On Defining a Post-Industrial Style (2): some precepts for industrial design

This is the point where peer-to-peer theory starts to become very important to our discussion. If we except the proposition that a design becomes a social construct through, basically, the reverse-engineering of the user experience and then add in the option for a community of users to pro-actively participate in that design evolution, then we are dealing with a peer-to-peer process of iterative design.

Yesterday, Eric Hunting present his ideas on the general evolution from industrial to post-industrial in the forms of design. Today, he delves into the specific precepts we can see emerging. (and tomorrow, we will feature the examples in the last part).

Eric Hunting:

“So what does this story have to tell us about Post-Industrial design?

Well, from the Industrial Ecology we get our first precept for a Post-Industrial design theory;

With the exception of very simple artifacts and elemental components, platforms supersede products. Many artifact forms can share a common platform, representing applications of the platform. Soon there may be few products. Just platforms and their applications.

Bruce Sterling recently characterized this principle with the concept of ‘spimes’, suggesting that in the near future we will all become ‘spime wranglers’. A spime is an artifact whose platform architecture becomes digitally enmeshed with its lifecycle so that, across all its instances as an artifact, it becomes self-aware of its use and lifecycle, feeding information back into its design and progressive evolution. So for every artifact there is a kind of digital network associated with it linking what users do with it to its original digital design. This design thus learns from all activity associated with its instance artifacts, evolving to self-optimize relative to the passive -and active- performance evaluation of its users. In effect, the artifact becomes a sensory organ for the digital design through which that design -as if it were an intelligent entity in and of itself- senses the satisfaction or frustration of the users and the impact on the environment, evolving itself to suit. We see the beginning of this kind of thing in software, where programs increasingly automatically feed back information about their use and failures with that information subsequently being used for -encoded into- later automatic software updates. Imagine if most everything in our environment worked this way, learning and evolving by our interaction with it.

In this notion we get yet another precept of Post-Industrial design theory;

Artifacts are static instances of an evolving design through which a design learns. A design thus has a lifecycle independent of, but in parallel to, the lifecycles of its instances. The intrinsic value of an instance of a design is quite tiny compared to the design itself as the embodiment of the collective knowledge -the genetic heritage- gathered through all its instances. Deliberate variant designs may be owned but primary designs -platforms- exist as a community resource evolved from the encoded contributed experience of their users. This is the basic meaning of Open Source.

This is actually a pre-industrial idea. Before Industrial Age culture’s obsession with everything being owned by someone somewhere, no one individually owned the designs of artifacts. Once they came into common use, designs became cultural knowledge constantly communicated across communities and refined by the feedback of users who were also often their producers. And so there is a kind of organically evolved perfection in the designs of early artifacts rarely seen in products of the present. However, this is beginning to re-emerge as digital technology gives our artifacts feedback networks to their virtually-embodied designs. This is a common feature of Post-Industrial culture; a re-discovery of certain pre-industrial paradigms within the context of new technology.

Now, the notion of spimes is not entirely passive, given the limitations of the artifact alone as a sensory system of the user experience and environmental impact. And so these same networks of feedback will be employed for active communication from users and communities as well, imposing design specifications for reasons other than performance -particularly environmental and safety. We see this today in the form of users groups, customer review forums, standards committees, and occasionally government regulatory control. In the near future, as production continues to demassify and localize, local and personal customization of designs will become commonplace and function like a deliberate experimentation in the genetics of platforms. Most everyone will actively engage in this as a consequence of their compulsion to personalize things.

This brings us to another precept;

Though often initiated by individuals, designs persist as social constructs. A successful design invites customization. Like a culture, a design that resists or has stopped evolving is obsolete. Dead.

This is the point where peer-to-peer theory starts to become very important to our discussion. If we except the proposition that a design becomes a social construct through, basically, the reverse-engineering of the user experience and then add in the option for a community of users to pro-actively participate in that design evolution, then we are dealing with a peer-to-peer process of iterative design. For this to work the network entity that represents a spime must be structured in such a way that the communication it facilitates is multidirectional. It must become a social network of sorts. Remember how, in the computer industry’s industrial ecology, it became necessary for information to flow not just from the top-down but in all directions because, ultimately, innovation could be generated at any level of the food chain with impact spreading out to all levels? Well, this is also true in the network of a spime. A spime is not simply a linear link from user to design. It’s is a chain-link through the larger network of the collective industrial ecology of every component that goes into it -and through them bridging to every other spime associated with any other artifact’s platform -and their individual social networks. All design, all industry, all technology thus begins to merge as a peer-to-peer system. It’s easy to see, then, how Sterling can suggest that, in the future, we’ll be spending most of our time spime wrangling.

