Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Review: Massive Change

Massive Change
Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries
Phaidon $39.95 239

A journalist of my acquaintance recently visited designer Bruce Mau’s studio to discuss Mau’s latest book, the unrepentantly bombastic Massive Change. On Mau’s desk, the journalist noted, was a letter from the president of an impoverished South American country. The letter was in plain view, and, the journalist suspected, meant for his eyes. According to Mau, the president of the long suffering nation had invited Mau to visit for a week and, gulp, redesign the country.

My first thought after hearing this story was, Haven’t those people suffered enough?

In its inherent hubris, the story of Mau and El Presidente is typical of, and exactly what is wrong with, the kind of bold, sassy but ultimately empty promises found in Massive Change – a book more concerned with pronouncements than problem solving, the sales pitch than the product.

And what a pitch. Mau’s book promises that all the world’s nastiest problems – hunger, poverty, violence, ugly shoes – are simply design tasks waiting to be solved. Politics? It’s a design problem. Unleashed genetic sciences? A design opportunity! Trade inequities? They’re the new avant-garde of the economy! I wish I was making this up.

Massive Change isn’t really a book, it’s a two hundred page exclamation mark, packed with giddy prophecies about how super great everything will be once we let the Segway designers and Wal-Mart take over (oh, never mind about underpaid, benefit-deprived Wal-Mart staff or the fact that those goofy looking Segway scooter/shopping karts have become a standard comic prop on sitcoms … what’s the matter with you, don’t you believe in tomorrow?). The only thing holding us back from a new Golden Age, wherein, among other things, the internet and its related technologies will cause peace to break out and “Design and its capacities promise to make this century a new era of wealth worldwide”, is our inability to listen to our prophets – people such as, say, Bruce Mau.

There are two huge problems here that, for all its hurrahing and yahooing, Massive Change can’t overcome. The first is the notion that interconnectedness will automatically make people better citizens. The second is the book’s complete lack of counterpoint or argument.

Every chapter in Massive Change offers a variation on the idea that because we can now communicate over huge distances and share heretofore unimaginable amounts of information, every problem can be solved. If only it were so. This capacity to spread information is now over a decade old. Does the world look better to you? Just because we can communicate with each other doesn’t mean we will, or that we’ll want to bother. Nothing in Massive Change accounts for all the bad things that also make us human – selfishness and lack of empathy being the top two.

Take this quote for instance: “information now travels along vast interconnected networks, and so all problems in all realms are shared.” What exactly does that mean? “Shared” is intentionally vague, with the potential to mean anything from having knowledge of a problem to actual shared suffering. You and I know rather a lot about the situation in Sudan, thanks to travelling information, but do we share the problems of starving refugees? Hardly, and neither does anybody connected to this book, or reading this newspaper (online or not). Why, I kept asking myself as I read Massive Change, if all that the book claims is true, is nothing ever done? Perhaps Mau is waiting for a letter from the president of Sudan.

For a book that trumpets information exchange on every page, Massive Change is wholly devoid of dialogue. Wondrous things are promised without question, overarching statements proffered without challenge, and pesky obstacles to progress like greed or laziness are never discussed. Here’s a typical bald statement: “The Home Depots and Nikes of the world have greater capacity to achieve more for greater good because of their scale”. Hard to argue with that, if you fail to take into account that “greater good” means less profit, and Nike et al exist solely to make a profit.

But there’s no time for moody contemplation, because two pages later we learn that Dee Hock, the inventor of the Visa credit system - that magic little card most of us are too flawed and too human to use judiciously - actually created a “Jeffersonian democracy” that “guarantees monetary information in the form of arranged electronic particles”. Sure, that and 20% interest rates, an entire generation of people hooked on overspending, and countless families forced into bankruptcy.

Apparently, however, the future doesn’t include sober second thought, since by the time you’ve digested the democratic miracle of the Visa card, you’re already on to the next Barnum-worthy page, wherein you’ll learn that “the electronic marketplace has gone from empowering the consumer to supporting a global civic society”. Tell that to the Chinese Christmas decoration makers.

As one fantastic page cascades over the next, you realize that when Mau uses words like “consumer” or “citizen”, he’s really talking about the rich people who live in his rarefied world. Mau’s predictions are riddled with a class blindness particular to over-priviledged soothsayers, from Madame Blavatsky to Arianna Huffington - people who see only the glittering wonders their money and power place before their eyes. Manor-born Aldous Huxley had the same problem, and he promised us flying cars (plus a eugenics-driven super race, who sound rather a lot like Mau’s urban super consumers).

Grouse as much as I like, I know that books like Massive Change are critic proof, like bibles or Dr. Phil guides, because if you don’t agree with the book’s perky futurism, you’re just outdated, retrograde, a tired old crab too cranky to sunbathe before the “shining city on the hill” (as that other great salesman, Ronald Reagan, put it). Maybe Mau is right, maybe you can’t fight the future - but you can stop yourself from buying the tee-shirt.