Monday, February 18, 2013

David Maddalena on Design, Technology, and Intention

This morning I finished (low) tech writer by David Maddalena. When I first heard about it via this TreeHugger review, I wanted to get my hands on it because it seemed to explore themes I've been reflecting on recently. Primarily, in the must-have, new-tech-every-year, and for-every-problem consumer culture we find ourselves in, how do we restore the balance and regain some sanity? As with anything you anticipate, there's the gap what you expect something to be and what it actually is, how you think things will be and how they are, but this little volume didn't disappoint. Disclaimer: I am very much from the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought, or more precisely, if this still works, why buy another one? Or something different that does the same thing?

Maddalena's charge is looking into the things (the tools, the activities, the technologies) that last, performing functions as well or better than their Newer, Better, More Innovative [read: marketing buzzwords] cousins. Through a series of essays about bread knives, typewriters, bicycles, and hand-made maps, he covers topics like mobility, creativity, travel, ingenuity, craftsmanship and how they have adapted, for better or for worse, to the digital age. In its examination of craft and intention in design and the finished product, (low) tech writer reminds me of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida and its reflection on the photograph.

Today 'technology' means (largely) electronics, when technology in and of itself can be defined simply as a tool -- any tool that helps achieve a goal (go back to the dawn of humanity and think fire or the wheel or lever). For society, technology (i.e. tech) has come to mean something powered by electricity, battery, and/or microchip. Are we really not making, and thereby inventing, other tools? Hint: We are, but they're typically not as shiny or entertaining. At least not at first glance.

Maddalena pins this desire for something new on something he calls the Cult of Innovation. Designers, especially those in the employ of companies making and marketing products, invent new tools for which there exist successful and effective predecessors. Then there are the cases of inventions for problems we don't have, or ones we didn't know we had (because we already had something that seemed to do the trick just fine). I'm not going to go too far down this train of thought because it could be covered in a post all its own, but this redundancy is the result of an economy predicated on never-ending growth as a business model. One of the central questions of the collection is: What are the risks of innovating all of our problems away with more and more stuff? This sparks the related, what do we lose? What do we value? We shape things, the material, as much as they shape us.

Throughout, Maddalena shares his low tech principles, or characteristics that designers should incorporate into their products and consumers should seek. Key characteristics include simple, cheap, flexible (in terms of function) and durable. The high tech alternatives of complex, expensive, rigid (in terms of function) and disposable (literally or because of their short vanity timelines) should be considered carefully. The use of technology is, after all, for our benefit, and not the other way around.

(Low) tech writer is part lamenting progress, part a tutorial on intuition, and part philosophical text. Maddalena can be whiney and preachy at times (consider yourself warned) and truly insightful and powerful at others. I find it relates to larger themes of finding meaning in life (not to be confused with the Meaning of Life), and the knowledge that having more stuff ≠ being happy. On some level, we wouldn't be attracted to high tech things if they didn't bring us joy, and serve a purpose. As Maddalena points out, it's not that new technology is always bad, but it's about achieving a balance and having a clear answer to the question, "Who's the boss here?" Something I have tried to do lately (that can be really difficult) is be more intentional about using high tech and leave room for those low tech gems (objects and practices) that are generally more grounding and fulfilling.

I encourage you to check out more of Maddalena's work at, where you can read his essays and order a copy of the book.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day from the Green Lantern

Dear Architecture Nerds,

I know I haven't posted here in a long time, but I still love you.



Monday, May 21, 2012

How A Bicycle Is Made

I came across this gem last week and knew it had to be shared. It's a 1945 documentary entitled, "How a Bicycle is Made." As described by the British Council Film website, the video depicts the design and manufacture of Raleigh bicycles in the UK.

It's a little over 17 minutes long, but it's worth every second. Take a look:


A few quick observations about the window into the past this film gives us. First of all, this is a labor intensive operation, and skilled labor at that (decidedly male too...). It takes a lot of elbow grease and know-how to successfully complete the many stages of producing a bicycle, from drawing the concepts, to welding, smelting, strengthening and purifying the metal, and assembling of all of the intricate parts into a complete model. Sidenote: Extra points if you can find the mechanic smelting in a sweater vest. I am sure modern day bicycle manufacture needs a lot fewer employees and uses a more mechanized approach. Secondly, I think operations like these birthed agencies like OSHA. I can't imagine the health risks these workers assumed by inhaling fumes and dealing with open baths of chemicals strong enough to rust-proof steel. But thankfully these are hazards of a bygone era. 

