Viridian Note 00209: Doors of PerceptionBruce Sterling [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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. http://cop6.unfccc.int/ The Dutch, being mostly subaqueous, have some strong opinions on rising sea levels and such. http://www.climatechange2000.org The Friends Of the Earth will helpfully build them a dike. http://www.foeeurope.org/dike/home.htm
(((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 email@example.com
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Thanks very much.
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O