Tag Archives: dematerialization

Take My Computer. Please. (The Case Against Ownership)

I was looking at a photo of an old telephone the other day – one from before cellphones and even before cordless phones. It was a classic Henry Dreyfuss table top phone from the days when Ma Bell – the original AT&T – was the only game in town and, for that matter, the only game in the entire country. The phone model choices back then were only slightly better than Henry Ford’s policy of allowing customers to “have a car painted any color so long as it’s black.” Slightly better because you could, in fact, get this phone in an assortment of colors and in three styles. (Remember the “Princess Phone?”)

Henry Dreyfuss designed telephone, Model 500, 1953. source: Cooper Hewitt https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/11/07/model-500-telephone-henry-dreyfuss/

But that’s not my point.

Back then you didn’t buy a phone. When you got a phone number and account for your home, it came with a phone, or maybe a few. They were sturdy things, well-made and designed. They almost never broke and, when they did, all you needed to do was tell the phone company and they would come over and either repair or replace it. At no charge, if I recall correctly.

Our kitchen table phone once stopped working. The repair guy came out to the house, pulled the top off and water came pouring out. One of my little sisters, you see, had decided it was dirty and needed cleaning – by pouring water over it.

That memory may have become slightly embellished over time, but the point is that the telephone guy replaced it. No questions asked. Imagine Apple or Samsung doing that. He just unplugged it. (Actually, I don’t think they were attached by plugs back then. The wires were screwed into the wall jack.) And then just attached a new phone. More likely it was one that had been repaired, but just looked new. It didn’t matter; it worked.

Here’s the real point. Could this old-fashioned system make more sense than ownership? There’s a good case for this from both the consumer and manufacturer points of view, and environmentally as well.

I don’t really want a computer. I want what a computer can do. I don’t really want to own and be responsible for the maintenance of a washer and dryer. I want clean and dry clothes. (Yeah, I know I should use a clothesline instead of a dryer, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)

I don’t even want a car. I want mobility. And ideally I want to be able to get around with different types of cars for different tasks. Some days a bigger car to carry a lot of stuff and maybe some friends, but on other days it’s just me going a short distance.

I realize my needs are undoubtedly different from someone not living in a city. But as a city dweller, I was overjoyed when Zipcar came to town and I could get rid of the clunker city car I kept for occasional errands and excursions, and whose insurance and maintenance were ridiculously expensive for the little bit of driving I did each month.

This is all part of the “sharing economy.” An old example of this might be a laundromat. A newer example is Zipcar. Newer still is the concept of “tool libraries.” A few years ago, a study found that a cordless drill purchased by a consumer had an average usage time of under 10 minutes. Typically, someone went to a hardware store to buy one, maybe to hang some shelves, and then the drill spent the rest of its life in a closet. Hardly a good use of either money or materials. An answer to this gross inefficiency is being able to go to a tool library and check out a drill (or a circular saw or a tall ladder) for a few days.

Berkeley Tool Lending Library. source: Berkeley Public Library https://www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/locations/tool-lending-library

You might complain that it’s inconvenient to have to go that library for a ladder. But it’s also inconvenient to go to Lowes or online to Amazon, select which one you want, spend a hunk of money and then store it as dead weight for most of the rest of the time.

On an entirely different level, this is beginning to happen on a commercial scale. There’s even precedent. Back when copiers were big, expensive and prone to breaking down, offices usually didn’t buy them. They rented or leased them from Xerox or a competitor, who frequently charged them by the copy. Maintaining it was Xerox’s problem, not the office’s. (Which was a good thing because they broke down a lot.)

Philips Lighting recently signed with Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to provide “lighting as a service” rather than the more typical method of selling light fixtures and bulbs. For the airport, this means that not only do they not have worry about maintenance, they also will always have state-of-the-art lighting. What’s more they won’t have to worry about how to dispose of it later on.

Therein lies one of the not-so-obvious environmental benefits. Because Philips retains ownership of the lighting, when it comes time to replace it for remodeling or demolition, they will have to deal with its end of life. That means they will need to design that in – how the lighting can be dismantled for least cost recycling or reuse. Previously, when they sold the lighting, they didn’t have to be concerned with the end-of-life. It was someone else’s problem.

