The Human Future: A Problem In Design
By Daniel Quinn / ishmael.org

Editor's note: Even though this essay is over 10 years old, it's as relevant today as ever, especially considering that the mass shootings that have become a tragic outlet for wounded human beings has only increased as the years go on. We need to start solving for causes rather than effects if we ever want to see this end. 

Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn't possibly be improved on by any means.

Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design--and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans--is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.

Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that's working beautifully--because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however--and we had the leisure to watch-- we'd see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.

Design change is a reaction to pressure--and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.

In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.

The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you'd be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools--and they didn't, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic.

 

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Here we see three products of evolutionary design--three beetles, in fact. One useful way to see these three products is as answering three distinct but related market demands. The beetles at the right and left are both longhorns--so called, of course, because of their long antennae. Although they're very close genetic relatives, the longhorn at the left has been shaped by natural selection to meet slightly different demands than the one at the right. The beetle in the middle (called, for obvious reasons, Plusiotis resplendens), has been shaped to meet very different needs than its relatives to right and left. The longhorn at the right would not do badly in the niche of the longhorn at the left, and vice versa, but they would probably fail in the niche of the P. resplendens.


 

Here we see four more products of evolutionary design--four different beaks. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these beaks answer to very different market needs. The macaw doesn't need (and couldn't use) the beak of the waterbird at the bottom right. Nor could the vulture or the parrot. There is no one right way to shape a beak for birds. One beak for all is a concept that literally will not fly.

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Here we see three products of human design--three different types of paper clip. Clearly these also answer distinct but related market needs. People need the clips at left for small jobs, two to ten sheets of paper. The clip at right can also be used for small jobs, but it wouldn't be one's first choice. It's designed for medium size jobs, ten to thirty pages. The clip in the middle, of course, is for large jobs.


 

Here are three more products of human design, again answering very different, though related, market needs. As we all know by now, there is no one right way to save data. One disk for all purposes is not a viable idea. . . . The response time to pressure for design change differs very significantly between evolutionary design and human design. Click on the image to see a larger version


 

Click on the image to see a larger version For obvious reasons, I'm not able to show you photos of these beaks at various stages of evolution.


 

Nor am I able to show you photos of these beetles at various stages of evolution. The period of time over which they developed their distinctive shapes is just too long. But because human design is capable of responding to pressure much more quickly, I can show you . . .

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Two stages in the evolution of the clothespin. The wooden clothespin at the bottom has been around for a long time, and is not extinct even today--because, in fact, it's cheap, it's simple, and it works as well as it ever did. Where, then, did the clothespin at the top come from? It isn't notably cheaper, and it's notably more complex. It does possibly WORK a bit better, at least for certain jobs. If you're hanging something out to dry that's very thick, the pin at the bottom is likely to pop off--or break, if you try to push it down too far. But of course the pin at the top didn't come into being because the public was screaming for a better clothespin. It came into being because it enabled some business to increase its market share.

The pressure to increase market share is the driving force of human design at this time. The question for anyone who wants to enter a new market or to increase share of market is going to be, "What can I come up with that is more attractive, cheaper, more interesting, or more efficient than what's currently available?"
 

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This slide shows how four makers of cigarette lighters tried to answer that question.


 

Here are four more. A very early model can be seen at the right. It's not entirely clear to me how it was supposed to work. Presumably the flint is presented to the wheel through the shaft beneath it. Thumbing the wheel would produce sparks, but most of those sparks would be directed to an area well below the wick. The lighter at the left, the Ronson, represents a clear improvement, and deserved the success it enjoyed in the nineteen thirties and forties. Then a much superior design emerged, the Zippo, to the right of the Ronson. It carried more fuel, provided a wind-guard for the flame, and had a simpler and more reliable mechanism. It drove the Ronson out of the mass market--but was ultimately driven out of the mass market itself by the familiar disposable of today.

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When I was a boy, you could buy a ruler like this at any hardware store. It's a fairly laughable relic when compared to what is available in any hardware store today. The spring-retracted tape measure represented such an enormous design improvement that it drove the folding ruler into extinction, so that if you should want one today, you'd have to visit an antique store.


 

   

 

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When I was boy, chairs of this design could be found in almost every yard in middle America.

Today you can find them only in antique stores, because they've been driven into extinction by a far superior design.


