicry, Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus writes to encourage design that mimics nature. She is responding to the devastating ecological footprint that has been left by the human species, and calls for a new movement that would require humans to learn a few lessons from nature. Man has come to adopt the understanding that “the world was put here for its use,” and as a result, man has recklessly used nature’s resources. Mankind must now make the realization that their continued progress and disregard for nature will ultimately destroy all earthly habitats. Benyus urges man to take hold of this reality and to “learn from nature, so that we might fit in, at last and for good, on the Earth from which we sprang” (9). As straightforward as this message may seem, Benyus writes her book without ever giving a clear understanding of what it would take for man to “fit in.”

As Benyus calls for man to design products that mimic nature, she often praises natural processes for their superiority over man-inspired design and not for their environmental advantages. I find this a bit confusing; Benyus identifies man’s destruction of nature and its resources as the catalyst for her book, yet she does not consistently promote biomimicry as the solution to achieving environmental preservation. In the chapter, How Will We Store What We Learn?, Benyus writes about how nature (more specifically the physiology of the human brain) can teach us a thing or two about computer processing. The human brain is the most powerful processor existing in nature, and as more is understood about the chemical and electrical systems that constitute a human’s ability to process information, there is the potential of building a processor that could function with as much power. Throughout the chapter, it becomes clear that carbon based computers that have the capacity to process in parallel have the potential to “be more powerful, and more task-specialized than anything we work with today” (207), but Benyus never talks about how these processors will allow man to return to nature’s good graces. The fact that these processors will use carbon instead of silicon does not indicate that the other components will be environmentally friendly, or what the power generated from these processors will be used for. In short, Benyus never reveals how these natural processors will help man “fit in” with nature.

Since Benyus is not always clear about how design based on biomimicry will directly benefit the environment, I began to look at the way she describes nature and its processes in order to figure out what it would mean to “fit in” to nature. Throughout her book, Benyus relies heavily on metaphors and analogies to describe the complex scientific processes that occur in nature. Although these devices make her book a target for a larger, non-scientific, audience, I believe that she is doing a greater harm than good. By analogizing biology to commonplace objects, she is obscuring our understanding of nature. In an attempt to give her reader an understanding of the science behind photosynthesis as alternative method of harnessing energy, she writes, “A molecule codenamed Z donates an electron and resets the chlorophyll, sort of like a pinball machine reloading with a new ball. In the meantime, the first hot-potato electron that has been traveling from acceptor to acceptor now jumps the pinball table entirely and goes to the other photosystem” (66). By relying on pinballs and hot potatoes to describe electrons, she is taking what is natural out of the biological process she is promoting! She is establishing what Roland Barthes would call a “myth.”

Benyus’ discourse on naturally occurring biological systems obscures the very objects she is attempting to describe. Science interpreted through analogies and metaphors cannot accurately depict reality. They serve to tell us a story that will influence our perception of reality. They create myth. In his essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes identifies mythical speech as “speech that is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication” (110). Benyus denies her readers of a pure description of nature, and taints her argument for science based on biomimicry. According to Barthes, myth naturally “dresses up reality,” and imposes a sort of ideology on its readers. Benyus does her argument a disservice by naturalizing the complexities of our environment. By describing electrons as pinballs and hot potatoes, she gives her readers a notion of nature as simplistic and easily conquered. The fact that Benyus chooses to describe nature using a discourse that is “unnatural,” encourages her readers to remain unaware of nature’s potential, and perpetuates the pretense that the world is put here for our use. When writing her book, she should have listened to computer scientist Michael Conrad when he said, “to emulate nature, our first challenge is to describe her in her terms” (Biomimicry, 237).

Benyus' solution to an Arendtian problem

In Benyus’ Biomimicry, she focuses heavily on the scientific and technological developments that are occurring in today’s world that are at the forefront of sustainable development. Her reliance on technology and science raises several problematic issues when viewed through an Arendtian lens. Benyus’ language and descriptions of complex scientific processes use metaphors that are more abstract and meaningless than what Arendt calls a “winged lion.” The use of such abstract and man-made systems to understand nature defeat the purpose of bio-mimicry as it becomes increasingly necessary for man to invent complex machinery that re-interprets nature into man’s own terms. This created language is the problem, as it enslaves man to his own inventions. However, Benyus inadvertently creates a unique solution to Arendt’s technological conundrum “where every end is transformed into a means and which can be stopped only by making man himself the lord and master of all things (156).” In Benyus’ case her goal is to integrate technology with the natural world to create sustainable economies and growth. In doing so, technological development actually returns man to harmony with nature and transforms technology once again into an end.