As dated as the video may seem, some of it is startlingly relevant to the discussion today concerning the role bicycles play in our everyday lives. As the narrator concludes (starting at the 16:47 mark), "A bicycle is a comfortable and cheap way of getting about. A great boon to man [and woman]. Ideal for shopping, easy to park, handy for work. A faithful friend, ever ready to take tired workers back home, and after work to bring relaxation, health, and happiness."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rising Gas Prices, Part Two: What Aren't We Paying For?

This post is the second in a series on the soaring price of gasoline. I originally thought I could fit all of these ideas in one post -- boy was I wrong. If you missed out on Part One, read it here.

One of my favorite finds in the enviro-journalism world recently has been Climate Desk, a collaborative reporting effort from some of my already favorite news outlets like Grist, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic. They consistently cover the issues that I have on my radar, and do it very well. My investigation into the rising price of gasoline is no exception. I encourage you to click through their slideshow which covers the ins and outs of the issue, but I will share with you two of the highlights from it here.

The first is a video of Christopher Knittel, professor of energy economics at MIT, who speaks about the "true social cost of a gallon of gasoline."

He hits a lot of important points in a short clip, including how gas is linked on the global market to the price of oil, four types of externalities (a larger military, pollution and human health effects, climate change, and an economy susceptible to oil price shocks), how the price of gasoline affects our decision-making processes as consumers, and the fact that much of our modern way of life is predicated on cheap gasoline.

One of his most perspective-shifting comments is surely, "Even though the price of gas is historically high these days it turns out there's a lot of costs that society bears of our decisions to buy gasoline that aren't incorporated in the price." Maybe we've gotten away with a cheaper price than we really could have been paying all this time.

The second clip takes Knittel's ideas one step further, exploring the question: What contributes to the cost of a gallon of gasoline? In the process it explains what maybe should be included, but isn't. Take a look at this animation from Climate Desk partner, the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Nothing is more telling than this quote, "What's the true price of gas? It's a lot more than what we pay at the pump." I appreciate the way they quantify the total cost of externalities (somewhere between $550 billion and $1.7 trillion) and also the pollution impact of a gallon of gasoline, much of which accumulates before it even reaches the tank of your car.

These videos effectively capture the social and environmental costs not reflected in the price we pay, borne by others or even by us at a later date. Deferring risk and responsibility to separate communities or future generations in the name of near-term gain -- now where have I heard that before?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rising Gas Prices, Part One: Pain at the Pump, World Markets

Nothing speaks louder to our addiction to oil than the panic over rising gas prices. I've felt it too, I am driving a lot, and I mean A LOT to and from work these days. Just check out the tab I ran up at the pump during a recent fill-up. For the past two months, gas in Connecticut has steadily risen to just under $4.00/gallon when the above pic was taken. The upward trend hasn't slowed though, and more and more stations have surpassed the $4.00 mark for regular unleaded. Even when I shop for the very best price among the nearly two-dozen filling stations I pass during my commute (it's true, regional variation doesn't change that much), I can't best the $4.00 beast. Soon I'll be living and working in a place where I won't need to own a car, but that day hasn't come just yet (and it won't stop GM from enlisting MTV to help draw us young whippersnappers into the showroom).

