Viridian Note 00209: Doors of Perception

Bruce Sterling []

Key concepts
Doors of Perception conference, Amsterdam, green design, materiality, Viridian Grandfather Clause

Attention Conservation Notice: It's a speech at some Dutch design conference. Over 2,800 words.


The Hague is hosting the COP-6 climate conference, so that Dutch TV at my Amsterdam hotel was full of horrific weather calamities. The Dutch, being mostly subaqueous, have some strong opinions on rising sea levels and such. The Friends Of the Earth will helpfully build them a dike.

(((Viridian Contest Judge Natalie Jeremijenko was also at the Doors Conference, but we have no Viridian Neologue Contest winner just yet. Some song and dance about a vote count in Florida.)))

Bruce Sterling

Doors of Perception 6: Lightness Amsterdam, NL, November 11, 02000


Thanks for that kind introduction. Long live the Amsterdam-Austin Axis! I'd like to spend my time today briefly and directly addressing the topic of this conference.

Lightness is that which is slight, sparse, scant, and airy; which is minimal and ethereal. As opposed to that which is ponderous, earthy, weighty, hefty, dense, and onerous.

Ascetics are in favor of lightness. Mahatma Gandhi, who travelled lightly for many years during his long protest marches, pointed out that there is often enough for our needs, yet never enough for our greeds. Gandhi considered the urge to consume resources to be a wicked appetite that grows with the feeding. Buddhist asceticism holds that by destroying desire, one can destroy unhappiness. The ascended one, the en-lightened, will float weightlessly into nirvana, free of the karmic wheel. Ascetics believe that materiality is a spiritual problem.

The Platonic tradition says the genuine world is the light and perfect world of abstract analysis, while this merely physical world, this situation which seems so solid and intractable, is a blurry set of shadows on the cave wall.

In medieval Christian theology, the human soul is weightless and immortal, while human flesh is a corrupt sump of sinful and beastly desires.

Therefore we come to contemporary Green thinking, which is much younger than these other traditions, but bears their intellectual and spiritual stamp. Here we learn that industrial consumption is a form of false consciousness forced on us by late-capitalist advertisers. And that's very bad. The human ideal would be a firmly- rooted, nonviolent, rural community, devoid of crass gluttony and any alienating mediation, something perhaps like a Gandhian ashram, Brook Farm or the Susquehanna Phalanstery. It's hard to describe this ideal Green community any more clearly than that. It's very difficult to say what a Green world might look like if it were actual and physical. Although there are plenty of Greens around, nobody anywhere seems to be living in an everyday, normalized, sustainable manner == any more than Catholics can ever achieve perfect grace.

The contemporary Green critique of society has a number of problems, but one of its deepest is that it is countercultural. In other words, Green thinking requires majority resistance in order to nourish itself. It's really not much fun living in a Gandhian ashram, unless your spiritual virtuosity is being admired and resented by the corrupt imperialist oppressor. If the corrupt imperialist oppressor somehow ceases to exist, or if he simply picks up his obnoxious consumer toys and goes home, then it means your ruin. You quickly find, as Henry Thoreau did, that you are merely a rather verbose and well-educated peasant in a subsistence-level agricultural enterprise.

One might think that you would find a permanent sense of exalted self-realization by your communion with Nature, but Nature is not on the side of an elevated individual consciousness. On the contrary, Nature is entirely weighty and gross, and its primary means of communion are not syllogisms or mantras, but physical phenomena like mud, infection and rot. A state of Nature is a sublime freedom from civilization's many galling artificial constraints, but it's not merely that. The biosphere has many very pressing and serious physical constraints. Hunger is Nature's way of starving you. Pain is Nature's way of hurting you. Sickness and old age are Nature's way of making you die.

These approaches to Green virtue are problematic for the same reason. We Viridians like to call this "the Grandfather Clause." The Grandfather Clause is a form of Socratic dialogue in which my grandfather features prominently. My grandfather makes an exemplary character in a discussion of lightness because he is no longer with us.

We Viridians can agree with the assessment that there is never enough for our greeds, while our true needs can be amazingly modest. But my grandfather's needs are even more modest than yours. Why? Because he is dead.

Similarly, my grandfather feels no need to destroy his desires for the illusory and tempting things of Maya, because he has no desires. Because he's dead.

It's no use preaching a Christian sermon on self- restraint to my grandfather; he rests in peace now, he feels no lust, no greed, no envy of his neighbor's wife and goods, he cannot break any commandments.

It also follows directly that my grandfather is the ideal Green. He does not merely recycle his bottles and newspapers; he himself is being recycled. His home is small, modest and entirely earth-sheltered; it consumes no air conditioning, no electricity, no fresh water. There are no traffic jams, no two-car garage at his residence, and so on. Every single one of my grandfather's industrial design problems have been permanently solved.

Clearly there's a severe conceptual difficulty with ideals of human behavior in which dead people can trump anything live people can do.

