XXIII.6 November-December 2016
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Keeping progress on the long and winding road

Evan Barba

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Lately I've been having a lot of conversations about the Singularity [1]. The last time the Vinge/Kurzweil idea was a hot topic of discussion among my students, about four years ago, the prevailing mood was one of deep skepticism. This time around, though, it's a very different story. The core tenet of singularitarianism, that the accelerating evolution of technology will continually augment human minds, bodies, and cultures until they are inseparable and boundless, is nearly a given for many of my students. When I introduce some of the critiques of perpetual exponential growth—models of predator-prey relations or bacterial growth in test tubes—the response is something like "but technology changes the game." I've come to see that the reason these critiques seem inaccessible is that they model a world that differs starkly from these students' lived experience. They have become accustomed to rapid technological change and in many cases double-digit economic growth, and that has led them to think of technological progress as boundless.

back to top  Insights


Rather than adding to the critiques of the Singularity, I'd like to share a thought experiment that I've been doing in my classes. Let's assume that technological change is in fact happening at an exponential rate, and let's take Kurzweil at his word that human beings are captive to the "intuitive linear view," the idea that the human mind with its limited complexity seems to comprehend and forecast only at a more modest linear pace. How can we reconcile these two conflicting patterns? For some, the answer is to more completely technologize humanity, to merge human beings with technology as deeply and completely as possible. The conclusions of this logic are seductive fantasies such as uploading individual consciousness into the cloud and other promises of life everlasting. The alternative, humanizing technology, is decidedly less captivating but requires no less imagination. What if the linearity of the human mind is not a handicap to be overcome, but rather a convenient target for an upper bound on technological progress? What does it mean to knock technological progress back down to our level? To optimize technology for impact at the human scale?

back to top  Progress at the Human Scale

These questions are much older than the idea of a singularity. They arose in the 19th century in the context of the Arts and Crafts movement [2], when William Morris cautioned about the depersonalizing effects of industrial production. More than a century of industrial growth later, the industrial designer Victor Papanek's Design for Human Scale [3] revisits many of the same critiques leveled by Morris. He argues against design in the service of the mechanisms of industrial production and proposes a vision of what we've come to know as user-centered and participatory design approaches. He argues for using technology in the service of everyday human efforts rather than asking humanity to adjust lifestyles to suit industrial modes of production. The litany of complaints he raises against industrial design in the mid-20th century—careless use of finite resources, compounded pollution from every step in the process, the valorization of consumption—are the same complaints we hear today from ecological thinkers who worry that exponential growth has overwhelmed our capacity to transform technological progress into social progress.

The sociotechnical alchemy required to pin exponential trends to the human scale is the subject of Kirkpatrick Sale's 1980 polemic against bigness, Human Scale [4]. While the irony of writing 500-plus pages in support of smallness may have been lost on Sale, the conflict between exponential trends and human-scale concerns was not. He notes a number of cultural movements that all sought to directly improve human experience. Many of these still echo today. For example, his treatment of the 1960s Back to the Land movement shares many of its values with the Tiny House trend of today. Moreover, Sale identifies the same brand of technological optimism captured in the Singularity with the more pejorative term technofix, the belief that technology will eventually evolve to solve any crisis that might arise from exponential growth.

One of Sale's compelling counter-models is his Beanstalk Principle. Building from the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, Sale describes the impossibility and innate fragility of the human giant. The giant is incapable of supporting his own weight. He is many times larger than a normal human, but the human form simply cannot scale to that size. The two-dimensional cross-sections of bone are not strong enough to support a giant three-dimensional human. This is a fact of nature outside of fairy tales. Even the lowly earthworm could not be much larger than it is; there would not be adequate surface area on its skin for it to breathe. Perhaps there are technofixes for these constraints—a giant with a metal skeleton, an earthworm with an oxygen tank—but should we really be devoting resources to technofixing our world in order to support exponentialism? Or is it wiser to use technologies to optimize experience at human scale?

back to top  The Economics of Scale

Puzzlingly, the majority of economists are also supporters of exponential growth and the technofix mentality, despite both practical and theoretical counterexamples from their own discipline. As Kenneth Boulding's famous quote goes, "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." In microeconomics there is the notion of socially optimal firm size, which is a simple formula that tells you when to stop growing your business. There is also the overlooked notion of diseconomies of scale, which describes how getting too big ends up costing more than staying small. Of course there are many ways around these principles, and managers earn high salaries dreaming up new ones every day. We call it innovation, which in this case is just a synonym for technofix. The point is still a valid one: There are limits to growth and consequences for exceeding them.