If you follow me on twitter (@agmaynard) you'll remember I began on this train of thought a few weeks ago in a series of tweets about the origins of the pain at the pump panic. My thinking out loud went like this:
The response "use less oil" to those worried about rising gas prices must sting to the subset whose livelihoods depend on driving to work//But keeping costs cheap perpetuates dependency on that system, hmm... (assuming we can have any control over oil markets in the 1st place)//Hint: no single agent does, really, especially not @BarackObama//Doesn't the question then become, how do we gradually increase cost to shift paradigm while assisting the most impacted?//Increasing costs = decreasing oil subsidies, transfer the difference to fund renewable tech? But then there's the problem of design...//...that facilitates long car commutes in the first place and is a longer-term fix. Need to do some more thinking on this.//This comes to mind for some reason: "The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it" - Edith Wharton, House of Mirth//Panic comes partly from the pain at the pump, but I'm guessing more so from the anxious feeling that they have no other choice but to pay.//That panic goes away if there are viable (and cheaper) alternatives.
The parts I want to focus on are the beginning and the end, where I attempt to identify the motive of those beating the cheap gas war drums. For the purposes of this post let's ignore the middle bit about transferring oil subsidies to renewables R&D. What I meant to say there was more along the lines of assistance programs for those most impacted by rising gas prices, but regardless I don't think that'd be an even 1:1 exchange. Then of course there are the obvious political ramifications and deadlocks necessary to thwart Obama's socialist agenda ;)

SO, pain at the pump. What is it? Fear. Anxiety. A sense of being trapped, locked into a system, at the mercy of fluctuating global markets. Is anything more maddening, or hopeless, for a household struggling to pay the bills, who simply can't afford a bigger bite out of their income? Especially in this economy. This is a very real fear for those living from month to month, paycheck to paycheck. Budget dependability? What a pipeline, er-- I mean pipedream.

This panic reminds me of a similar fervor displayed by some residents from my hometown over a proposed Costco development two years ago. The retail giant would provide jobs and economic development, they said, and thus the proposed megastore should be unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. During interviews with local planning officials for a paper I wrote on the plan, they told me that for these residents Costco symbolized relief from the sometimes crippling financial stress associated with the recession. It didn't matter if the developer's jobs and salary claims were overstated or that much of Costco's labor force doesn't originate in its host communities. It represented stability, and an escape from the doldrums of a down economy.

What's important to realize though is that I grew up in small-town Connecticut. We have a Walmart that was only approved because it was an as-of-right development (aka it conformed to all existing zoning regulations). What this means though, is that we are home to one of the smallest -- if not THE smallest -- Walmarts in the country at just over 85,000 square feet. A request at the time to expand the building into the surrounding parking lot was denied. The proposed Costco would have been almost double the size at 150,000 SF. In my opinion (when do well-researched opinions become facts, anyway?) it would have been disastrous for the intimate character of the town that, ironically, makes Guilford such a vibrant economic landscape in the first place. I digress; this is a post about gas prices, after all. The takeaway from this anecdote, though, is that sometimes people jump at short-term fixes to chronic problems because they don't have the luxury of looking further into the future. Their immediate needs aren't being met, or there's a very real threat that in the near term they won't be met.

CNN's John King summarized this message well during a broadcast a few weeks ago: "Your views on energy are driven by your bottom line."

So the next logical question is what can we do about alleviating pain at the pump, or avoiding it entirely? Drill baby drill, right? Riiiiiiiiiiight? I say no, and here's why. I'll be the first one to admit that I am not an authority on global oil markets, but I've been sifting through the literature for the last month or two and if I've learned one thing it's this: We're all connected. Take this graph, for example.

The United States is connected to other global economies through the intricate web of petroleum production and distribution networks. It is incredibly difficult for one nation, even the US which admittedly uses a disproportionate amount of global supply, to tip the scales through increased domestic production. When prices go up for us, they go up for (most) everybody else. The same goes for when prices drop, but there may not be much reason to hope for cheaper gas in the future.

Here's the reality as we move further into the 21st Century: Gas prices are not going to go down. At least not over the long-term. As developing countries like China and India continue to industrialize and as their bulging populations rise into the middle class, they are going to demand a higher standard of living (implication here, powered by fossil fuels). They have quite the role models (U-S-A, U-S-A!) and Econ 101 says that when demand for a product increases, so does price.

So if we're locked into the global market and prices will steadily go up and up and up regardless of an increase in domestic production, what are our other options? How do we get some relief from that pain at the pump?

In my next post I'll explore some of the alternatives to emptying your wallet at the gas station. I'll focus mainly on efficiency, hybrid/electric vehicles, and algae-based biofuels. Stay tuned for Part Two of this Rising Gas Prices series.