Now let's consider an authority on lightness who does not flunk the Grandfather Clause: Buckminster Fuller. The declared goal of Buckminster Fuller is "to do more with less." Progress in engineering can be measured by the ability to accomplish desired ends with fewer resources, to get more done more lightly. The geodesic dome is his best-known example, but an even more apt one is Fuller's idea of an aerostat, a geodesic sphere so very thin and very light, so sparing in weight, that it literally floats away on a breeze.

Fuller was an engineer rather than a theologian, so his profession demands a human engagement with the gross material world. My grandfather can do less with less than Bucky Fuller can == but he can't do more with less. There Bucky is ahead of my grandfather, or he would be, if both of them weren't dead.

But let's not let Bucky escape critical assessment unscathed. The hidden problem with doing more with less is a problem inherent in doing anything. There's a vast hidden agenda in that two-letter word "do." If I know what I'm doing, then I can tailor my form more and more precisely and exactly to my function. I can create, let us say, a very advanced and extremely lightweight machine for living. But this leaves me no room and no role for aspects of life that lack a function. I can do, but I cannot just be.

Suppose that I require certain objects in my vicinity that are not functional. I consider them extensions of my being. My bronzed baby shoes, for example == those dense metallic fossils of my infancy.

A Modernist of the Le Corbusier school must launch a vigorous attack on these unnecessary objects, which interfere grossly with his program of minimal lightness. Le Corbusier once described them as "absurd bric-a-brac" or a "conglomeration of useless and disparate objects." Those are hard words for, let us say, a lock of my deceased grandfather's hair or a medal he won for bravery in the Normandy invasion. These material objects are not about my doing. They are about my being. Without me being around, the living flesh of my grandfather's flesh, they really are quite absurd. Men may live in Le Corbusier's machines, but as Napoleon used to say, men will die for trinkets. He who steals my Modernist apartment in the Radiant City steals trash, but he who steals my grandfather's hair and his medals is someone violently pruning away the vital structure of my personality.

Similarly, we have the Modernist battlecry that "ornament is crime." Ornament is very anti-lightness; it's unnecessary and objectionable bulk. Ornament lacks explicit function and consumes resources. People who avidly consume and obsess over ornaments (instead of obsessing over cool, useful things like architectural drafting tools) have no clear idea of their proper roles, their proper function and their proper position in an advanced society. They are neurotically obsessed with irrational clutter and therefore in a process of savage degeneration.

But this Adolf Loos doctrine also flunks the Grandfather Clause. Adolf Loos may think that doilies and antimacassars are the road to hell, but my grandfather is even more degenerate than that. He's not degenerate because of his fondness for kitsch; my grandfather is literally degenerating. His corpse is being devoured by microbes and vanishing into the biosphere in a messy, repugnant process of nutrient recovery. Once we cut to the chase and admit that people age, die, and rot, that they sag, that they go blind, they shave and cut their hair, clip their toenails, vomit and eliminate, it seems absurdly squeamish of us to worry about the cherubs on their fruit bowls.

Minimal lightness makes no provisions for decline and decay. Conflating mechanical efficiency with spiritual notions of ineffability, it wants a final Year Zero solution for a permanent now. Minimalist structures age very badly. A single rust speck, for instance, on the sleek bent chrome of a Marcel Breuer "Wassily chair" becomes a leprous and ruinous blemish. Modernist furniture is notoriously hard to keep house with because, although it's simple and streamlined, every imperfection shouts aggressively at you from across the room.

A tacky, overstuffed, bourgeois chair of wood and leather merely takes on character from time's abuse. Fake antiques are often beaten up with chains, because a beating makes them sexier. It's hard to imagine doing this to an Aeron chair.

Traditional homes are poorly engineered and inadequate; they sag, leak and groan. But ultralight architecture such as geodomes, membranes, thin shells and tensegrity structures tends to crumble like a fortune cookie. They degrade suddenly and gracelessly in nonlinear, catastrophic ways. As Stewart Brand points out in his book HOW BUILDINGS LEARN, geodesic domes cannot learn. They do so much with so little that there is nothing left to teach them. They make no provision for organic growth or human messiness. They have a perfect present and no future.

Modernist architecture, though it failed to take over the world, has some proven merits. It thrives especially in forms of shelter that are anonymous, impersonal and temporary. Places to do, not places to be. Airports especially. Concert halls, some especially daring museums. Anyplace where one can engage in a heroic odyssey on the high seas of consciousness with no time to spare for housekeeping.

Minimalism is reassuring and admirable in circumstances where we are surrounded by strangers. We do not want to share in their being, their stickiness, their grabbiness, their grossness. Thousands of individuals go through airport lounges and train seating. We don't want them leaving any residue and traces. If we are deprived of their being and their history, so much the better.

The same goes for sites of industrial assembly where human activity must be rigidly constrained and employees are eminently replaceable. The more replaceable people are, the more lightness is applauded.