The technological and scientific processes that Benyus’ describes throughout her book indicate an over reliance on technology. In each of the chapters, she describes a scientific processes that seeks to mimic nature, however as the book progresses each chapter becomes increasingly complex as scientists seek to recreate natural forces and systems in laboratory settings. In essence, scientists are “channeling natural forces in the world of the human artifice (150),” as Arendt claims. Ironically, in order to understand the world and its natural processes humans require powerful satellites, electron microscopes, and lasers. This has two implications, the first being the creation of an entirely abstract and man made world. Arendt discusses “homo faber,” the shaper of tools who has created an artificial world by channeling the natural forces of the world into the laboratory to be re-interpreted into man made terms. The world is understood in relation to science and metrics that are synthetic and therefore entirely abstract in that they do not actually correspond to nature’s processes. What man takes as “truths” are merely conjectures based on their interpretations of what they have discovered by reproducing natural forces in the laboratory. In relation to Benyus, she speaks of these abstract theories with certainty, even employing terms like “conjecture”, “postulate”, and “believe” with the confidence of hard truth. She describes concepts and theories and takes them as facts, rather than what they truly are: just frameworks of theories developed by scientists who re-interpreted the natural world into their own language.

The second implication is what Arendt describes as the “devaluation of everything given, this process of growing meaninglessness where every end is transformed into a means and which can be stopped only by making man himself the lord and master of all things (157)…” This second problem is linked to the first implication in that man has become a slave to his machines thereby making the machines an end in itself. In the case of Benyus’ biomimesis, she primarily focuses her attention on abstract scientific research that relies heavily upon machinery and manmade sciences to understand, measure, and even view the natural processes of the world. Without these machines, scientists would have no way of conducting their research let alone “understand” the natural world. In this sense, a reversal of means and ends has occurred where the machines have become an end in themselves as well as controllers of man. This creates a situation in which Benyus’ hope for the future depends on ever more advanced technological breakthroughs that will allow man to fully comprehend nature. The current technological paradigm has created a situation in which man cannot understand himself or his surroundings without the aid of complex machinery. Thus this hope for the future is flawed in that it relies on the current paradigm in which man becomes the master of nature through science. In this case, it leads to the above mentioned problem where all including nature is devalued as merely a means to an end.

Benyus’ solution of sustainability comes out of this same paradigm of technological innovation, however utilizing the old paradigm to search for a new system actually creates a paradigm shift. Her goal is to see “instead of a linear production system, which binges on virgin raw materials and spews out unusable waste, a web of closed loops in which a minimum of raw materials comes in the door, and very little waste escapes (255).” Her proposed solution is achieved through the utilization of the current sciences and modes of production to create a paradigm shift, which actually solves the two Arendtian problems of technology and science. Arendt states that “earth alienation [has become] and has remained the hallmark of modern science (264).” Benyus echoes this sentiment stating that “the Scientific Revolution made reverence for the Earth obsolete (241).” This is the inherent mission of biomimesis where nature, science, and technology are once again fused harmoniously with man respecting nature rather than seeking to conquer it. This acceptance of nature as inherently an end in itself would prevent it from becoming devalued and tools from becoming ends in themselves. Technology no longer becomes a means but rather an end, as it has successfully integrated itself with the natural world. A shift or change of the production processes would devastate the world as well as the economy as it has been integrated with its surrounding eco-system.

The second problem becomes pre-empted as technology is no longer understood as a tamer of nature, but one which works within the bounds and framework of nature. Arendt posits the question of “whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things (151).” The solution lies in the paradigm shift in which Benyus seeks to change the fundamental purpose of machines. Rather than having machines erect a world, she would have machines become naturalized to the existing world. Machines must work within nature rather than outside of it. Through the world destroying machines, she seeks to find a solution in which machines will become part of the world and non-destructive. Here world is understood not as the earth but as the human world which we have constructed. Biomimesis seeks to once again break down this world created by man and incorporate it with the earth. By creating truly bio-mimetic mode of production, man seeks to understand the natural world and emulate it on its own terms rather than in a synthetic environment. In this sense, the understanding of nature in its own terms lies not in Benyus’ discussion of quantum theory, photosynthesis, or organic computing, but in prairie farming, topsoil erosion, and echoing nature. The solution starts with a move away from reliance on synthetic solutions generated in a laboratory to a focus on creating solutions based on echoing systems found in nature. However, practically speaking our economy and human nature can not simply allow us to abandon our current modes of production, therefore we must utilize them initially in our search to mimic nature.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Good (Eco)mmerce

Cradle to Cradle defines commerce as “the day-to-day, instant exchange of value”, created and regulated through two aspects, a guardian and money. (CtC, 60) A guardian is defined as the government, the system that protects the public, and money is the actual tool of commerce. Therefore, in theory, a perfect balance of regulation by the guardian and a careful balance in the management of money required to do so will in theory create a steady, balanced commerce that can be fair to all. Right.

In regards to the “cradle to cradle” philosophy examined throughout the book, this idea of commerce is a desire that is far from the truth, and in reality the current day commerce is a hurdle that somehow must be overcome. Guardians attempt to establish and control the views on what is collectively good for the public, but in reality just keep making things “less bad” rather than changing them 100% for the better. The largest issue I personally had with this book was finally brought to the spot light directly in the second chapter…for about paragraph; the issue of forcing industries to stop seeing environmental goals as naturally uneconomic.

Obviously the practices of industries changing their products from “less bad” to actually “good” need to be presented in a persuasive and beneficial fashion in order to work. The same must be done for the individual consumer as well. Yelling in the faces of businesses and the average person that we need to save the world now or else it’ll be too late will not work, obviously, or else we wouldn’t even need to be reading books about this problem today. Thus the most efficient way to tackle the problem is as McDonough and Braungart (M&B) have done, laying out the blueprints for others to follow. Designers must now take this text and draw up the contracts, showing the exact dollar figures that will be saved in both the short and long run.

Granted one of the main ideas behind the cradle to cradle movement/the book itself is to make these practices common place to create a better world, it seems to take a while to finally state directly that all businesses need to adopt this, period. Dozens of examples are given to support effective methods for people industries to follow in order to change the world into one of abundance, but really unless they are all incorporated at once, to both people and industries at once, how will they work?

M&B even state this themselves in what I believe to be one of the most important sentences of the text, “In an unfortunate turnaround, the unregulated and potentially dangerous product is given a competitive edge.” (60) Thus, if one company is persuaded, good for them. But so long as every other industry is still making cheap, less bad, products and are not persuaded regardless of their effects on the environment, these industries will have the competitive edge of making cheaper products immediately. Unless the public becomes aware of the industries intentions and how these intentions effect the environment, the average consumer will go for the cheaper price.

M&B elaborate on the fact that many products that originally are intended to be and advertised as being “recyclable” are in reality “downcyclable” at best and will only contribute to the building of future products that are sub par and even more harmful in relation to the function of their original product. Because these new products cannot meet the standards required due to their recycled components, more chemicals must be added to strengthen the product. Examples can be found in objects such as clothing all the way to paper products. This is an example of the government trying to protect the public good, but really just hurting it more. Consumers buying recycled paper think that they are doing the environment a favor, due to the label placed on the paper. Both the consumers as well as the industry producing this paper need to come to an understanding of what is really going on with the product in order for the harm it causes to stop. Collectively a cradle to cradle world can be achieved, but if attempts keep being made at slow paces, one industry at a time, then the economical benefits will never be recognized and thus the industries will fail.

So, what to do. Although I got a lot out of this book, more than any “save the world” (as I call them) type book that I’ve read, I still have my doubts. Where as it seems like most others finished this book feeling inspired and confident that the future holds promise, I didn’t feel as secure. Really Cradle to Cradle just reaffirmed the same problems that I’ve always had in my head about the subject, how a single solution is going to be accepted AND adopted by the majority of the plant, seeing as how that seems to be the only way in which this sort of change can happen. Short of major catastrophes (which at this rate seem more likely than not) I don’t see the average person opening up their eyes to the dangers they are supporting through buying things, be it voluntarily aware of the products harmfulness or not. What’s the answer? I suppose more books such as Cradle to Cradle. I sure as hell don’t have a better idea. Although it seems as if I’m coming off as cynical or unbelieving of the text, I really do believe in it and find it to be a great step in the right direction. I just hope it clicks with everyone else as well before it’s too late to make changes.

