‘Reversing the reversal’ with john chris jones

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I’ve been re-reading “the internet and everyone” by john chris jones.

I’ve been astonished once again by the sensibility of an artist-writer-designer whose philosophy – indeed his whole life – first inspired me when I was a young magazine editor more than 30 years ago.

Like another muse of mine, Ivan Illich, John Chris Jones was decades ahead of his time. The time is ripe now for a wider readership.

He wrote about cities without traffic signals in the 1950s – sixty years before today’s avant garde urban design experiments.

In the 1960s, Jones was an advocate of what today is called ‘design thinking’; (then, it was called design methods).

He advocated user-centered design well before the term was widely used. He began by designing aeroplanes – but soon felt compelled to make industrial products more human. This quest fuelled his search for design processes that would shape, rather than serve, industrial systems.

As a kind of industrial gamekeeper turned poacher, Jones went on to warn about the potential dangers of the digital revolution unleashed by Claude Shannon.

Computers were so damned good at the manipulation of symbols, he cautioned, that there would be immense pressure on scientists to reduce all human knowledge and experience to abstract form.

Technology-driven innovation, Jones foresaw, would under-value the knowledge and experience that human beings have by virtue of having bodies, interacting with the physical world, and being trained into a culture.

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From mega, to micro: What You Can Do With the City

[Summer re-run; first published last year]
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The atmosphere at last week’s Megacities conference in Delft was subdued. I don’t suppose my own talk, which ploughed a similar path to the Debt, Diesel and Dämmerung narrative I mentioned yesterday, helped lighten the mood very much.
Spirits were low because it is becoming clear that mega solutions of any kind – whether or not they are desirable – will be extremely hard to sell, let alone launch, for the forseeable future. Given that our host venue, TU Delft, is Europe’s degree zero for mega-solutions, glum faces were to be expected.
So it was especially cheering when, the next day, Martien de Vletter (its Dutch co-publisher) gave me the brand new catalogue of an inspiring exhibition has just opened at the Canadian Centre for Architecture Actions: What You Can Do With the City.
The show features 99 actions that have the potential to trigger positive change in contemporary cities. The seemingly common activities, that feature walking, playing, recycling, and gardening, show the potential influence personal involvement can have in shaping the city – and challenge fellow residents to participate.
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The project website includes projects by a diverse group of “human motors of change”. They include architects, engineers, university professors, students, children, pastors, artists, skateboarders, cyclists, root eaters, pedestrians, municipal employees.
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The 99 actions touch on the production of food, and possibilities of urban agriculture; the creation of public spaces to strengthen community interactions; recycling of abandoned buildings for new purposes; the use of the urban fabric as a terrain for play such as soccer, climbing, skateboarding, or parkour; alternate uses of roads for walking, or of rail lines as park space.
Actions is curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, with Lev Bratishenko, Meredith Carruthers, Daria Der Kaloustian, and Peter Sealy. The catalogue, which I warmly commend, contains case studies and short texts on most of the featured interventions.

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Alternative trade networks and the coffee system

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Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world – quite a few of them in this house – but few of us in the North know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean.
After reading a new book called Confronting The Coffee Crisis I feel better informed not just about the negative aspects of the story – but also motivated to explore practically the potential of emerging alternative trade networks to change the bigger picture in profound ways.
In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar, or roughly six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.
So far, so outrageous. Less well-known are the damaging effects of these unequal power relations embedded in global coffee networks: threatened livelihoods, greater poverty, malnutrition, deforestation, and out-migration.
A “bigger, faster, cheaper” mentality has created a dynamic that exploits the most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain.

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Salvage design

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(Summer re-run: first published 26 July 2008)
Bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs or converted plastic bags: German photographer Thomas Kalak has published a book called “Thailand – Same same, but different!” that celebrates the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation.
The strange objects and arrangements remind Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century.
They remind *me* that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home: untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now.
You can order the book here.