 

The molded plastic chair is more comfortable, lighter, cheaper, maintenance free--and stackable. It's no surprise that it's supplanted every other all-purpose chair in the mass market.

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In Ishmael I made the statement that we have a civilizational system that is COMPELLING us to destroy the world. This is something people understand very quickly. It seems almost self-evident. I make an additional point, that our civilizational system works very well for PRODUCTS but very poorly for PEOPLE, but I don't really go into this very deeply in Ishmael. I'd like to use this opportunity to do so here.

We've just had a look at why our system works well for products. In fact, it works superbly well. In just a hundred years we've gone from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, from the telegraph to satellite television, from clunky calculators to computers capable of billions of operations a second.

Our system for products works well because it's well understood and accepted by all that there is no one right way to make a cigarette lighter, no one right way to make a camera, no one right way to make a chair, no one right way to make ANYTHING. Products are EXPECTED to evolve and ALLOWED to evolve in much the same way that beetles and butterflies and bananas evolved, by a form of natural selection in the marketplace.

The social organizations we see around us in the community of life. . .


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The school . . .

The troop . . .

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The flock . . .

The tribe . . .

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are also products of evolution. They've each survived millions of years of testing by natural selection. It's no wonder they work well for their members. They work as well as eyes work, as well as beaks work, as well as nests work, as well as hands work.

But our social organization isn't the product of natural selection. It's a product of the Rube Goldberg school of design, a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts. In Ishmael I compared it to an early flying machine--of the type that could GET into the air (if you pushed them off a cliff) but that couldn't STAY in the air, because they were not built in accordance with the laws of aerodynamics.

The school, the troop, the flock, the tribe (to mention just a few of the social organizations that have emerged through natural selection) are stable organizations because they work well for their members.

Our organizations are fairly stable, not because they work well but because we FORBID them to change. They're stable . . .

By decree. The Constitution is the rock upon which our society is built in the United States. As we all know, that which is built on a rock is stable, because rocks are stable--unchanging, not subject to natural selection. Of course our Constitution can be changed, but you know how difficult THAT is. It's difficult BY DESIGN. There's that word again.


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Because we desire stability, we cobble together an organization DESIGNED to resist change.

Law . . .

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Justice . . .

 

Order, maintained by a standing army of police. People like these English workers in the General Strike of 1925 were perceived to be the enemies of order and stability--and are still so perceived today. As designers, however, we should see the matter differently. The very fact that these workers are striking should tell us that there's something wrong with the design of their organizational system. But IN that organizational system, we don't change the DESIGN.

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We hire more troops.


 

We enlist and train right-thinking civilians to combat the malcontents. When I say "we," I don't mean to suggest that this is a 20th century phenomenon. Every age had people who threatened the stability of the organization. As today, these trouble-makers weren't examined as signs of a design problem.

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They were burned at the stake.

Or put in the stocks.

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Or hanged. Nowadays, of course, there are far too many trouble-makers to be handled in these relatively primitive ways.

We have to build vast warehouses to hold all the malcontents, misfits, and criminals that are produced in our system. But we don't perceive this to be signaling profound design flaws in the system. In general, we don't ask ourselves, "What's wrong with the design here?" We ask ourselves . . .

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Click on the image to see a larger version "What's wrong with these boys? What's wrong with these boys who, enjoying the highest standard of living the world has ever known, go to school one day ready to murder. Having gunned down as many as their schoolmates as possible, they then hoped to steal a plane and crash it into New York City. What kind of FIENDS are they?

When our children start becoming murderers, we typically don't wonder what's wrong with the system that's turning them INTO murderers, we wonder what's wrong with THEM. Imagine an assembly line that out of every hundred vehicles turns out one that is horribly defective. Then imagine--instead of examining the assembly line--taking the defective vehicle out and shooting it. Then, when the next one comes along--instead of examining the assembly line--taking THAT one and shooting it. And when the next one comes along--instead of examining the assembly line--taking THAT one out and shooting it.

I was amused last year when, after the Jonesboro massacre, the prosecutor of THOSE boys vowed to go after them so fiercely that he was going to SEND A MESSAGE to the youth of America. And what was the message? WE'RE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS SORT OF THING. Understand that? We're not just going to put up with it!

