Systems Design: Oppressive or Liberating?
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Anyone over the age of 30 probably remembers life before cell phones, the internet, and shit, life before Microsoft Windows.
We remember archaic things like landlines before there were cordless phones - and when cordless phones came out you had to constantly recharge them.
We remember ancient computers like the TRS-80, what we called the trashcan-80.
And the Apple II.
My mom, a computer guru, nerd, systems administrator had one of these dinosaurs.
We played games on them - games that today's kids would probably find lame and boring (but somehow we were entertained). I wrote some of my early stories at school on them.
I still remember those damn dot-matrix printers. I remember, in a somewhat OCD-fashion, ripping the perforated edges off of the printed pieces of paper.
What all of this means with our high-speed connections, cell phones, and well Moore's Law in general, is that systems design has made life a lot easier.
My father is a mechanic and he steadfastly believes that the fact the internal combustion engine (ICE) is still used is a conspiracy by automakers and oil companies. It seems Moore forgot something.
I feel the same about capitalism and modern industrialism in general. There is a conspiracy - that is people conspire to preserve these barbaric systems with detestable design flaws.
Just look at healthcare. As a state senator for Illinois, Obama said he was for "single-payer." And he said once the Democrats control Congress and the White House we would get it. Now they control the legislative and executive branch and single-payer is "off the table." Try putting it on the table and you will go to jail. Now Obama says the existing system is too entrenched to start from scratch - as if that is really the case. His solution and those of his corporatist constituencies in Congress is to continue the problem (private insurance). Their logic is if private insurance is too costly and inefficient then let's make it a law that everyone must purchase it or face a fine from the government. WTF? They throw bones to the progressive leftists with their cheap rhetoric about "public option" but closer examination of the "co-ops" reveals they are a sham.
Healthcare reform in America does not need reform. It needs to be redesigned, overhauled, and remade completely. We already have a proven blueprint of what design works: single-payer. It is cheaper, more effective and would cover all. If Medicare could be started in the mid-1960s (when there were no computers) in a manner of months, then extending it to everyone in our technological age should be as easy as a click of a mouse.
We see the same issue in capitalism where the design mechanisms of private enterprise and markets produce systemic injustices. Reforming it to slow down its exploitative forces is good in the short term but in the long term we are just prolonging the inevitable, and possibly hiding those oppressive forces, thus making the needed redesign less likely. It's kind of a catch-22. And it is the undemocratic, anti-social and inhuman features of capitalism that sparked Participatory Economics response with the alternative of social ownership, participatory planning, remunerative justice and balanced job complexes.
While capitalism exploited the working and peasant classes, modern industrialism has wreaked havoc on the environment. It has worked closely with capitalism and imperialism - feeding more growth domestically for the empire (and distributing those costs and benefits inequitably - privatizing profits and socializing losses) and exporting resources from the colonies in order to accumulate and grow bigger and bigger.
Nature rests on a diverse and superior design system. It is an interdependent system where countless organisms produce more than what is needed to sustain themselves. They take nutrients and resources but regenerate them back in ways where waste equals food.
In what could only be called poetic injustice, industrialism, on the other hand, sees nature as "wild." It needs to be conquered and tamed. We are backing ourselves up against a wall. We need nature but so long as we refuse to reciprocate in the cycle of life she don't need us. This tug-o-war will not end in our favor. We may turn out to be the first domestic cause of a mass extinction, but life will return and evolution will carry out Nature's design system until the Sun swells up on its way to becoming a red giant and life ceases to be on this orbiting rock.
This is why William McDonough and Michael Braungart, an architect and a chemist, have proposed a new design system consistent with Nature's design: Cradle to Cradle. As they see it, modern industrialism rests on the notion of Cradle to Grave - we take but don't put back. They have been focusing their energies on revolutionizing industrial design in ways that are interdependent with nature - that is to incorporate industrialism back into ecology.
This - capitalism, imperialism and industrial design - brings us to agriculture. Capitalism and imperialism says what gets made and where it goes. Coupled with industrialisms depleting practices (monoculture in particular) has left a billion people starving while peasants grow produce for agro-fuel or animal feed (which may then be slaughtered to be turned into more animal feed like a lamb is to dog food). Land and water, which may be used to grow foodstuffs, are being cleared for raising cattle, as is the case in Brazil where slaughtered animals are sent to China to fuel their changing diet.
All of this aggravates social injustices and further compounds the environmental problems we face. One response to modern globalization has come from Via Campesina and their message has been food sovereignty - the idea that local farmers using permacultural practices ought to control their food systems. Coupled with participatory economics and Cradle to Cradle, this would be greatly needed to restore social and ecological justice and democracy.
So why isn't this the case?
It's as if we are stuck in a DOS-world despite Windows being right outside our window. In the preface to Rudolph Rocker's Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, the American social commentator and notorious gadfly, Noam Chomsky, noted that, "The lessons of history teach us a good deal, but nothing more clearly than the fact that we often remain quite unaware of the forms of oppression of which we are victims, or sometimes agents, until social struggles liberates our consciousness and understanding."