Monday, December 01, 2008

Viridian is dead. Long live Viridian!

Last week I ran across Bruce Sterling's "Last Viridian Note", dated 19 November 02008, and declared by the scifi-writing design Pope-Emperor himself to be the final edition in his decade-long series of bright green missives, collectively aimed at "creating irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade".

It's no feeble "Thanks folks, I'm outta here", either, but a thoughtful, quietly powerful, personal manifesto -- a summation of where he's come from, in terms of his thinking and habits around sustainable design, and where he aspires next to go. So rarely is that wise dictum of the stage "always leave them wanting more" not overshadowed by the temptations of corporate, governmental, or brand immortality, that it's astonishing when any kind of human enterprise both deliberately and gracefully quits a still-viable role in affairs (though easier, no doubt, when it's a one-man show rather than a body of many parts ossified by time in the habits and expectations of thousands). In any case, kudos to Sterling for taking the less travelled if more dignified road of shutting down Viridian in its current form, before it outlives its usefulness, and chancing the move on to, as it were, greener pastures.

Those familiar with his work will not be surprised to learn that it's a terrific read. Sterling, more than most anyone, understands the intimate and essential connections between design, futures, and whatever you're doing right now. His thoughts here resonated deeply with me, so for those who don't plan to read the whole thing, at least check out the following excerpts.

Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn't do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.
What is "sustainability?" Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.
The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get.
You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

1. Beautiful things.
2. Emotionally important things.
3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
4. Everything else.

"Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year – this very likely belongs in "everything else."

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers' marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe – along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. "Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.
You are not "losing things" by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter – in the everyday.

Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years' resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today's. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process.
So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I'm not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it's not sustainable.
That discipline is not as hard as it sounds. As the design of your immediate surroundings improves, it'll become obvious to you that more and more of these time-sucking barnacles are just not up to your standards. They're ugly, or they're broken, or they're obsolete, or they are visible emblems of nasty, uncivilized material processes.
[Y]ou may be interested in my next, post-Viridian, project.
Viridian "imaginary products" were always a major theme of ours, and, since I'm both a science fiction writer and a design critic, I want to do some innovative work in this space – yes, the realm of imaginary products. Conceptual designs; imaginary designs; critical designs; fantastic and impossible designs.

This new effort of mine is a scholarly work exploring material culture, use-value, ethics, and the relationship between materiality and the imagination. However, since nobody's easily interested in that huge, grandiose topic, I'm disguising it as a nifty and attractive gadget book. I plan to call it "The User's Guide to Imaginary Gadgets."

(via Worldchanging)

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