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Innovating our way to oblivion

(Summer re-run: first published 16 June 2008)
Out-of-control buzzwords are like locusts: you can swat handfuls of them down with a bat, but more will come to take their place.
I’ve been swatting away for ages in this blog at all things Conceptual, Cultural, Clustered and (especially) Creative.
But now we’re suffering a massive counter-attack by the word Innovation – 137 million uses of which are known to Google alone.
A good proportion of these mentions probably belong to the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK.
Nesta’s mission is to “make innovation flourish,” and one way it does this is by using the world innovation in every second or third sentence of the emails it sends me.
Now Nesta is staffed by smart and well-connected people. And most of my clients think innovation is the very elixir of life itself. So I probably shouldn’t say this. But I have to, because it’s important:
INNOVATION IS NOT GOOD IN ITSELF – IN FACT, MORE INNOVATION DOES HARM, THAN DOES GOOD.
My evidence for this statement is contained in a breathless announcement from Mintel, the market research company, that a “Record-Breaking Number of New Products Flood Global CPG Shelves” and that (the numbers are for 2006) “close to 182,000 new products were introduced globally, with key booming areas focusing on mind, body, and general good health”.
Well over half of these of these innovations – 105,000, to be precise – were food and drink products.
This flood of innovations enable us to profit from such trends as “brainpower foods, age-defying treatments, increases in portion control, and “just for you” customised products”.
Now I may have misunderstood something here, but surely the Mintel numbers mean that more than half the innovations that reach the market all over the world – 300 innovations, every single day of the year – decrease the resource efficiency and hence sustainability of global food systems?
Good, so that’s Innovation dealt with. Bring on the next killer word!

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Marketing, me, and the future of tv

(Summer re-run: first published September 2009)
A marketing whiz I know in New York asked me to do her a favour: answer some questions about the future of tv.
At least, that’s what I thought she asked. But when, a couple of days later, a FedEx package arrived, it contained a tiny digital voice recorder and the instruction: “tell us your views about the future of the television” – ie, the product, not its content.
Although deprived of the opportunity to pontificate about the evils of reality television and Fox News, I nonetheless narrated the following into the little machine and FedExed it (at my friend’s insistence) back.
For some reason, I never heard from her again.
[Transcript]
“For me, big televisions are like gas-guzzling SUVs: fat, wasteful, and paid for with debt.
These fat objects don’t just waste energy – they’re toxic, too. The big old ones, the Cathode Ray Tube ones, were bad enough: each one contained as much as four pounds of lead.
But the new flat ones are also full of heavy metals. When improperly dismantled – which is most of the time – they release dioxins and poison the air and water systems.
Adding insult to injury, the biggest screens aren’t even used for anything useful. Most of them are used for push advertising.

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Doors of Perception seeks editor/writer to volunteer for special project

Doors of Perception seeks a very capable – but under-employed – editor/writer willing to volunteer for a special project. It’s to compile a New Yorker style listings that will be published as a stand-alone feature. I’m guessing that it will entail three to four weeks of intermittent work – and that it can be done from home. Interested? Email john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com

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Toxic sludge machine

I was critical last week of commentators who describe the financial crisis as “psychological”.

Those who blame a “lack of transparency” are on stronger ground – although ignorance of the facts or the law is not a valid excuse in other domains of life.
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The process chart above describes something called a Financial Products Markup Language which is said (on its website) to be “the business information exchange standard for electronic dealing and processing of financial derivatives instruments”. The idea is to “streamline the process supporting trading activities in the financial derivatives domain”.
The chart looks neat and orderly – hygienic, even, with all that blue – but reflect a moment: The system has been programmed for deranged individuals who, as we now know, believe that exponential growth to eternity is a right and proper basis for the design of the world’s financial system.
GIGO – or Garbage In, Garbage Out – is a phrase used by computer programmers to remind laypeople that computers “will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data and spew out mountains of erroneous information in a short time”.
Where we’re at now is that systems designed to “streamline” the market have been spewing out financial derivatives which, insofar as anyone can count them, now amount to eight hundred times global GDP.
This mass of red stuff (the red wedge on the inverted pyramid above, also known in financial circles as “toxic sludge”) has now started to leak out of the balloon. And that’s why this crisis is not psychological.

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Heathrow chaos: time to start digging?

(Summer re-run: first published 31 March 2008)
The chaos at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is an excellent example of what happens when the logic of finance interacts with the logic of large complex systems.
As Will Hutton wrote at the weekend, shareholders in British Airways (its sole tenant) and BAA (which runs the airport) demand perpetually growing dividends. Financial returns on this scale can only be achieved by cutting people out of the system: This is because big shiny buildings, although expensive, are capital costs that can be written off through time; people, on the other hand, appear in a company’s accounts as recurrent costs that directly reduce profits.
Willy Walsh, the cost-cutting hard man put in to run BA, has duly cut people costs to the bone. As a result of his ministrations morale has crashed, many experienced midde managers took early retirement before T5 opened, and a recent survey reported that nearly 30 per cent of staff claim they had been bullied.

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