Imagine now that this was true for all your electronics – that Dell or Apple or Samsung had to take it back when you were done, and then had to deal with disposal. Suddenly, they’d be concerned with how to design so that products could be easily taken apart. And, by the way, that would also pave the way for easier repairs, which the company would be interested in since repairs and maintenance would be their responsibility.

But how does such a company make money in this arrangement? Yes, they lose the sale, but they gain a stream of income as their customers effectively rent instead of buying. And that stream of income is steadier, more predictable, less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy.

True to the ideals of EcoOptimism, it’s a win-win-win deal.

Here are some things I’d rather not own, but still want to use:
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Home Appliances
Formal Attire (I’m lucky to have a hand-me-down tux, but if I didn’t…)

Spied at Parsons School of Design:

Flyer at Parsons School of Design. photo: David Bergman

Fit to be Untied

Were it not for the fact that the original product involved here is totally unnecessary in the first place, this Worst Product Award nomination might have gotten a split decision from the “judges,” i.e. me.



On the one hand, the Magnetie could be seen as a form of dematerialization because it means the wearer no longer needs a tie clasp. If you’re a tie wearer though, you may respond that you never use a clasp anyway, what with those little fabric loop thingies on the back of the tie serving almost the same function. I think the last time I saw one was on Mad Men.

Photo lifted from GQ

Photo lifted from GQ











On the other hand, the tie now gets to do double duty because it’s reversible and can even have a different pattern on each side. So you could rationalize that it takes the place of two ties.

But then there’s the recycling issue. The tie is no longer made of a single material and now requires pieces to be separated later in life. (Does it get recycled with metals?)

I say let’s dematerialize the whole darn thing. I’ll admit a bias here. I’ve been fortunate to have not worked in situations where ties were de rigueur. And my “go to” tie for those times when I do need one is made from a recycled seat belt, so I guess it serves as a statement and not just an ornament.

Ties must have had a purpose at some point in time, but no longer, at least as far as I can tell. They’re no more than an affectation, used to display self-importance, if not of the wearer then of the business or profession that often requires ties. (OK, that’s a bit heavy-handed, but really: what ARE they for?)

Given my recent rant about holiday gifts, it’s unlikely there will be any ties, magnetic or otherwise, under my tree. And that’s just fine.

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations


Wrongest Product Award nominations are open! Send your nominees to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Is 3D Printing Part of the Path to Sustainability?

Virtually in the shadow of the Unisphere and directly adjacent to a display of actual NASA rockets, the NY Maker Faire set up tents, tables, robots and fire-breathing dragons this past weekend. While the task of grading 50 student essays kept me tied to my desk, I did attend last year’s Faire and marveled at the diversity and inventiveness of the creations.

The whole maker movement – and the NY Faire represents only a tiny fraction of the group which could be said to include DIYers as well – presents, I think, an interesting dilemma in the context of environmentalism.

On the one hand, there are those greenies who promote what has lately come to be called “resilience” – the idea that we need to be able to adapt to and survive in a future that may include major climate changes, resource shortages and food scarcity. One way to do this, they maintain, is by becoming more self-sufficient. This would engender being able to, as individuals or communities, grow more of our own food and make more of the things we need. Those trained in resilience would make good candidates for a remake of Lost or for the current TV series Revolution, set in a near future in which nothing electric works.

Implicit in self-sufficiency is the notion that we should (or must) own fewer things, that we have to become less materialistic. I have no argument with that even though it connotes the unpopular concept of sacrifice and equates environmentalism with giving things up, which might at first be seen as not in keeping with the concepts of EcoOptimism. But as has been observed by many, materialism – once one is past the point of having necessities – does not add to happiness.

Much of Maker Faire, as well as a rapidly growing new industry, now revolves around 3D printing. As you might surmise, 3D printing is the capability of “printing” 3-dimensional objects. The technology is evolving incredibly fast and what, only a few years ago, required a commercial stove-size piece of equipment and a sizeable investment, can now be accomplished, in some cases, by something not much larger than a home microwave and around the same cost as a decent refrigerator. (I’ve no idea why this became a comparison to kitchen appliances.)

