The revolution

With tomorrow being July 4th, anniversary of America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain, I figure it’s time to talk about the (hopefully) coming revolution.  Sorry Ray, not talking about the Technological Singularity, that’s not my department, at least not right now.

The future is coming.  That’s kind of a truism, but it had to be said.  The atmosphere warms, the icecaps melt, and I’m doing my part to accelerate it (flying to Portland now) and to arrest it (working on cognitive engineering to encourage conservation of resources).

I’ve been living at Stanford for a week now, and while it’s pretty spread out—Escondido village is quite a hike from main campus, and main campus is a ways from downtown Palo Alto—it’s much denser than, say, Buffalo, where everything is a fifteen-minute drive.  say it again, fifteen-minute drive.  That’s a problem.  I like walking.  I like biking (more for its own sake than for transportation, but I’m getting into the whole bike commuting thing, but it’s not ideal to use a race bike as a commuter, as I’m too paranoid (justifiably so!) to lock it up outside.  I do like driving too, for its own sake, but not for commuting.  Trains and buses are good too, but I’d rather be able to walk or bike than wait for the bus or train, or –gasp- plane, which is what I’m doing now.

So, what of this revolution?  My take is that in the future, we will be living smaller, richer lives.  That’s why I’m into product and service and experience design, and how all this comes together is pretty simple: less stuff, less space, more connections.

My cousins live in a medium sized house, 30min walk from Stanford, 10 min walk to the Caltrain and shopping district, and have a pretty good relationship with their neighbors (good thing, after the backyard fire).  My parents live in a relatively large house, a 10-15 minute walk to where I went to school, a 5-10 minute drive to the hospital (5 minutes by Stingray), and a 5 minute walk to my grandparents house, with a pool in the back.  My aunt and uncle (in Buffalo) live 30-50 minute drive from everything, in a very large house.  They regret the decision to be exurban pioneers.

Before I headed west, friends had a great party in Brooklyn.  They have a decent sized one bedroom apartment, a back deck, a roof deck for the common use of the building, and a big grill.  with the IDSANYC core crew, we all had a blast.  Time with friends is way more enjoyable than time with Stuff.  The trend towards increasing atomization is starting to crack with the economic downturn and rising transportation (energy) costs, so hopefully we’re going to end up having smaller lives in the future, current infrastructure being an impediment.

The product design part of this is I hope the future of the industry is towards less crap and more Quality.  Read Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance to understand Quality.  Or find an old Mercedes-Benz.  Well, even the modern ones are pretty decent.  If you go into the local best buy, there are a million products, all of which seem pretty cheap and don’t last.  Even a prosumer level camera (Nikon D80) doesn’t have the same gestalt Quality-ness of a late 60s Nikkormat, but it’s close.  All the point-and shoot jobs can go by the wayside for a real SLR.

Extending this further, we’re facing some real problems as a society, and unfortunately have to make some hard choices, mostly because individuals don’t see the choices as a problem.  Not to single out family unduly, but they are convenient.  My cousins live in a nice townhouse—3 floors, 2 car garage, 3 bedrooms (one converted to an office), close to the light rail, pool, etc.  Nice.  But they want a bigger house, because they grew up in bigger houses and two-child families.  It might be good for them to have a bigger place, but it’s not necessarily better for the planet (and by extension, them, as residents of this rock).

What I’m proposing to think about, is how to make life more fulfilling and happier, with less stuff and less space.  People were happier before there was as much stuff (especially cheap and disposable stuff) as there is now, maybe there was something to that life.