Meta-Metabolism or Mythical Metabolism?

In Cradle to Grave, McDonough and Braungart propose that we visualize the world in the two discrete paradigms of biological and the technical metabolisms. “In order for these two metabolisms to remain healthy, valuable, and successful, great care must be taken to avoid contaminating one with the other,” (104) they write. The technical metabolism should reflect the cradle to cradle values inspired by nature, but also be impervious to nature and its biological metabolism. In this way, the technical metabolism can be envisioned as a kind of new nature, an artificial nature create by humans and laid above the existing nature of the earth.

But the authors’ favorite metaphor, that of the cherry tree, counteracts this “new nature” model. “The tree is not an isolated entity cut off from the systems around it: it is inextricably and productively engaged with them.” In this model, overlap between systems is not only allowed, it is necessary and beneficial to the environment as a whole. There is no need to protect any one part of the system from another—the wisdom of the biological metabolism is that the waste products of one organism are food for another.

A community of ants offers a perfect example of nature’s cradle to cradle cycles. The authors point out that, among other things, ants “safely and effectively handle their own material wastes and those of other species; grow and harvest their own food while nurtuting the ecosystem of which they are a part; [and] construct houses, farms, dumps, cemeteries, living quarters, and food-storage facilities from materials that can be truly recycled.” (79) Ants certainly make things, but their artifice does not comprise a new layer of metabolism, as does human artifice.

Humans are not like ants. We have created a new metabolism that exists outside of—perhaps above—the biological metabolism of nature. But if this is so, where does the authors’ description of an eco-effective office building fit into the paradigm? The idealized buildings they describe in chapter three are radically integrated with nature. Technology meets biology head-on when native grasses grow on the rooftop and trees spring up from the building’s interior. Nature is fully incorporated into this industrial structure, so much so that “even as they work indoors, employees get to participate in the cycles of the day and the season.” (75)

A far cry from the fastidious separation of the two metabolisms discussed in chapter four, the office building example looks more like the community of ants than a new layer of metabolism, superimposed on the old, “natural” one. The office building is almost a part of nature, and indeed, the authors suggest that in its fully realized form, it would be indinstinguishable from nature. In its design, the authors wanted to “give workers the feeling that they’d spent the day outdoors.” (105) But if the building itself was nature, the workers really would be spending the day outdoors!

In this sense, cradle to cradle ideology strives to collapse human artifice into nature. The story about two discrete metabolisms of biology and technology does not hold up. The separateness of the technical metabolism is a useful and important idea when substances are used in design that could harm the biological metabolism. The authors emphasize that “things that go into the biological metabolism must not contain mutagens, carcinogens, persistant toxins, or other substances that accumulate in natural systemes to damaging effect.” (104) But are humans truly capable of creating a metabolism that exists above and beyond nature’s biological metabolism? This sort of thinking is reminiscent of the authors’ earlier discussion of the human desire for space travel, which they dismissed by promoting our connectedness to our natural habitat. “Let’s use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet.” (87)

Having two metabolisms is not unlike having the frontier of outer space here on earth. The technical metabolism offers the illusion of escape – that we can use dangerous chemicals so long as they remain imprisoned in the meta-metabolism we have created. But everything is part of the biological metabolism, and human artifice is no exception. Poisons exist even in nature, but natural processes ensure, for the most part, that these substances stay separate from organisms they would harm. The technical metabolism is a metaphorical metabolism that remains within nature – not above it.

(lindsay meisel)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Your Final Exam

Here is your final exam. You must answer two questions from the following six. Do not choose two questions that focus on the same authors or works. Each of your answers should be approximately 3-4 pages long. You may spend as much time as you wish on the exam and you should use your texts to help substantiate your points. Stick to the questions and be sure to finish on time. You are to submit a physical copy of your exam to me on the last scheduled meeting of the course.

1. Discuss Hannah Arendt’s attitude toward the earth and toward artifacts in her discussion of “work” in The Human Condition and then either compare or contrast that attitude in what seems to you an illuminating way with the attitudes toward the earth and artifacts you find either in Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry or William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle (choose one).

2. Discuss what you take to be either the essential similarity or difference in the understanding of power offered by Michel Foucault in History of Sexuality and Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, and then apply the resulting insight about power to its treatment in some aspect of the work we read by Sterling, Lessig, or Bauwens (choose one).

