Opening black boxes

Industrial designer Allan Chochinov has published a fantastic manifesto, exactly 1,000 words on how designers should adapt their work to a more environmentally conscious age. (Via TreeHugger.) It’s essentially another iteration of the “Design Like You Give a Damn” movement, with some extra brilliance spooned in. Here’s a snippet:

Screws Better Than Glues…
[T]he people who own things and the people who make them are in a kind of partnership. But it’s a partnership that’s broken down, since almost all of the products we produce cannot be opened or repaired, are designed as subassemblies to be discarded upon failure or obsolescence, and conceal their workings in a kind of solid-state prison. This results in a population less and less confident in their abilities to use their hands for anything other than pushing buttons and mice, of course. But it also results in people fundamentally not understanding the workings of their built artifacts and environments, and, more importantly, not understanding the role and impact that those built artifacts and environments have on the world.

This speaks to the central theme of my thinking about improving humanity’s treatment of the environment. Governments can regulate and they can harangue, but the technology of waste will always outpace them in the hands of consumers who don’t understand why they’re being regulated and harangued. You watch. Tack a tax on gasoline that makes it cost $4 a litre and people would buy hydrogen cars all right — hydrogen cars that use more energy than gas-powered ones to go the same distance, plus strain the publicly-supported power grid and force us into building coal plants to keep the lights from going out in our hospitals.

To effect sustained change, people need tools to make changes to their behaviour because it’s obviously in their best interest. Those tools include the information necessary to decide what’s right, and then a system that rewards them for acting accordingly.

And by “right” I don’t necessarily mean that they have to do what I want. I can be wrong at least as much as the next guy and my personal tastes are irrelevant. I don’t like shopping at suburban box stores, but it’s not my place to tell others they can’t.

I do mean that when they do something that imposes a cost on somebody else, they have to pay something and the appropriate party is compensated. Instead, our public policies have concealed from us many of the costs of our choices — the price of roads and garbage and water and polluted air, for instance. But concealing them doesn’t mean we don’t pay them. If the people who create most of the costs had to pay them out of their pockets, I bet a lot of them would make different choices.

In the case of the suburban box store, that would mean building into the price of a Best Buy VCR the costs of the whole industrial armature needed to haul the thing from Taiwan to the store, and of the civic infrastructure needed to haul the buyer from home to the shelf to pick it up — and, I suspect, a lot fewer VCRs bought at Best Buy. Where would people buy them instead? I don’t know. Someplace that puts less stress on the world, though. Electronics shops with business models that depend less on shared, “free” resources would be able to drop their prices, since they wouldn’t have to support the systems their competitors depend on.

Maybe Best Buy would just reconfigure itself and be as strong as ever. Maybe its business model can’t work without the indirect subsidies of, for instance, wide public roads, cheap gas, and free air pollution. We’d find out.

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