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The Last Viridian Note

By Bruce Sterling

Recent events have clearly established that the character of the times has changed. The Viridian Design Movement was founded in distant 1999. After the years transpiring – various disasters, wars, financial collapses and a major change in political tone – the world has become a different place.

It remains only to close the Viridian episode gracefully, and to conclude with a few meditative suggestions.

As I explained in the first Viridian speech, any design movement – social movements of any kind, really – should be designed with an explicit expiration date. The year 2012 would have been the extreme to which Viridian could have persisted. Since the course of history has grown quite jittery, this longer term was spared us.

Some Viridian principles can be lightly re-phrased, buffed-up and likely made of practical use in days to come. Others are period notions to be gently tossed into the cultural compost. I could try to describe which are which – but that's a proper job for someone younger.

I'm following current events with keen interest. There's never been a better time for major political and financial interventions in the green space. However, Viridian List is about design interventions, it was not about politics or finance, so a decent reticence is in order at this juncture.

I would like to cordially thank Viridian readers and contributors and advisors for their patience and their generous help over nine years. I hope you feel you derived some benefit from it. I did my best with the effort, I learned a lot by it, and I'm pleased with how it turned out.

I can't say what Viridian may have done for you; that's up to you to judge. Since this is last Viridian note, however, I'd like to describe what Viridian did for me.

Since the halcyon days of 1999 my life has changed radically.

Rather than "thinking globally and acting locally," as in the old futurist theme, I now live and think glocally. I once had a stable, settled life within a single city, state and nation. Nowadays, I divide my time between three different polities: the United States, the European Union and the Balkans. With various junkets elsewhere.

The 400-year-old Westphalian System doesn't approve of my lifestyle, although it's increasingly common, especially among people half my age. It's stressful to live glocally. Not that I myself feel stressed by this. As long as I've got broadband, I'm perfectly at ease with the fact that my position on the planet's surface is arbitrary. It's the nation-state system that is visibly stressed by these changes – it's freaking out over currency flows, migration through airports, offshoring, and similar phenomena.

I know that, by the cultural standards of the 20th century, my newfangled glocal lifestyle ought to bother me. I ought to feel deracinated, and I should suffer from culture shock, and I should stoically endure the mournful silence and exile of a writer torn from the kindly matrix of his national culture. A traditional story.

However, I've been at this life for years now; I really tried; the traditional regret is just not happening. Clearly the existence of the net has obliterated many former operational difficulties.

Furthermore, my sensibility no longer operates in that 20th-century framework. That's become an archaic way to feel, and I just can't get there from here.

Living on the entire planet at once is no longer a major challenge. It's got its practical drawbacks, but I'm much more perturbed about contemporary indignities such as airport terrorspaces, ATM surchanges and the open banditry of cellphone roaming. This is what's troublesome. The rest of it, I'm rather at ease about. Unless I'm physically restrained by some bureaucracy, I don't think I'm going to stop this glocally nomadic life. I live on the Earth. The Earth is a planet. This fact is okay. I am living in truth.

Another major change came through my consumption habits. It pains me to see certain people still trying to live in hairshirt-green fashion – purportedly mindful, and thrifty and modest. I used to tolerate this eccentricity, but now that panicked bankers and venture capitalists are also trying to cling like leeches to every last shred of their wealth, I can finally see it as actively pernicious.

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.

My personal relations to goods and services – especially goods – have been revolutionized since 1999. Let me try your patience by describing this change in some detail, because it really is a different mode of being in the world.

My design book SHAPING THINGS, which is very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball, talks a lot about material objects as frozen social relationships within space and time. This conceptual approach may sound peculiar and alien, but it can be re-phrased in a simpler way.

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.

In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It's not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

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. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed – (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

Sell – even give away– anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

Expensive clothing is generally designed to make you look like an aristocrat who can afford couture. Unless you are a celebrity on professional display, forget this consumer theatricality. You should buy relatively-expensive clothing that is ergonomic, high-performance and sturdy.

Anything placed next to your skin for long periods is of high priority. Shoes are notorious sources of pain and stress and subjected to great mechanical wear. You really need to work on selecting these – yes, on "shopping for shoes." You should spend more time on shoes than you do on cars, unless you're in a car during pretty much every waking moment. In which case, God help you.

I strongly recommend that you carry a multitool. There are dozens of species of these remarkable devices now, and for good reason. Do not show them off in a beltpack, because this marks you as a poorly-socialized geek. Keep your multitool hidden in the same discreet way that you would any other set of keys.

That's because a multitool IS a set of keys. It's a set of possible creative interventions in your immediate material environment. That is why you want a multitool. They are empowering.

A multitool changes your perceptions of the world. Since you lack your previous untooled learned-helplessness, you will slowly find yourself becoming more capable and more observant. If you have pocket-scissors, you will notice loose threads; if you have a small knife you will notice bad packaging; if you have a file you will notice flashing, metallic burrs, and bad joinery. If you have tweezers you can help injured children, while if you have a pen, you will take notes. Tools in your space, saving your time. A multitool is a design education.

As a further important development, you will become known to your friends and colleagues as someone who is capable, useful and resourceful, rather than someone who is helpless, frustrated and visibly lacking in options. You should aspire to this better condition.

Do not lug around an enormous toolchest or a full set of post-earthquake gear unless you are Stewart Brand. Furthermore, unless you are a professional emergency worker, you can abstain from post-apocalyptic "bug-out bags" and omnicompetent heaps of survivalist rations. Do not stock the fort with tiresome, life-consuming, freeze-dried everything, unless you can clearly sense the visible approach of some massive, non-theoretical civil disorder. The clearest way to know that one of these is coming is that the rich people have left your area. If that's the case, then, sure, go befriend the police and prepare to knuckle down.

Now to confront the possessions you already have. This will require serious design work, and this will be painful. It is a good idea to get a friend or several friends to help you.

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.

Beautiful things are important. If they're truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

They're not really that beautiful? Then they're not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can't bear to part with. We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss – they don't help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then – yes – away with it.

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.

Now for category three, tools and appliances. They're not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

Is your home a museum? Do you have curatorial skills? If not, then entropy is attacking everything in there. Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

You will be told that you should "make do" with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

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. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely "non-materialistic." There is nothing more "materialistic" than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

Now for a brief homily on tools and appliances of especial Viridian interest: the experimental ones. The world is full of complicated, time-sucking, partially-functional beta-rollout gizmos. Some are fun to mess with; fun in life is important. Others are whimsical; whimsy is okay. Eagerly collecting semifunctional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny, this activity is not the worst thing in the world. However, it can become a vice. If you are going to wrangle with unstable, poorly-defined, avant-garde tech objects, then you really need to wrangle them. Get good at doing it.

Good experiments are well-designed experiments. Real experiments need a theory. They need something to prove or disprove. Experiments need to be slotted into some larger context of research, and their results need to be communicated to other practitioners. That's what makes them true "experiments" instead of private fetishes.

If you're buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. You also need to tell other people useful things about it. If you are truly experimenting, then you are doing something praiseworthy. You may be wasting some space and time, but you'll be saving space and time for others less adventurous. Good.

If you're becoming a techie magpie packrat who never leaves your couch – that's not good. Forget the shiny gadget. You need to look in the shiny mirror.

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.

Instead, I am urging you to think hard about it. Tuck it into the back of your mind. Contemplate it. The day is going to come, it will come, when you suddenly find your comfortable habits disrupted.

That could be a new job, a transfer to a new city, a marriage, the birth or departure of a child. It could be a death in the family: we are mortal, they happen. Moments like these are part of the human condition. Suddenly you will find yourself facing a yawning door and a whole bunch of empty boxes. That is the moment in which you should launch this sudden, much-considered coup. Seize that moment on the barricades, liberate yourself, and establish a new and sustainable constitution.

But – you may well ask – what if I backslide into the ancien regime? Well, there is a form of hygiene workable here as well. Every time you move some new object into your time and space – buy it, receive it as a gift, inherit it, whatever – remove some equivalent object.

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.

Their blissful absence from your life makes new time and space for something better for you – and for the changed world you want to live to see.

So: that summarizes it. Forgive the Pope-Emperor this last comprehensive sermon; it is what I learned by doing all this, and you won't be troubled henceforth.


Now. If you've read this far, you're a diehard. So you may be interested in my next, post-Viridian, project. And yes, of course I have one. It's not so direct, confrontational and strident as the Viridian Movement; instead, it suits a guy of my increasingly scholastic and professorial temperament.

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."

My first step in composing this new book is to methodically survey the space of all possible imaginary gadgets. It's rather like the exploratory work of "Dead Media Project."

I'm not yet sure what form this new research effort will take. There will likely be a mailing list. I may be turning my Wired blog into something of a gadget site. There might be a wiki or a social network, depending on who wants to help me, and what they want out of that effort. Still: "design fiction," "critical design," "futurist scenario design," and the personal, individual, pocket-and-purse sized approach to postindustriality: this is something I need to know a lot more about.

If you want to play, send email.

Bruce Sterling
bruces [at] well.com

Originally distributed to the Viridian email list and posted at the Viridian Design web site.

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Comments

This is like a modernist version of Ruskin, isn't it? As if he'd fallen in with the right bad crowd to shake out his sex-denial and tech dread.


Posted by: Alex on 20 Nov 08

Hear hear. This sounds like quite an urban dream though; whatever will the subburbs think?

As for multitools, can we make them intelligent and GPS-enabled? When I carve my loved one's initials next to mine inside a heart cut into a tree, I want it geo-tagged, snapped, and uploaded to online maps too.


Posted by: scot on 20 Nov 08

Bruce, when I first heard you speak at the IDSA in Chicago 99' I was an aspiring ID'er working in Redmond for the big MS (I did not become wealthy in the bank) but I did become wealthy in the brain because I was exposed to great experiences...that changed my life for ever.

Today I also live in the whole planet but reside in the Chilean Patagonia with clients all over our spaceship. I document everything on wiki's and try and publish my learnings in a few blogs I run.

As an experienced ID'er and eco-designer I can say that I am an expert in product design and was so disappointed when I attended that latest IDSA conference in AZ. Yes there are some great award wining products but still 95% of all manufactured goods (even award winners) are badly designed, even stuff from our "poster boys" like Berhar and others...

I mean who really needs an injection molded (recycled plastic) salad mixer that uses up a lot of space and a lot of water to clean. Or an eccentric LED leaflamp (that can be recycled) but cost $500+???

The more I think about products like this, the more I wonder how much creativity and designstein knowledge is wasted on consumerist initiatives like this, not to mention way more ridiculous products like shaving razors with 3-4-5 blades.

well, needless to say you can count me in to donate some of my time which as you already know is the most precious resource we humans have.


Posted by: stiven on 20 Nov 08

This was a very interesting read. Especially being one of the 'younger' who, as it said, better suited for determining which Viridian causes are obsolete and which still hold truth, this is an extremely insightful article. I never heard of the Viridian before but I recently went through all the steps described above, simply due to the understanding that having light but powerful baggage allows me to move more freely and safely through the coming world.

The only thing I'm missing is whether anything written here (not in the ideals of Viridian) is to be abandoned for the future? This all seems like sound advice to be upheld rather than rethought but I'd be quite grateful if someone can enlighten me more.


Posted by: Jonas Marczy on 20 Nov 08

Bravo.

My young intellect was rolled and milled in the 1970s by the Whole Earth Catalog and it's offspring. Three decades later I find myself trapped in a suburban home immersed in debt and closets full of useless STUFF.

I was inspired by the Viridian movement prior to 2000. But that line of thinking was blown right off the road by eight years of antiwar protest and near-total involvement fighting rearguard political actions.

Those battles are not yet finished. But we've secured a beachhead, and now we have a moment to pause, reflect, and reconnect with personal aspirations.

This essay is a timely and refreshing invitation to reboot my life. As you say, that's something too important to be done on sudden impulse.

Thank you. Merci. Gracias. Arigato, Xie xie.


Posted by: jjohnjj on 20 Nov 08

Thanks Bruce, and thanks to all the folks on the Virdian list!


Posted by: adrian cotter on 21 Nov 08

Many smart things said here, but in a time of global warming, don't knock the "hair shirt greens," especially if you're regularly flying--the form of transportation that's most harmful to the planet.


Posted by: will shetterly on 22 Nov 08

piffft - First George Carlin, now this. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Didn't get that memo? Or have we forgot this fundamental scripture of macho material exhibitionism. Sheesh.

As if I'd actually part with my original 'antique' cordless Makita drill that hasn't worked for over a decade. And stuff.

Now, "The User's Guide to Imaginary Gadgets" would make a nice addition
to my "Universally 'one size fits all' Solar Powered Power Supply for all Future Gadgets yet to be Imagined" instructional pamphlet. "Attractive Coffee Book Table Edition". Have your people
contact my people - we'll brainstorm while doing the lunch thing should we agree on the appropriate 'time and space'.

I do plan on following your advice by putting my wife in the "Everything Else" category. You Rock, Bruce!

See, I can potentially conform to the V. V. V. V. V. standard. "Valid Vivaciously Vivid Viridian Values"

Ok, I got stuff to do. My Stuff! Which is tons more and bigger stuff then any of you green type freaks stuff for sure! *strut*


Posted by: Rip on 23 Nov 08

When I see magazine covers that offer a glimpse of the articles inside, and most glimpses reveal "how-to" "should" and/or "ways to get what you want", my reactions usually include a skepticism about the author's expertise, and a pang of embarrassment that we seem to be begging for guidance about practically every single thing from those who purportedly ‘know better’ - in reading your post - I sense you do "know what you are talking about", but in looking at a larger trend, I want to know your thoughts on this; Have we become a people desperately searching for someone else to tell us how to live, or have we become a people desperate to tell others how to live, or both? Perhaps I would normally not have been compelled to post this question, but the Steward Brand reference left me cold(?) – I always found his style so damn refreshing in that he appeared to be saying – “Hey! Check this out – it might really interest you, instead of “you should do this – you should not do that”. (Is the resistance you find to your ‘glocal’ way potentially just imagined?)


Posted by: James on 25 Nov 08

I agree with Will - you're lying to yourself and everyone else when you don't recognize how much damage you're doing the earth by flying around so much. It's like selling heroin to fund your re-hab clinic - you're borrowing from a place that isn't going to get replenished, because pollution charges 1000% interest. Technology is not the Messiah. Circuits get exponentially smaller and smaller, making it possible to make more of them, and demand for them also grows exponentially. Their level of efficiency will never grow any faster than these two factors.

Carbon emissions have risen, not fallen, since personal computers. Green energy technology will only mitigate, not reverse, the damage we've done so far. That said, we should put as much time and energy as possible into technology that aims to mitigate the damage we're doing, but at the same time we need to minimize our harmful activities instead of rationalizing them away by saying that they're helping us to discover new possibilities. Wars are fought to prevent violence. Think about that when you're flying to your next environmental technology conference.

It sounds to me that you're preaching a tired brand of philosophy for which the main purpose is to make you look and feel cool and trendy, which in turn makes other people feel cool and trendy about making even more people feel cool and trendy - this 'glocalism' you speak of - without ever fundamentally changing how you affect the environment. I would highly recommend the book 'Nation of Rebels' by Heath and Potter. As they say, you can't replace real action and hard work with looking good while talking about it.

Having said that, I'm going to turn off my computer now and go for a bike ride.


Posted by: brandon on 30 Nov 08

Your prescriptions for dealing with the material objects in one's life are spot on, but I don't understand your knocking of what you call "hair-shirt green." It amounts to a straw-man argument: "joykill asceticism is no fun, so screw it." It might be true if it amounted to eating cold oatmeal and raw Kale and sleeping on a woven reed mat, but the people I know who live the most truly "green" and "simple" lives are invariably enormously happy precisely because they have learned to reap the rewards of self-sufficiency, mutual cooperation, and self-entertainment. These people's lives are anything but "boring". To think otherwise is simply ignorant. A lot of people could school you proper on this.

As for flying everywhere all the time and claiming to live "glocally", that's fine and good for you and me but doesn't address any of the real challenges of living permanently and sustainably in a specific locale, which is where 99.9 percent of humans actually live.


Posted by: Daniel Reed Miller on 1 Dec 08

Oddly enough, I didn't need someone to tell me any of this. I suspect that, like most things, either you learn for yourself or you blithely go along never knowing, which makes much of this manner of article (or effort) rather, well, self-serving.

People who are drawn to a path find it, and for the most part, those who are not cannot be convinced or converted.

I suppose if self-congratulation is required, this is as good a means as any to have it, but frankly, I'd rather be reading about attempts to find or lay out new thoughts than preaching.

I suspect I am not alone in this.

Ever notice that life isn't about the things you consider as much as the things you naturally do without considering? You're not really living "glocally" until you no longer feel the need to say you are doing so.


Posted by: Fenix on 23 May 09

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