3. Discuss what you consider to be some important strengths and limitations of using Arendt’s characterization of the political as a “space of appearances” as a way of understanding the emerging political significance of “cyberspace” as it was discussed in Harris, Lessig, Bauwens, or Benkler (choose one).

4. Discuss the notion of the commons as you consider it to be deployed in one of our texts on digital design as well as in one of our texts on sustainable design. What do you take to be a key similarity or difference between these notions of the commons and the uses to which the authors put the notion in their respective arguments?

5. Describe some contribution to the design politics of sustainability that you consider to be unique to Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and another that you consider to be unique to William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, and then discuss how the argument of each text would be enriched or complicated through the addition to it of the contribution available only in the other book.

6. Provide a reading of any one of Bruce Sterling’s arguments or proposals in Shaping Things in light of the readings in Barthes' Mythologies of Verne, Einstein, or the Jet-Man on the ideology of nature, progress, science, or technology.

An article on with such a diagram begs for free time to be spent on it.

"We are cyborgs, implanted with electronic components, wearing data suits, teleporting bodies to parallel existences, through black holes, and returning safely. Technology is the problem and the remedy for this new reality."

The text is interesting because the author focuses on the figure of the artist, rather than the designer, as we have seen in our various texts. Where those texts -- C2C, BioM, Shaping Things -- left out the political, this text seems to leave out the technological/design aspect, the "coding" perhaps. The author imagines an ideal situation in which humans reach a horizon of technology, wherein they occupy a high speed intersubjective concsiousness, in lieu of the slow reality we are used to. One receives information from a host of locations all at once, and one's responses to these pieces of information alters the consciousness immediately.

Heidegger and Arendt would likely have much poetry to respond with about the deworlding of the human. Indeed, the author's emphasis on the telos of human evolution being the creative occupation of a black hole is very similar to Arendt's characterization of Epicureanism as the illusion of happiness while roasting alive in the phaleric bull.

"One can say that the creative thought of the artist at the meeting of three singularities -- of human cognition, the real world, and cyberspace -- changes and reflects reality, and creates an inter-subjective integrated consciousness."

It seems humans will always have a phenomenal relationship to their technology. While a computer chip may integrate itself seamlessly into one's mental functioning, as an anti-depression drug may, there are a host of worldly engagements necessary and proper to being a chipp-ed human, a host of biots or spimes or whatever that act as one's context, safety, and inspiration.

The notion of an artistic consciousness emerging from a hyperbolic network of computation, cognition, and space is a strange Cartesian dream.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Peer to Peer Emphasis

Daily Kos is a brilliant blog, I am finding. It will become a part of my daily news now, alongside the wide-scoped but somewhat shallow BBC News, and the Arab Broadcast of Al Jazeera English.

The Kos's context seems to have the serious and urgent and relevant as its norm. Today's post about Rumsfeld's _documented_ approval of torture tactics in Abu Gharib. This is uncovered in American media beyond Reuters, which often seems to have the most laissez-faire approach to news of the market-driven news corporations.

The periphery snark is either fairly clever or withstandable or easily ignored. It is difficult to describe, but the serious blogposts seem to share a similar voice, or tone. Their writing certainly falls in line with the ethos of the Kos, the careful and progressive and humane (is that ethos?). But I think something about the blogpost -- not having a specific audience, yet being able to say anything whatsoever -- causes people to bring their posts into line with a singular trope: there is a struggle and it is not being acknowledged. The post suggests that either the media, or the Republicans, or the President, Democrats, or, quite often, the Kos writers themselves, are failing to acknowledge a struggle. The conclusion of the post is: the failing party(s) need to acknowledge this struggle, for reason of honestly living out the ethos of liberal, progressive, and _humane_.

"However diverse the paths of accountability may be, they all will eventually lead to one action: forcing our government to finally follow the law."

This is a very interesting example. The writer "Democratic Consultant" describes a civil war between Northern and Southern Democrats that the Kos is helping continue, and draws a comparison between this and the Iraq Civil War.


But these are only first impressions. I was (silly-ly) confused when I first visited the Kos, but, quickly adapted, I am fascinated.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I'm assuming everybody has either found the Benkler text online (in one of the many available different formats -- it doesn't matter which) or purchased the hard copy. Here's a link to one version of it. We're reading chapters 1-4 for tomorrow, remember, then the next four for next Tuesday and then the final four for next Thursday. It's a bit long, so I hope everybody is already well into their reading. Looking forward to tomorrow's discussion, see you then!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Readings This Week

From the online version of Lawrence Lessig's Code:

A jumping off point explaining what this wiki version of the volume is all about.