We're not going to CHANGE anything--no no, everything's perfect the way it is. We're just going to punish the hell out of you. And that'll send a message. So the NEXT bunch of boys who think of massacring their schoolmates will stop and say, "Wait a second! Hey! What was that message about massacring your schoolmates? Oh, I remember now. If you massacre your schoolmates, they're going to send you to jail for a thousand years. Or is it two thousand years? Well, I guess if it's going to be a thousand years, we'd better not massacre our schoolmates. If it were only twenty years or fifty years, then we could go ahead. But a thousand years, wow. I can't do a thousand years."

Was that the problem in Columbine--that these boys just had failed to get this message? Were they under the impression that they were just going to get slapped on the wrist for gunning down their classmates and blowing up a school and crashing an airplane into a city block? Did they do all that--or plan to do all that--because they had the mistaken idea that no one would mind?

No, it's perfectly clear that they were not under any illusion about the consequences of their actions. They expected NOT to survive their adventure.

The question I want to leave with you as designers is this. How have we gone about nurturing children who have so little to live for and so much to hate that they'll happily throw their lives away if they can murder 500 classmates, blow up a school, and crash an airplane into a city block? Please don't tell me about violent video games and violent music. Instead, tell me how we've gone about nurturing children who WANT violent video games and violent music, who THRIVE on violent video games and violent music.

In general (it can be said with reasonable justification) natural selection works on this principle, "If it doesn't work, do it LESS." Any gene that works against reproductive success tends to be eliminated from the gene pool--is found less and less in the gene pool until it finally disappears. Doing less of what doesn't work is a principle that is practically instinctive to the human designer. But when it comes to our social organizations, the people of our culture follow a very different principle: If it doesn't work, do it MORE.

I almost always get a laugh with this statement. I'm not sure whether it's the shock of recognition or if people just think I'm kidding. I'm certainly not kidding. The principle is best seen at work in the institutions dedicated to maintaining the stability of our structures and systems. It's an anti-evolutionary principle, a principle that keeps anything new from happening. Here are some examples.

If spending a billion dollars doesn't win the war on drugs, spend two billion. If spending two billion doesn't work, spend four. Sound familiar?

If hiring a thousand cops doesn't stop crime in your city, hire 2000. If hiring 2000 doesn't work, hire 4000.

If sentencing criminals to 10 years doesn't work, sentence them to 20 years. If 20 years doesn't work, sentence them to 50--to 500, a thousand!

If building a thousand prisons doesn't work, build 2000. If building 2000 doesn't work, build 4000.

If assigning two hours of homework doesn't work, assign three. If assigning three doesn't work, assign four.

I became aware of this principle when I was the head of the mathematics department at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. Someone gave me a white paper that had been put together by the National Association of Teachers of English examining the state of teaching and objectives for the future. In spite of all the themes we give them to write, they said, kids aren't learning to how to write. So what we have to do is--guess what?--give them MORE THEMES to write. Writing 20 themes a year doesn't work, so give them 30. And if 30 doesn't work, give them 40.

If you're taxpayers, you've seen your tax bills for education escalate steadily, year after year, decade after decade, as every year the schools struggle to do more of what doesn't work. Everyone connected to the system is completely convinced that if spending nine trillion doesn't work, then you just need to spend ten.

Naturally there were counselors at Columbine High School. But after the massacre, Janet Reno stood up and said, guess what, that we need to push for MORE COUNSELORS. Having counselors didn't work, so NATURALLY we should have MORE of them, and if one for every hundred kids doesn't work, then we should have two, and if two doesn't work, then we should have three.

We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products. But we don't have a system that works wonderfully well for people. That's the lesson to be learned at Jonesboro and Columbine--and at the places that are going to follow, because these two aren't the last two, they're just the first two.

We have a system that works fabulously well for products. But the one we have for people stinks. This is the lesson we've got to learn--or the human future on this planet is going to be a very bleak one indeed.

So this is the message I'd like to leave with you. For the sake of the human future, don't take your designer's hat off when you leave the office. Don't limit your work or your thinking to the objects and physical structures that people need and want. Look at everything that's going on here with designer's eyes. For the sake of the human future, go after it all like designers.

 

Address given at EnvironDesign 3, Baltimore, MD, April 30, 1999. 

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