Race cars tend to be light. It's often asked why a family home cannot offer the high-performance of a contemporary sports car. It seems like a reasonable thing to ask. The answer to this is found in vehicles that shelter families, such as SUVs, Winnebagos and trailer homes. These are ugly and dangerous cars. They do not merely shelter powerful engines and powerful engineers. They shelter organic entities, hairy primates who mate, become fecund, give visceral birth to their children, watch those children change radically in size and the sophistication of their incessant demands. Organic entities who grow older, more bent, more feeble, more deaf, and who die and pass from the earth. There are no single and optimal engineering solutions for these multiplex, time-bound, growthful and degenerative aspects of the human condition. When the house is finished, the family dies.

From the ancient past we have inherited a notion of lightness as a kind of divine intellectual spiderweb, a detached and timeless spiritual ribbing for our merely material world. To the extent that this idea is not a phantom, that is not lightness. In a biosphere, lightness must rot. It's a chimera to find and build ideal, perfect, divine solutions which survive indefinitely into the future. This presumes a future which shares our aims exactly and can never surpass our materials or our ingenuity. This phantasmal notion is not the future, this is an idealized mythos of the future which has been mistakenly conflated with Platonic abstraction and the Christian afterlife.

The Viridian suggestion would be that if you need a space of crypto-theological abstract detachment, then you should go buy a few megabytes of it and experience it hands-on. Because for the first time in history, there is plenty of it around. It's even cheap. Even though cyberspace meshes perfectly with ancient cultural archetypes of the afterlife or fairyland, a few years have managed to make it quite tedious, practical, and everyday. Many aspects of the digital world, such as disk defragmentation or website updating, are at least as domestic and unglamorous as washing dishes and sweeping floors. It's not sacred. It's profane, like any other industrial and commercial process.

The cybernetic realms of most severe detachment are wacky Platonist notions such as Artificial Intelligence. AI's are mythic, ontological entities akin to those you would find in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, if they existed, which they do not. Body-mind dualism is not to be demo'ed so easily. Alan Turing on a chip is a metaphysical conundrum, not an act of design.

Today, it seems like a fool's errand to abstract messy, neuron-rooted thought processes into machine code. The tenor of the times today is better suited to ideas such as "ubicomp," ubiquitous computing. In ubicomp, logic and bandwidth are deliberately and ritually embedded into ungainly, quotidian domestic objects such as shoes and refrigerators. We've come to want our computers to be less light, less abstract, more engaged, more tactile, more jewelry-like, more candy-like, more commensal, more a part of our being.

Let me speak now to the aspirations of the Viridian movement. Our goal is the very much the same as the goal of high Modernism at its most ambitious and extreme. Just like them, we are intent on redesigning and reshaping the surface of the Earth. Modernism wanted to do this for the sake of industrial efficiency, in order to liberate society from the sentimental clutter of parochial ignorance and squalor.

We Viridians lack their conviction and boldness. Rather than being fervent ideological overachievers, we would rather spend our time lounging in a hammock. In fact, lounging in a hammock is pretty much the Viridian default position. But we derive our nerve from the fact that we know we have no choice. We want to reshape the planet's infrastructure because we know that it is unsustainable. In particular, the fossil-fuel basis of transportation and electrical power is a clear and present danger to civilization. The contemporary status quo is not an option, because it cannot persist. So the planet's structure is quite certain to be radically rearranged, no matter what.

There are two ways in which this can happen. One is by the creation of a new and more advanced society with a profoundly different and more sophisticated engagement with its material processes. The other is a heedless or helpless society with its material structure radically and painfully altered by rising seas, heat waves and giant storms.

This is not a bipolar Utopia or Oblivion issue. These options will both happen at once, progressively driven on by one another. The Greenhouse Effect will be not be sudden and apocalyptic like a nuclear exchange. It will be chronic and debilitating, advancing in the same way that it has during the 1990s, remorselessly. Similarly, a densely networked, sustainable, post- Greenhouse society of enlightened materialism is not a Utopia. It's rather like what we have now, only not overtly bent on suicide. No doubt it will suffer many setbacks and commit many acts of what can only be called bad taste. These two worlds are in inverse ratio. The more we sweat now, the less we will bleed later. But we will both sweat and bleed. Let's use some Dutch terminology: it's windmills today or dikes tomorrow. We will have both windmills and dikes.

In the Viridian movement, we try to approach the destruction of the climate in the most squalid, worldly, plonkingly practical, non-metaphysical ways that we can. There are very few of us, and we don't pretend to any great influence. We are Greenhouse dissidents trying to become the change we want to see. We do this through Internet activism, because the limitations and the expectations on the Internet are the most poorly defined that our society has to offer at present. There is a lot of room there for vigorous experimentation. If you have some bandwidth, some concern with our issues, and some attention to spare, I would urge you to join us as we try to think, talk, feel and act our way away from abstraction and into a new and very different kind of cybernetic materialism.

Thanks very much.

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