Code Is Law
What Things Regulate

A couple of brief a/v bits associated with Lessig and the Creative Commons might provide an interesting basis for more discussion as well. Try this one, and this one (don't ask me to vouch for the musical choices here, please).

For Thursday, read Michel Bauwens's "The Political Economy of Peer Production"

If you find it interesting, I encourage you to dip into the much extended version
"Peer to Peer and Human Evolution."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A New Environmental Discourse

Growing up close to factories, I saw increasing concerns for the environment as it applied western industrialization to mass produce manufacturing goods. Many incinerator and nonsanitary landfills, linked to corruption scandals, caused severe environmental and public health problems and became far too big to cover up. I saw trucks dump unsorted waste next to artificial mountains of debris. When my parents drove by this landfill site, I had to close the window because of its rotting smell. I was acutely aware of the land rotting before the Korean government started to pump up solutions to mend problems. Until I read Cradle to Cradle, I thought this is an unavoidable relationship between industrialized humanity and nature: men tame nature and face consequences by solving subsequent environmental problems. In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braugart argues that environmental activists hold the same view; so they either oppose industrialists to prevent a possible environmental problem or advocate an immediate solution to address them. By explaining current perception of environmental problems as a discursive formation, Cradle to Cradle offers a way to deconstruct this perception through rethinking of designing that allows creative approach to promote sustainability.

First, the McDonough explains how efficiency is a historically constructed discourse, showing formation and application of the discourse in industries. McDonough introduces the term, “efficiency,” when he gives a brief history of industrialization. He notes that early industrialists designed and implemented new technologies according to capitalism; they wanted to gain more than they lose in order to acquire profits. For example, he points out the Ford Motor Company which used the moving assembly line for the first time to mass produce standardized cars as efficient as possible in the factory. As the costs of cars went down through efficient production mechanisms, he reports that the total sales for cars increased. He goes on to explain its social impact when people, from different social classes, bought accessible standardized cars. McDonough argues that the Ford’s innovations provided a model for “the design goals of early industrialists, limited to the practical, profitable, [efficient], and linear” (24). In other words, other industrialist followed the Ford’s speedy and efficient approach to maximize their profits. Politically, McDonough notes common conception of this industrialization, fueled by capitalism, as democratization when it flourished universalism. There was a growing homogeneity in place of cultural diversity as industrialists take universal design approach and spread their inventions all over the world. Mass production and universalism came from industrialists, designing around the concept of “efficiency” in the past. By drawing our attention to efficiency behind industrialism in the past, McDonough claims its persistence in modern industries as a contributing factor in environmental problems.

In addition to industries, governmental regulations further promote efficiency to address environmental problems. In order to cope with regulations, industries transformed efficiency to eco-efficiency to show their awareness of environmental issues. McDonough calls this “a less bad approach” (45) because industries approach with environmental concerns. McDonough show similarity between industrialists’ and environmentalists’ vocabulary: “reduce, avoid, minimize, sustain, limit, [and] halt” are words central to environmental agendas (61). In other words, this vocabulary demands industries to continue producing similar materials that have and create less pollutant. Although what environmentalists want to do is to solve problems, their use of the old concept only allows “a less bad approach” that does not solve a problem.

Through examining eco-efficiency as historically and culturally constructed discourse, McDonough argues the importance of designing “effectively” rather than efficiently. He creates another environmental concept that would replace eco-efficiency to pose creative approach to address problems. Eco-effectiveness is an alternative solution that will take people into account in addition to the environment. It’s important to look at the people because that will enable industrialists and environmentalists to see particularity in each local community rather than thinking them as whole. Although this approach has not put into practice, it is revolutionary in a sense that it allows reflections on the past to design new ideas to address environmental problems. Through creating a new discourse, we would avoid revising old ideas to immediately solve problems to face another problem. A new discourse would allow proliferation of designs for the environment.

In the text, Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart, it opens by painting a picture for the reader of a pleasant scenario that a majority of people can relate to. They take the reader to a place that is familiar; to give him a setting that he can see himself in. Right as the reader becomes comfortable ( a place where he has let his guard down) he is attacked by a sense of fear when he is told of what the things that are surrounding him are really made of. This sudden switch from pleasant to panic takes the reader on a roller coaster effect that he wasn’t really expecting. This is a form of manipulation that attempts to gain the attention of the reader and as a result will most likely produce some action.