(Image source: MakerBot.com)










In fact, the technology is bringing us that much closer to Star Trek “replicators.” One can now input a 3D model computer file instructing the machine (the popular available one is called a MakerBot) to print a piece of intricate jewelry made of stainless steel, a replacement part for your car – or a recipe. It’s not quite that advanced yet – don’t expect a soufflé – but just a few years ago, the only things you could output were objects made of plaster-like materials. The media – the “ink” – available now includes metals and even organic matter to make meat.

Clothing aside, I could see this shot from Star Trek as an ad in a mid-century (20th, that is) magazine. (Image source: 3dprinterreviews.blogspot.com/2011/04/star-trek-replicator-roots.html)











There is great EcoOptimism potential in this disruptive, as it’s termed, technology. It will enable us to make virtually anything anywhere on demand. That funny shape screwdriver you need to open your iPhone? Well, you’ll no longer have to special order it from somewhere halfway around the world. (Predictably, one of the major markets for 3D printed objects is iPhone accessories.) You will download the 3D file (or if you’re really handy, create it yourself) and then print it out perhaps in your garage or your home office, or if it’s a larger piece than your printer can handle, have it sent to a Kinkos-like service in town. Resources will be saved (stores wouldn’t have to stock – or overstock — things), less transport energy will be incurred, more things may be repaired rather than thrown out. And the whole process of design and fabrication should become more accessible and egalitarian.

But there’s a potential conflict here between the environmentalist goal of being less materialistic and the increased ease with which we’ll be able to make things. That conflict is analogous to the non-appearance of the predicted paperless office. The reality turned out to be that it was so easy to print things, in multiple drafts and widespread copies, that people ended up going through vast reams of paper even more than before.

Suppose, in our 3D printer world, you feel like you want a new salad server set for your dinner party tonight? Just print one out. Want a different color earring to match your (newly printed?) hat? You might have it printed and on your ear in an hour or so.

In fact, MakerBot is opening a store near me in few weeks. Will it be full of things I didn’t know I wanted? Will it enable me to make things that I couldn’t previously afford because it would have been too expensive as a one-off? Is that a good thing or bad? (Hint: it’s both.)

An architect friend of mine, with whom I often have, ahem, political differences, says the most important people around are “Makers of Things.” The service economy? Not for him. Unsurprisingly, I’m not convinced he’s right. For one thing, I’m not sure that self-sufficiency is that great a goal. We’re far past the point, barring apocalyptic events, of returning to rural agrarian living. It’s more likely that we will see major increases in the costs of energy and transportation, to the point where we will choose or be forced to make changes in how and where we make things. 3D printing raises the possibility of removing much of the transportation costs and perhaps even encouraging making things differently in different parts of world (as we used to before globalization).

But is it a problem that it will also make it easier to satisfy immediate desires, to make or buy things as we, perhaps impulsively decide we “need” them? We already shop and acquire too impulsively. Perhaps 3D printers need to come with an admonishing voice that says, in a HAL-9000 tone: “Just what do you think you’re making, Dave?”

Who do designers think they are anyway?

Are you what you own? And if so, does that mean designers — the people who think up most of the things you own – are in fact designing you?

A fascinating online discussion this past week has led me to ponder this question of designers’ roles and responsibilities – and limitations. The discussion began with the posting of an essay called “Designing Culture” by Colin McSwiggen, a postgrad student at the Royal College of Art in London. McSwiggen starts out by offering that one of the standard definitions of design (“Giving form to culture”) is “delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself!”

This, he says, is a vast overstatement of designer’s roles, “a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists,” because

The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.

There are certainly elements of truth there. When I am designing someone’s home, I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) run unfettered with my own ideas because, well, there’s that client – who has interests and tastes of their own.









Who makes the design decisions? (Fictional architect Howard Roark altering his modern design at the request of his clients. Image from The Fountainhead, 1949)

Perhaps this is the difference, along with the pesky need for functionality, between an applied artist such as a designer or architect and a fine artist: the presence of a client or employer and – depending on how you view it – the limitations or opportunities in the accompanying constraints.

McSwiggen’s deflating of designers’ roles was picked up on by Cameron Tonkinwise who, until the summer was head of a program I teach in at Parsons (he’s now moved on to Carnegie Mellon and is missed here). He tweeted: “every idiot who leapt on then off the #designthinking bandwagon needs to read this.”

(I think Cameron’s digital outbursts of indignation are great and sorely needed, but when they are forced into Twitter’s length limitations they sometimes trend toward incomprehensibility in a language that I once called “websperanto.”)

