Ai Weiwei and the system 〈The background - foreground playground〉

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Tue, February 05, 2013 - 10:23:34

Ai Weiwei's activism in the effort to understand the schools' collapse during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 has not been confined to the realm of the truth of art. It has also focused on the actual truth of how many children died, who they were, and why the schools were so poorly built. He and his team have been detained and beaten in talking to parents and in persisting to raise the question of how many children died. (In fact, one person wrote to me privately, commenting that Ai Weiwei is better known in the U.S. for being arrested than for being an artist.) The rebar piece I described in my last post is a heavy indictment, laid down piece by piece but irreducibly complex. 

Perhaps I write about the collapse of the Sichuan schools with particular passion because my own children's high school collapsed a few years ago. By great good fortune, no one was hurt, but cement blocks popped out and the roof came down. It was a Saturday morning, and the girl's basketball team, after first gathering at center court of the gym, then pausing to get their cellphones and take pictures, was able to escape in the two hours before complete collapse. I subsequently advised my children that if they were ever in a building and blocks of cement started to pop out, they should consider leaving immediately without center court, cellphones, or pictures. 

There was some snow at the time, so nature was conveniently blamed, but in fact the school came down because it was poorly built. The major problem lay in the joins between the roof and the supporting beams. On inspection (something that had been suspended for many years due to budget cuts), it turned out that the structural steel in the entire building was not up to the 1969 building codes that were in place in 1974 when the building went up. The builder, immensely rich, has memorialized himself through donations, so that a major research center bears his name. If I recall correctly, his sole comment, cited in the local paper, was, "It stood up for 35 years, so we must have done something right." Shame, much less apology, did not appear to be top of his heart. 

Another factor in the local collapse was that the school had been built on a sink hole. An upstanding citizen sold the land to the district at low cost after realizing that good sense stopped him from using the site for houses. What a happy solution! Evidently, no good sense or regulations prevented the school from going up there! Everybody wins! 

For about 20 years, one of the teachers had a strain gauge in a crack in the wall of a science classroom. Generations of graduates in this small town were drawn to one another at reunions by fond memory of his sardonic monitoring of the situation. 

The Chinese experience was a tragedy. Our experience was a farce. But underlyingly, they have some resemblance. Callousness, mendacity, lack of deep purpose, powerful systemic forces leaning in the direction of corruption. Ours is small town corruption; the Chinese corruption appears to be much larger and more deeply embedded in all the entailments of a complex system. (I say “appears to be” because while I know a bit more about China than most Americans, I am not in a position to talk with any authority about it.) 

But I imagine being the designer (or in these cases, the engineer) with a brief to do the right thing. I suppose that I tend to imagine the designer or engineer as the nice person who cares about doing the right thing and knows that he or she is supposed to. So let me indulge my fantasy and suppose that the designers or engineers were on the right side of this one. Outside of actions as in the dubious fantasy of the The Fountainhead (also refer here), what was their power? 

I wonder whether some responsible parties thought that they were doing the right things within their power. And their efforts may have mitigated harm. Most of the (~5000) deaths in China came from a small number of schools. Our school could have collapsed immediately instead of slowly. Good bye gathering at center court! Good bye cellphone history of the event! Good bye girl’s basketball team! 

But “all the right things for everybody, all the time” is too much if you are just one small voice. Not everybody is a hero, at least not without help and recognition. The view of the designer or engineer as purely a tool of client satisfaction is often taught but is not very sustaining either for the person or for society. The engineers or designers are not typically the ones who are going to make out like bandits (or worse).

Imagine how much harder it is to perceive and do the right thing when the potential consequences are murkier and more diffuse, as they are in software and product design. 

J. B. Jackson wrote, in 1951, “…south of the Rio Grande, the world of Man is thought of as created in the likeness of a social theory and not, as with us, in the likeness of an economic force” [1]. It's pretty hard to imagine, sitting in the world of venture capital, entranced by the fast pace of activity, in the excitement of creating the cross product of everything and everything else, the misery of heart that a person can experience when—sitting by themselves, tired, sick, stressed—some damn machine goes to black, doesn't do the desired thing, or provides useless "help.” It’s nobody’s particular responsibility and yet there it is. I am not sure whether social theories are preferable to economic forces, but they are different, and J. B. Jackson helps remind us that the reification and enforcement through technological systems is not entirely desirable. 

I started with Ai Weiwei, but I'll end with a well-known joke. 

The joke: A helicopter pilot loses his instruments and gets lost in the fog. However, he sees people working in an office building. He has a large sheet of paper, so he takes a marker, writes "Where am I?" and shows the sheet to the people in the building. They scratch their heads, think, and finally hold up another piece of paper. Their sign reads, "You're in a helicopter." After a minute's thought, the pilot realizes that this is, in fact, a useful piece of information. It shows him that he must be in Redmond, Washington, home of a certain large corporation that does not present anti-trust concerns to Americans—the epicenter of well intentioned and utterly unresponsive "help."

Next post: Ai Weiwei and the representation of dead children.


1. Jackson, J.B. Landscape in Sight: Looking at America. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997, 52.

Posted in: on Tue, February 05, 2013 - 10:23:34

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
View All Deborah Tatar's Posts

Post Comment

No Comments Found