Ecological economics attempts to adapt the microeconomic limits to growth for the macro-scale and offers an alternative to incessant exponential growth: the steady-state economy. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly outlines the basics of the steady-state alternative in Beyond Growth [5]. Steady-state economics relies on a distinction between growth and development. Quantitative increase in throughput (the rate of production and consumption of resources) is growth, while qualitative change in how those resources are used is development. From a development perspective, innovation makes things better rather than bigger. Like the Beanstalk Principle, the steady state reminds us that there is an optimal scale for everything, including an economy. But that's only part of the lesson. The real insight here comes from understanding how the optimal scale is determined: It's an emergent property of lower-dimensional limits. The optimal size of the giant and the earthworm is constrained by the limits of their two-dimensional components: cross-sections of bone and surface area of skin. Both growth and development are emergent properties of the sociotechnical system we call an economy. But while growth collapses all the complexities of that system into a single dimension for ease of measurement, development requires that we look for improvements across a wider range of metrics. It is much easier to optimize for growth—you just put all your resources into growing and minimize everything else. When you optimize for development, no single dimension dominates; you need a more balanced approach.

back to top  The Need for Speed

An analogy may help here. Exponential growth is like a drag race. Racers line up in narrow lanes and accelerate constantly to the end of a short track. The race ends when you cross the finish line or explode (almost as common). The steady state is more like a Grand Prix. The complexity of the track requires that sometimes drivers need to hit the brakes, change gears, turn the wheel, or even let other racers pass, and they keep going around in circles. A drag race is one-dimensional. All the resources that go into creating a dragster are marshaled to produce one emergent property: speed. Complexities like steering and braking are reduced to their simplest forms: keeping the dragster straight and stopping it after the race. The Grand Prix embraces multidimensional complexity. It requires that the race team balance the use of resources across many parameters collectively and dynamically without privileging one over the others.

Balancing a product or system between multiple, often contradictory, constraints is at the heart of the problems that designers of any discipline encounter every day. The humble suitcase is a favorite example of mine. It must be durable but lightweight, sturdy yet flexible, standardized and personal, spacious and compact. Sometimes you want to optimize in one dimension and make the biggest or sturdiest suitcase possible, but the multitude of suitcase designs in the world is a reminder that not all situations call for one-dimensional solutions. The fact that designers learn to intuitively solve for these multidimensional problems suggests that design education is the right context for teaching about them explicitly.

back to top  Simple Intuition

The thought experiment that began this piece invariably leads me to the following set of questions. What if the real intuitive linear view isn't about how we project growth trends into the future, but rather about how we tend to reduce problems to a single manageable dimension? What if this singlemindedness is intuitive only because the majority of us, like the majority of my students, are immersed in a culture of exponential growth? How might a design culture be able to educate this prejudice away?

I've found that my students, like many of you, are enthusiastic makers. They gravitate to making because they learn how technologies work and how to use their creativity to define and solve problems. On the surface, the practices of DIY, maker, and open source cultures enable obvious gains in the kind of development needed for the steady state. Instead of throwing things away, we fix them. Instead of buying the perfect solution, we create it ourselves and share it with others. The material benefits of this lightweight form of production are well articulated in the discourse at this point. However, what these practices offer beneath the surface is potentially more transformational and is often overlooked. The tacit knowledge of how to recognize and solve multidimensional problems is part of the hidden pedagogy of making. My students are not just learning how things work—they are also learning how to make them work together. They are learning to recognize when a solution has gone too far in one dimension and when there is an opportunity to go further in another.


My small liberal arts university does not have dedicated design, architecture, or engineering departments. Students and colleagues often call on me to justify why design deserves a place in our liberal arts curriculum; the notion of solving complex problems is one argument that seems to resonate. Incorporating immersive design experiences into general education, and explicitly calling attention to multidimensional problem solving, is likely to have the lasting cultural effects we expect from general education. What if the electorate could perceive the intricacies of policy positions and understand why compromises are necessary? What if schools measured more than just student achievement? The list goes on, because human-scale problems are too often optimized in one dimension; complexities are minimized away rather than given equal weight in our decisions. This is a consequence of the exponential growth paradigm, an assumption so enculturated into us that we don't even realize we are assuming it. Human-scale concerns like pollution or learning get reduced to their most manageable forms; we do the bare minimum so that we can maximize growth. Maintaining a steady state, however, requires that these concerns get equal attention. It requires that we learn to recognize and optimize for constraints in multiple dimensions.

For sure, we're not going to win any drag races with this approach. It is not a strategy for the short track. Then again, we're not really on the short track. We've been pretending we are to keep things manageable. Humanity on the whole is not yet accustomed to articulating complexity at the human scale, despite living with it daily. There is a point some of my students reach when they feel like the thing they've been making is entirely the wrong thing. I try to remind them that they recognize it as wrong only because they've learned something in the process of making it. To move forward, they need to reflect on what they've learned, redefine the problem, and evolve what they've made into something they can be proud of. I've started to think about technological progress in the same way. I see the Singularity as the techno-human experience we wanted before we knew what we wanted. It's time to redefine the problem. In part, that means creating a design-literate culture that doesn't try to simplify complexity away, but recognizes it as the road to real progress. I just hope we don't explode before we get there.

back to top  References

1. Kurzweil, R. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Publishing Group, 2005.

2. Naylor, G. The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals and Influence on Design Theory. Studio Vista, 1980.

3. Papanek, V.J. Design for Human Scale. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.

4. Sale, K. Human Scale. New Society Publishers, Ltd., 2007.

5. Daly, H.E. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press, 2014.

back to top  Author

Evan Barba is an assistant professor in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program and affiliate in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University. His research explores the role of scale in problem solving and he currently has active projects in the areas of design education, sustainability, and space exploration.

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