Tool Adaption:

As we noted earlier, the dominant tools a culture uses impacts the possible practical design. Contemporary design has largely disconnected itself from the nature of the dominant tools to such an extreme that many less conscientious designers have little knowledge of how the things they design are actually made -and in the long run the end-user even less. This is possible because the flexibility of a few key contemporary manufacturing processes is so great. One of the key aspects of this industrial flexibility is scale. We have seen a growth in diversity of blobject-type products not just because of the growing economy of their development but also because molding technology has afforded a steady increase in the maximum scale and topological complexity of objects these processes can handle. In 1955, when the Regency TR-1 appeared with its small two-piece injection-molded plastic case, that was about the average size of anything made with that production process. At the time such cases were relatively new and is was still more common for consumer electronics to employ pressed metals, pressed plastics, wood and wood composites, hard leather, and even coated forms of cardboard for enclosures. Larger appliances and products relied almost entirely on pressed sheet steel using techniques common to the auto industry -this as an improvement over the earlier reliance on woodcraft. By 1985, injection molding had reached a point where quite large and complex single piece objects were becoming possible, the largest at the time, at 1.75m long, being the body of the ill-conceived Sinclair C5 electric vehicle. With the introduction of rotomolding exceptionally large plastic structures have become increasingly practical, such as hot tubs, large chemical and water tanks many meters high and wide, and simple shelters. With such plastic tanks already being repurposed for utilitarian shelters, one can expect entire roto-molded cabins of significant size in the near future.

Such feats are very dependent on the nature of production facilities, which with centralized production evolved to become exceptionally large -as big as towns with some industries. It is of little importance for such facilities that typical machines like the sheet steel press could commonly be three storeys high. But with the progressive miniaturization of machine tool technology and the progressive localization of production, practical limitations in scale appear and new approaches to design become necessary to realize products of scale using smaller tools. As noted earlier, we characterize the Post-Industrial culture, in part, by its reliance on a new spectrum of miniaturized machine tools used in a local -potentially personal- context. Here the mode of production is demand-driven and highly diverse. Typical Industrial Age factories could specialize huge facilities for the production of just one product. But the Post-Industrial fabrication shop of the near future seeks to produce the full spectrum of artifacts supporting a high standard of living within the confines of a single small facility. Thus the miniaturization of the production facility must impact the approach to design in order that artifacts of large size and great diversity can be made.

Interestingly, a similar problem exists for the visionaries of prospective space habitats. In order for human beings to ultimately inhabit space, we will need to be able to deploy a complete industrial infrastructure there. But there’s a key limitation. One cannot easily precision-fabricate artifacts in the ambient environment of space. Thus, by logical extension, one cannot precision-fabricate anything in space that you cannot fit through a pressure hatch. Because of this simple fact it becomes very easy to discern the difference between plausible and implausible proposals of space habitats by virtue of the visual indications of how they are made. If they look, for instance, like they appear to be made in the fashion of a conventional air liner it is safe to assume they are implausible because they would need a pressurized enclosure bigger than they are to make them in with some kind of pressure hatch large enough for them to pass through whole. However, modular structures -particularly those based on space frames- are obviously more plausible because they break down into a series of small modular components one might make in the confined spaces of a habitat, easily get through some modest-sized hatchway, and assemble simply in the ambient space environment -most likely with some robotic assistance of limited dexterity.

We can apply this same logic to the design of Post-Industrial artifacts based on a similar limitation in the scale of the independent fabrication workshop. Practical products of the local ‘fab shop’ must, by necessity, limit the maximum scale of any monolithic component, will favor modularity, and will favor employ of multi-functionality in components. This also suits the logic of the ‘prosumer’ who is seeking to optimize the ease of production of an artifact he is often making for his own use.

This brings us to our next precept;

By virtue of the dimensional limits resulting from the miniaturization of fabrication systems, Post-Industrial design favors modularity following a strategy of maximum diversity of function from a minimum diversity of parts and materials -Min-A-Max.

As a consequence of this when combined with the tendency of Post-Industrial artifacts to be based on platforms rather than discrete self-contained non-evolving designs we derive yet another precept;

Post-industrial artifacts tend to exhibit the characteristic of perpetual demountability, leading to ready adaptive reuse, repairability, upgradeability, and recyclability. By extension, they compartmentalize failure and obsolescence to discrete demountable components. A large Post-Industrial artifact can potentially live for as long as its platform can evolve -potentially forever.