Further in the introduction, the authors touch on introducing particular chemical names that are present in the objects that surround us every day. The names that they present to the reader are very complex names of which the average person would not be knowledgeable about. In using this technique it can cause for a heightening of alarm in the reader because the terms are too difficult to understand and can also be portrayed as being very detrimental to ones health. When confusion or lack of knowledge exists most likely fear is also present. This technique overall is very powerful, for it is at this point that one has the readers attention and the power to direct them easier to do what one wants them to do.

After instilling fear in the reader the authors then interject a sense of guilt when they attempt to tell the reader of the shoes he is wearing. By telling the reader that the shoes were produced in a developing country where dangerous working conditions exist, it is almost convincing him that he has a part in this atrocity. Just by purchasing the shoes makes one feel as if he is partaking in this act of cruelty towards these workers from these foreign countries. The reader may now be at a point that he questions everything he owns, because it might just have harmful chemicals and materials in it or that by purchasing certain products he might be taking part in the act of exploitation. The reader ultimately may now feel that a sense of safety has decreased along with feeling guilty for something that he has not personally partaken in.

Although at the very end of the introduction the authors give the reader a way out of the dangerous environment he lives in I believe that all these carcinogens and all these antioxidants and un- biodegradable products that seem to be infiltrating our society has been doing so for the past 20 to 30 years. However, as a result our bodies are becoming used to the influences that surround our everyday lives. The new technologies of medicine have helped in coping with this and have allowed us to live in a symbiotic relationship in these toxic times. Eventually time will only tell, but these toxic micro invaders are driving our bodies to build up a new form of immune system and are allowing us to survive these and other dwellers. In time we have become a form of the high tech biochemical environment that these toxins dwell in. For these microorganisms in turn may at some time be required as part of our daily diet. Finally with regards to the implied guilt feeling of product consumption this also with time will be mitigated by legislation that will ultimately regulate this form of production. The authors overall, through fear and guilt, attempt to gain the readers attentions and ultimately desire to gain some form of power over the actions of the reader as well. By gaining power over a reader’s potential actions in regards to their cause, they increase their overall involvement in hopes to change things on a greater scale.

When I was a little girl, my mother bought me an Earth Day t-shirt. She ordered it from the back of the Utne Reader. It was a kid’s shirt with a picture of the Earth on it and the words “Love your Mother” at the top. I know that my mom did not buy me this shirt for some personal-sentimental reason; on the contrary, she is very environmentally savvy. Looking back I can only assume she wanted her daughter to learn and appreciate the earth as much as she does. But the words “love your mother” seem tragic and hollow in light of today’s ecological situation. Cradle to Cradle does a good job of letting us know that being environmentally savvy and trying to be “less bad is no good”. The book tries to remind us that the human species continues to put the planet in jeopardy, forgetting that we are not separate from the earth; and because we seem to have no idea of how to fit into the natural cycle of life, the authors illuminate architecture and design practices that are helping to stem the destructive pattern of our relationship with the planet. Is it possible for the global society to undermine the archetype of urban expansion, limitless consumption, and loyalty of product rather than the producer? Cradle to Cradle helps to illustrate the reasons why we need to change our ways, examines the future of sustainable design and architecture and what this means in today’s socio-political zeitgeist.
Urban and industrial issues such as modes of transportation, technology choices, land and hazardous materials use and the problems of waste byproducts have been prevalent for decades. In Cradle to Cradle the book starts with the history of the industrial revolution and chronicles the negative environmental effects the changes have had up till the present. Today, new threats to the global environment are becoming increasingly apparent, but do we understand how and why we created them in the first place? How did we make so many poor choices along the way?
The authors Bill and Mike, (it’s much easier to refer to them on first name basis, especially after seeing the picture of them in the back of the book. They look so nice!) write about the response the public had to the environmental crisis of DDT only after Carson’s Silent Spring led to global awareness of the chemical. It seems that after the victory of eliminating some of the obvious domestic environmental catastrophes, the world has ignored and even added to earth’s environmental problems. Perhaps issues like global warming, dwindling of fossil fuels and the destruction of the rainforest do not burn their way into the nation’s collective conscience the way the deformed birds do. I think of Marie Antoinette, who when told there was no bread to feed the poor declared, “Let them eat cake”! Does wealth and disregard for the environment go hand-in-hand? More importantly, does grassroots environmentalism still have a chance? After I finished reading the book I gave it to my parents to read; I want people to know about the possibilities of sustainable design and architecture and show people that the little we are doing to help now is not the right way to go about dong things.
The only misgiving I have about the text is the obsession with FORD. As someone said in the class the book is borderline Brave New World. From the second chapter “why being less bad is no good” the authors explain eco -efficiency and give details on the fact that it was “Henry Ford himself was adamant about lean and clean operating policies, saving his company millions of dollars by reducing waste and setting new standards with his time saving assembly line”(51). Also in the last chapter the Mike and Bill go on for 50 pages about the wonder that is the Rouge Room that Tim O’Brien and Bill Ford so continuously had built.
I think that Cradle to Cradle is an amazing text because it gives us answers to the problem. However, it is not without the horror stories of environmental hazards; the plastic kiddy inflatable wings that kept us afloat when we were little, that can give us cancer or dissolve skin cells. Or even our running shoes that emit toxins every time they pound the pavement. But we need to reduce the human ecological footprint anyway. The text also puts everything in the hands of the designers as if we just have to wait for them to solve all the problems. Which I will admit is really nice; not that I don’t want to do my part but I’m ready for a grass top roof and lots more changes.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nothing like a scroller in nature, but is there something like a mouse? [Not 'my post', but a post]