McSwiggen goes on to write that the things we possess are an integral part of our cultural class definitions:

Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas. Whether prohibitively priced cars, gendered garments, or separate schools for blacks and whites, social hierarchies are always maintained with the help of physical objects and spaces designed to reflect those hierarchies. Otherwise everyone’s claims of superiority and difference would be quite literally immaterial.

Cameron’s tweet about McSwiggen’s post in turn prompted Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com (you with me still?) to post “Colin McSwiggen suggests that if [we] really had nothing, nobody would know who we are or what we stand for. Our stuff defines us.”

And therein lays, I think, a contradiction. (Sidenote: so long as I’m complimenting folks here, Lloyd is my singularly favorite eco-blogger, managing to post a range of incredibly relevant topics with a neat balance of acerbic insight and criticism. My opinion, of course, is wholly unprompted by his writing a great review of my book.) If physical objects define us, and designers design those objects, then something like the law of transitivity must apply here, resulting in “designers define us.”

But that’s not my real problem. It’s with the “stuff defines us part” and the idea that we become an indistinguishable mass of life without things to differentiate us. Now that’s probably an unfair exaggeration of what McSwiggen means, but even without hyperbole it strikes me as quite a cynical view of humanity. Yes, we live in a highly materialistic world – and that’s a topic very relevant to EcoOptimism — but I think the materialism is more about how we feel about ourselves than how we see others. A large part of materialism involves attempting to sate what we view as needs. Those needs are a result of the things available out there in the world (though perhaps not within reach) creating desire for them. It’s the combination of exposure via advertising and the breakdown of global distances enabled by the Internet, along with that old “keeping up with the Joneses” false sense of self-value.











Barbara Kruger, untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987.

The differentiation McSwiggen is writing about, I think, is not as much about cultural classes as it is about self-image. Am I successful if I don’t have the things others do? Am I really defined by how new and large and flat my television is? Or what version number iPhone I’m using? (Not being a car owner and knowing virtually nothing about current models, I’m hard pressed to come up with a vehicular interpretation here.)

Either way — whether we’re talking about self-esteem or class differentiation — we come to the conclusion that objects have an effect on us, perhaps a profound effect. And those objects get designed by someone.  So an individual or a group is responsible for the emergence of those objects.

Does this mean designers determine what we are? Of course not. That would indeed constitute a “sociocultural superpower.”  But it’s an unavoidable fact that designers have at least a very significant role in determining what kinds of objects – electronics, buildings, clothes, plug-in air fresheners — are produced.  That role can be reactive or proactive.

In a model sustainable world, we would re-evaluate the real utility and real happiness that material objects lend us. This would lead to questioning what the things are that we really need and what the best ways to fulfill those needs are. The result could well be a dramatic change in the demand for various things.

Typically, designers would react to this, adapting as best they can to the new “market.” (Only occasionally are there visionaries such as Steve Jobs and his minions who create markets.) But reacting is not sufficient, given the role of designers in the development and emergence of material objects.  This is where the proactive part comes in. It’s also where the survival of designers emerges. In short, we have both a social and personal (if we are to have jobs and careers) responsibility to use our training and experience to participate in – if not lead – that re-evaluation of the purpose – the utility and joy — of material objects.

The re-evaluation process may in some cases lead to “dematerialization” where we (designers and users, for lack of a better term) conclude that some objects are in fact not desired. Which might lead to fewer design opportunities and, hence, fewer designers. And it presents designers with a bit of an existential dilemma: if we (designers) advocate dematerializing and owning fewer (but better?) things, as sustainability requires, are we talking ourselves out of jobs? Not if we take a larger view of designers’ roles. That view, which also happens to lead to the continued existence of design and designers, involves us having a leading part in imagining and advocating for things that are truly beneficial and enable us to thrive.

That doesn’t grant us sociocultural superpowers (or the accompanying egos). But designers do have some important abilities, most significantly to envision alternatives and, as I always emphasize with my students, to question our assumptions. When those abilities are combined with a realization of ethical responsibilities (and with other values like entrepreneurship), we get the potential for the inventions and reconceptions that can transform us not only from an unsustainable existence, but past a merely sustainable one and to a place where we flourish.