towards a smaller, richer life

In today’s New York times is a wonderful piece, asking to condemn GDP to the dustbin of history: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/10/opinion/10zencey.html
It’s a terrible metric, and it’s much better to read Zencey’s article than for me to recount it here.
 
The model of consumerism which has predominated for last century is (A) wrongheaded and (B) omnicidal.  We aren’t that much richer in the sense of comparing how much natural capital has been destroyed relative to the human inputs increasing the value of what has come out.  Yes, industrial products have made life better.  I don’t like being cold, wet, unable to communicate, and lacking in the comforts of modern society.  But as far as the business business is concerned, more is more, and quality is devalued.
 
To pontificate, I will talk about two things that get me excited, and I see as the key to the future:
  1. Relationships
    Where would you be without friends, family, co-workers, and fellow travelers?  Even the Little Prince (sorry) travels to meet others off B612 which is rather lacking in human atmosphere.  Steam and electricity have not annihilated distance as Cyrus Field proclaimed, just reduced its impact on us.  Strawberries in Buffalo year round!  Talk to Akhil in Dehli while lying on the grass in the Stanford Oval… wondrous things, but talking on the phone isn’t the same as being there in the living room sipping chai, and fruit flown from Chile isn’t a prundent use of resources (perhaps it would be better to fly yourself to Chile!).  The richness in life is in the connections, and by strengthening them, we’re likely to be happier, and healthier.  It seems somehow wrong that in 8 weeks of living in EV4, I barely got to know my roommates, let alone the girls in the other three apartments in the bungalow.
    The anomie of the suburbs and modern life just isn’t doing it for us, which is why I think there needs to be a turn away from ‘stuff’ and towards people.  A big HDTV is grand but it’s rather mindless to watch a movie and go to sleep, rather than staying up all night analyzing and discussing.  And certainly it’s really much more fun to go to Willard Straight theater to watch a silent movie with live accompaniment (and fun people in the audience to go to Hot Truck or CTB with after the show).
    While it seems strange that more enjoyment is had from a meal with friends than buying something durable, it makes sense to me.  I won’t forget going to Daniel with my grandparents, but most of the stuff I’ve bought is just stuff, it has no emotional value.
  2. Stuff
    There is good stuff out there, but there’s plenty of ‘noise’ in the sense of commodity grade stuff obscuring it.  I inherited a wonderful 1970s vintage Yamaha tuner/amp from my grandparents, and it delivers rich sound, is gloriously heavy, and looks like it will last forever, the front fascia being milled from aluminum rather than being flimsy injection molded plastic.  Sure it doesn’t have 8 channels of surround sound, and a new NAD or McIntosh tuner/amp would meet the same quality standards, but I don’t have one of those, and they cost more than dinner for four at Daniel!  Last week I was talking to Malte (a PhD student in design research at Stanford) about the disappearance of Quality, and he shared my sentiments.  Back in the day in West Germany, kids would save up for a good stereo–and get something worth the money (like his concrete record player).  Quality might be an ephemeral concept as Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but as Justice Potter Stewart would say, "I know it when I see it".
    When you walk in to Best Buy, there’s so much crap on the shelves, and the really good stuff is out of reach.  Maybe this isn’t a good model of business where everyone keeps buying cheap stuff and replacing it.  Have less, love it more.
    For this to work, we as a society need to reevaluate the market model, social structures everything.  If there’s less being produced (especially less low-quality goods made in third-world factories) there are going to have to be big changes to deal with the dislocations and employment shifts.  I’m not an economist or social theorist, but this is the kind of thing I think needs to be taken on.  Not making a decision is a decision, so let’s start thinking critically and reorganizing the world, starting with the stuff we own.  And if you haven’t seen Objectified, you should.

I’m still trying to figure out how I figure into this.  It’s a big thing, evaluating everything from industrial production and capitalism to culture, and passing value judgments.  In a sense it’s like the Amish way of looking at technology.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of time to think about this as I develop my thesis.

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The advent of Smarter Stuff

Smart Stuff is coming.  It will appear at Sears, and Best Buy, and Thayer Appliance, and then it will be in your home.  And that’s a good thing.
 
 
All of these energy-using appliances are necessarily on a diet, but there’s only so much more efficient they can get by internal means, such as more insulation and higher quality components.  By connecting to the grid, and receiving signals to throttle back their energy usage, they can autonomously shed load when it’s really necessary, and in most cases you won’t miss any of the performance.  If the refrigerator throttles back during the heat of the day when electric demand is at a peak, and lets the internal temperature go from 34F to 35F, the eggs won’t mind so much for an hour, and if everyone’s fridge does it, it might prevent a blackout, which makes everyone miserable, and everything in the freezer melt.
 
Adding people to the loop is the second frontier, and while a little more difficult really great resource savings can be realized.  At Stanford, a group has developed the Smart Switch, http://nudges.wordpress.com/two-stanford-students-rethink-the-light-switch/ which relates force to energy use, or whatever variable gets programmed into its microcontroller.  That’s pretty neat, and a lot more technology in that vein is coming down the wire, so to speak.  Brendan Wypich is a pretty cool guy and crackerjack designer,  and he has some other great things in his portfolio.
 
By placing people in the loop, it’s not just about throttling back the A/C when you won’t notice, but shaping behavior as well.  If it’s harder to flip the switch, you might not flip it, and even when it’s not peak usage time, your thought process might include an avoidance of turning on unnecessary lights.  The technology is persuading you to keep the electric bill down, in real time (as opposed to at the end of the month when the bill arrives), and this should do a much better job of it, being more temporally salient (a nudge at the right time has much greater effect than one not so close to real time..
 
The future is bright, in an efficiently lit way.