Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid / by Dan

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren't useful, for some scope of 'useful'. I'm sure I'm not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that "someone else will sort it out", whether that's providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don't want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay 'those scientists' to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we're doing. We pay for new things because we can't fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We've mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn't die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We've outsourced functions we don't even realise we don't need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we've outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can't tell the difference.

Maybe that's just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld's Sustainability by Design, which I'm reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I'm especially inspired by Tim O'Reilly's "Work on stuff that matters" advice. If we go back to the 'most things are unnecessary' idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive ("I am doing something that matters...").

The idea I can't get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We'd be independent from those future generations we're currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We'd all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we're in - people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I'm wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us - and we do - but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what's actually useful/necessary and what isn't. Our attention is valuable and we mustn't waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, "What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate." Now, that's broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I'm really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they're doing, whether that's 'good' or 'bad' (or perhaps 'useful' or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of 'Design for Independence':

Reducing society’s resource dependence Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I'll develop this further as an idea - it's along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller - but there's a lot of other work to do first. I hope it's stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton