Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why We Work

A big thank-you to Ran Prieur for a shout-out on his blog. I found Ran's blog the way everybody does, through the essay How To Drop Out. The point of that essay is one that people should heed - dropping out is not an all-or-nothing proposition. We tend to be an all-or-nothing culture. Take what is useful, discard the rest, be the controller of your own destiny, don't be told what to do. As Dmitry Orlov put it recently, "mainstream culture is a sewer; it's all about living at the margins."

Directly related to theme of Ran’s post is this quote from a famous computer designer I posted a few weeks back:
Ralph Baer, who turns 90 this year, discusses his life's work, which includes creating the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, and the iconic pattern game Simon. When people ask him why he's still inventing, he says "I'm basically an artist. I'm no different from a painter, who sits there and does what he loves. Would you ask a guy who's been painting his whole life, 'why do you keep painting? Why don't you retire?' Retire to what?"
I don’t give much credence to the idea that we need to be forced into artificial cubicle jobs and 40 hour work weeks to progress as a society. In fact, I think our economic system actually retards our progress. Typically the thing that always holds a good idea back is how will it be paid for? If people were able to do what they were put on earth to do without the constraint of constantly figuring out how to make a buck off it upfront, or the coercion of having to make the monthly nut we could do so much more as individuals and as a civilization. The point of the above quote is to show that no matter what the endeavor, there are people passionate about doing it and will do it by choice no matter what. And they will do it better than people who are being forced to do it to earn a paycheck! There are people who just inherently love to design video games. They will do it by choice, even if they don’t have to, even if they have all the money on the world. And there are people just like this in every conceivable field – there are people who love to make scientific discoveries just for the pleasure of discovery (in fact, this is how science began – think of it – institutional science is a recent creation; no one was forcing science’s fundamental discoveries by making people work in labs for money). I know engineers who volunteer their time to build water collection systems for villages in Central America. There are people who tinker in labs; people are even building biohacking spaces in their garages for fun! A while back, an unemployed Swedish man with an interest in nuclear physics decided he wanted to put a reactor together in his apartment kitchen! And there are people like that, with natural passions and abilities in every conceivable area of human activity – engineering, quantum physics, astronomy, information technology, artificial intelligence, materials science, water purification, solar power, automobile design, alternative fuels, biology, medicine. Add to that drawing, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, literature, agriculture. You could probably find a similar quote to the above for every truly brilliant thinker who really advanced the human condition (as distinguished from the businessman who profited form it)*. Money was certainly no motivation for people like Newton, Boyle, Tesla, Einstein, Bucky Fuller or Bill Mollison. In fact, in the annals of discovery, you find very few that were motivated by pecuniary gain alone. Look no further than the open source movement, Habitat for Humanity and WWOOF to see what we’re capable of.** Instead we have to conform our natural passions, interests and hobbies to the needs of “the economy,” whatever they may be. So we end up in weekly sales meetings figuring out how to make people buy more hamburgers or how to sell yet another variety of laundry detergent. And we’re supposed to believe this is the driver of progress? Hogwash!

Most of the architects I know went into architecture school because we love to design truly innovative and beautiful buildings and spaces. Very few of us get to do that. What we end up doing is pouring over spreadsheets and haggling over every nickel and dime in stripped-down bare-bones budgets. And of course such buildings serve the needs of already entrenched institutions - another strip mall, another office tower, another expensive trophy building for a university that will hike students’ tuition to pay for it. It boggles the mind what we could accomplish as a species if the human mind were freed from the constraints of the glorified accounting system we call the economy. Of course we live in a world of constraints – energy, materials, water, time, space, etc. But we create the artificial constraint of money which may be the most limiting constraint of all. All sorts of creative and innovative projects die on the drafting boards for lack of funds. Those of you reading this in the creative professions will know what I’m talking about; those of you who are not have no idea how much brilliance is out there inside the minds of your fellow humans that could make this world a quasi-paradise if it didn’t have to wither and die on the vine in a world where short-term profit is the only driver of “progress.” “Will it sell?” is the starting and ending point for every endeavor we undertake. Is it any wonder, then, why we’ve stagnated artistically, socially and culturally (and now, ironically – economically)?

Half the time and difficulty of any modern endeavor is “fund raising” – essentially begging for droppings from the tables of the already wealthy. The fact that anything is undertaken at all is a testament to the human spirit, poking up through the cracks in our overweening, oppressive economic system like dandelions from the between cracks in a concrete parking lot. Outdoor classrooms, space elevators, a buffalo commons across the Midwest, replanting the Sahara with trees, Permaculture/agroforestry bands across Africa, resurrecting extinct species, biological water filtration, mycoremiediation - the list is almost endless. Pick up any book by Buckminster Fuller, or visit the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for even more ideas. To cite only the most recent one I’ve seen, take a look at this beautiful design for a bamboo dormitory by BRIO architects. I assume, since I see no as-built photos, that it did not make it past the virtual drafting board. And there are literally millions of projects like this, across the world, that have not and will never see the light of day. I’ve seen so many, and hardly ever of them ever get made. The vast majority are not designed for profit, or at the behest of some company, many are not even paid for. All that creativity is essentially wasted. It is what I call the creative surplus – we have far more creativity in the minds of our fellow humans than we can reasonably deploy, thanks to the artificial constraints of “the economy”. What’s holding back walkable cities, sustainable agriculture and a post-carbon economy? Many things, but creativity and curiosity aren’t among them.

So the next time someone tells you that cublicles full of unhappy workers slaving away 40 hour weeks is what’s to thank for our “high” living standards, you can be secure in the knowledge that it’s all so much propaganda. You don’t have to force people to do things they don’t want to do. That’s never driven true progress – it’s only driven the fortunes of those on top of the pyramid.

* When asked why he chose to do medical research rather than be a practicing physician, Jonas Salk answered "Why did Mozart compose music?" (

** And Médecins Sans Frontières, Architecture for Humanity, Engineers Without Borders, the Victory Garden Initiative (to include a few I've been associated with), the list is endless. Too bad they’re all considered “charities.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the introduction to Ran. But you two are so prolific, I'm never going to get anything done around here!