I thought to post the following from the How would a Biomimetic Revolution come about? portion of the "Biomimicry Explained" section of
Echoing nature is where we actually try to mimic what we discover. Echoing nature will take a cross-fertilization of ideas. The technologists who invent products and systems need to interact with biologists so they can match human needs with nature's solutions. Task forces and formal societies would allow for periodic interactions, but for more permanent collaborations, we should design university departments in biomimicry.

I can also see using the Internet as a place to store our information. A giant database of biological knowledge would serve as an innovation matchmaking service. An engineer charged with designing a new desalination device, for instance, could easily review the strategies of the mangrove-a tree that filters seawater with its solar-powered roots.
In both instances, it seems Benyus is calling for a type of human involvement in science that is as instigator, rather than discoverer. The scientist sets herself a specific niche within biomimicrous scientific research and her interest in borrowing others' research, along with everyone else's niche, creates collaboration on a colossal scale. This colossal collaboration is analogous to Benyus' characterization of nature's evolution within massive timescales as a massive cross-breeding cognitive process, "genius". The new science is submission to the genius of the mass.

I see the spirit of this submission to a sprawling genius in her dedication of the book to the mentors of the Tangled Bank. Come to find out this means dedicating her book to both identifiable people and unidentifiable future people:
Welcome to the Tangled Bank, a version of the "Carnival of the Vanities" for science bloggers. A Carnival is a weekly showcase of good weblog writing, selected by the authors themselves (that's the vanity part). Every other week, one of our crew will highlight a collection of interesting weblog articles in one convenient place, making it easy for everyone to find the good stuff.
Anyone may be the author of the Tangled Bank from week to week, and so the Tangled Bank has no author. Mentorship from the Tangled Bank is far more idea than identity-based in that sense. (I think it's a pretty fascinating idea, over and above my rhetorical meditations here.)

Benyus' dedication to those 'mentors' is a submission to the collaboration with their ideas. The form of her ideational collaboration is as science writer. The following is Darwin's passage of the the tangled bank, quoted at the top of the Tangled Bank blog:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.
How far are Benyus and TB carrying the comparison of their scientific/rhetorical work to the work of nature's laws acting around them? How do we make sense of or how do we feel about "insects flitting, worms crawling, and birds singing" --these verbalizations of nature-- being collapsed into the causal phrase "produced by laws around us"? Is this a turn from expansive language to collapsing Law? It might be the great straddling of the human subjective and the scientific, especially to call pop-science writing biomimicry:
Together, we biomimics are setting out on a voyage to learn what nature's "long and enchanted roster" already knows. It's the way home, and I'm as eager as the geese to go.
Is this 'home' a different dimension of the interfaced reality of the notorious BIOT? Benyus' description of the internet as a store of knowledge of nature could be analogized to Sterling's characterization of the self/cross-referencing world of the spimes. The becoming like the goose could be like being the BIOT in the interfaced spime circus.