Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sustainablity and generative design

Mitchell asked in a comment to the Technology is knowledge is power post:
How does this all reflect on your own practice as an artist/designer? What does *sustainable* generative design look like? Open source is perhaps one answer...
It's a hard question to answer really how this reflects on me personally since am still only coming to grips with it slowly... It's not that most of this was truly new to me, but I've been doing lots of reading & thinking about these things only recently, and so haven't managed to form a full opinion yet. I think all the real answers to the sustainability question are hidden below the usual layers of conversation and discussion had, and hence why I quoted Illich in the post. Like a good visualization piece he manages to give you a view of the data from a totally different angle. Generally I agree with many of his points about the formal western school system ultimately fulfilling a more profound function in our society of encouraging (and persisting) a class system based on certification, (over)production, consumption and compliance. This is especially true when "exporting" this system to the Third World. (Btw. Seeing school's role more in terms of teaching compliance to established norms vs. current reality also moves ADD into a different light. Stowe Boyd has more about it.)

As long as consumption remains the main engine of our society it's hard to seriously address sustainability. The problem is also further complicated that much of the current sustainability discussion is about the purely environmental aspects of the concept, whereas these issues are just a part of the bigger picture. This is why we need to generally acquire a better global understanding of the complex interlinked nature of the systems we live in: The systems we built ourselves only recently and the ones which pre-date us but of which we only realize now to which extent we have changed and shaped them...

Every tool requires a certain level of literacy to be used creatively and I think it's wrong to assume that we as societies at large have acquired these skills and mindsets to a level that they can be creatively used as tool by as many members of society as possible. Governments and mainstream media with their tendency to either ignore or to create spin around these complex issues are totally throwing spanners in the works. The "simplicity" term has already started being subverted by marketing and this is also why I'm very wary of it being preached as the main answer if the questions needing to be tackled are some of the biggest and complex we've ever faced. Simplicity is relative - reaching for better levels of literacy in systems might be more fruitful than risking important concepts being unwillingly dumbed down and diluted.

Not using this as an excuse, but partly being a product of my environment I can't say that in the past I actively cared that much for sustainability myself (above and beyond recycling, public transport, energy saving etc.). Yet I've always believed in learning by doing and I quit college for the same reason. Most of the valuable things I've learned and the ones I'm most proud of, are the result of self-initiated projects and sleep deprivation fed by a genuine hunger for trying to uncover hidden layers & systems in nature. Probably like many others in this field (generative design) I've always had more interest in the synthesis and simulation of (new?) concepts vs. sampling "cultural" symbols and trends. Yet am often also wondering if this discipline has not positioned itself in a vacuum if the knowledge we acquire by doing this isolated artistic research will never filter into something more important. ?!?!

Given that computers and software are our current state-of-the-art tools for problem solving, all in all I'd like to believe that a continued cultural rise and awareness of open source, hacking, informal learning, workshops, blogging, tool making, digital fabrication, generative design can be and already is all part of the bigger solution:
  • Code literacy requires good skills in the abstraction and decomposition of ideas and acknowledges the process nature and connectivity of systems
  • A designer's appreciation and sensitivity of form and aesthetics informs adaptable software architectures required for building modular and agile tools.
  • Open Source tools acts as platform builders (technically and socially), distribute development costs and reduce the entry threshold by enabling anyone with an interest and access to hardware to become part of ongoing projects and communities.
  • Hardware initiatives (e.g. OLPC, Arduino) and communal digital fabrication centres allow for grassroots education, experimentation and production of tools for fulfilling local/individual needs not catered for by corporations.