A scary prospect for the conventional manufacturer banking on the practice of planned obsolescence, but then Post-Industrial production isn’t concerned with a profit motive. It is concerned with maximum yield in productivity for the prosumer. Essentially, a prosumer seeks a maximum quality of life by maximizing his labor yield in the support of a given standard of living. All profit equates to time from people’s lives. A Post-Industrial culture seeks to exploit demassification, localization, and ultimately personalization of industrial production as a means to recover the personal time lost to other people’s profit in an Industrial Age consumer culture where you never get paid what you’re worth and you never get your money’s worth on anything you buy. That potential dividend is huge, especially if the productivity leverage of automation if fully implemented to that end. This is why discussions of Post-Industrial cultural emergence often revolve around such concepts as post-scarcity, cashless economics, and the job-less lifestyle. We foresee a point where maintaining a high standard of living requires about as much attention and effort as running a free web server.

Lifecycle, Resources, and Impact:

Another key characteristic of Industrial Age design concerns materials and the progressive shift across the past century from the natural to the synthetic and then to the increasingly complex synthetic in the spectrum of materials employed in manufactured goods. Until quite recently, this transition has been accompanied by a shift from the recyclable and biodegradable toward the non-recyclable, and non-biodegraseable, though the general concern for such things at all is fairly recent in industry. They have always had somewhere else to unload waste -even if the search for that place as increasingly approached the point of absurdity. The driving force behind this progression toward the synthetic has been both the compulsion to eliminate hand labor processes through molding techniques and costs. As we’ve depleted many common materials, industry has sought to use them increasingly efficiently (well, efficiently from the context of only one side of the equation…) to keep costs down. Wood is a good example of this. From the start of the 20th century on there has been a compulsion to find ways for the total utilization of lumber to maximize the value of the raw timber. This resulted in a trend in mainstream American housing that first saw traditional post and beam construction supplanted by light ‘stick’ frame, then saw that stick framing increasingly replaced by composite or engineered lumber, and now sees a growing use of Structural Insulated Panels that are a sandwich of plastic foam and oriented strand board. The modern house is evolving from a structure of wood to high-tech papier mache and, increasingly, plastics are being introduced. In the form of fiber-reinforced plastic extrusions, they are now even taking a structure role. People once scoffed at the Monsanto plastic house of the future at Disneyland, and yet this is exactly where we are today -even if we prefer to hide that reality behind drywall and paint. Plastic represents the most complete use of the lumber resource with an indifference to lumber quality (which is deteriorating worldwide due to over-harvesting and artificially accelerated tree growth) when it’s being reduced to raw cellulose. On the positive side, this is bringing an end to the need for actually sourcing that cellulose from trees at all, allowing utilization of more quickly renewable plant sources like bamboo. But on the negative side the resulting composites and plastics are commonly less easily recyclable. Home renovation is a major source of landfill waste.

In the Post-Industrial production context, waste becomes a local problem that cannot be avoided by the local producer. They don’t have the luxury of putting tons of trash on barges to send to distant economically disadvantaged communities out of sight and mind of the genteel folks. It also becomes a resource as the detritus of the Industrial Age can prove a valuable source of cheap raw materials for the imaginative. Early proponents of Post-Industrial theory and culture also tended to be strong proponents of the concept of adaptive reuse, seeking to employ industrial and architectural cast-offs in novel ways. The new designer/prosumer must be much more concerned about the whole lifecycle of artifacts, the management of waste as key to one’s net productivity as any method of fabrication.

This brings us to our last precept;

An effective design anticipates a lifecycle hierarchy defined by direct reuse, adaptive-reuse, upcycling, recycling, biodegradeability, and finally ultimate waste. Materials are chosen with this lifescycle in mind, thus favoring designs that use -and venerate- materials in simple unadulterated forms wherever possible. Paint and glue are sins.

This notion parallels the idea of employing modular component systems as direct reuse is the most efficient form of recycling. We can anticipate that common Post-Industrial artifacts will tend to rely more on mechanical assembly and feature far smaller spectrums of simpler materials where possible to accommodate other modes of reuse and recycling. Recycling technology tends to lag far behind other areas of advance in industrial technology. It has so long been such an overlooked aspect of industry that, even at the large and primitive Industrial Age scale of things it remains nascent. it may be some time for this technology to catch-up at the localized production scale. And so one must manage waste on the front-end; by the choice of materials and a conscious limitation on applications/decorations that hamper their recycling. Thus Post-Industrial design anticipates not just some product lifecycle but the total materials lifecycle. Being forced to live with one’s own trash is an important impetus for thinking smarter about it.