|Doors of Perception 3
Frequently Asked Questions
Answered by John Thackara, Director of the Netherlands Design Institute
1 What is Doors of Perception ?
It is an annual conference which was started in November 1993 as the first major project of the Netherlands Design Institute; (we did the first two conferences with the magazine Mediamatic) 642 people came to the first conference in response to its theme, "the design challenge of interactive multimedia". The main idea then, as now, was to ask - in relation to the so-called 'information superhighway' - not so much what it can do as what it is for? At that time all the talk in America was about tele-shopping and video-on-demand, which sounded very boring. We thought: There must be more than this! - and organised the conference to consider more exciting and socially useful alternatives.
Not really: many interesting and important people from the computer industry are involved - but they are not allowed to make product presentations! They speak on equal terms with a variety of other disciplines. The Doors concept is that multi-media networks and connectivity are economically, socially and culturally important - and that you can't separate these factors. We mix together scientists, artists, business people, designers, artists and policy makers, confront them with a theme, and ask them to react.
The theme of Doors 2 (in November 1994) was "home". Not just home as a market for new products, but home as a social and cultural notion that is likely to be changed by the penetration of new communication media. Go visit the Doors 2 Website.
We have a new theme which I explain below. We have also changed the format. Last year we had 1100 people sitting in a hall for three days and it felt extremely un-interactive! So this year in addition to a two day conference we have added a programme of 12 design workshops so that 180 people can participate actively in driving the agenda, and not only listen to lectures. The workshops are 95% full, but there are still seats available for the other events listed in the Programme.
When we started thinking about a theme for the 1995 conference, we were already uneasy about the gap between discussions about the internet and environmental issues. Some of the hype coming out of the telecoms and computer industry seemed to imply that cyberspace could be some kind of alternative to the real world - as if you could ignore the overwhelming crisis facing the planet's eco-systems. After all, the planet is the only home we have! So we naively decided to pose the question: "How can information technology contribute to environmental sustainability?".
To be frank, this question was driven less by environmental awareness on our part than by our search for answers to that first question about the superhighway: "What is it for?" After two conferences, we hadn't come up with much of an answer, so it seemed a good idea to confront internet pioneers , on the one hand, and the eco-experts, on the other. They both share an obvious interest in the fate of the planet, but for some reason do not interact with each other very much. That's why we say the event is about "info-eco".
Well, the main reason we're devastating the planet is that we behave as if there were an unlimited quantity of matter for us to use. But there isn't. To cut a 30,000 year-long story short (the history of humans on the planet), let me quote Paul Hawken, in his book The Ecology of Commerce : "5.5 billion people are breeding exponentially. The process of fulfilling their wants and needs is stripping the earth of its biotic capacity to produce life. A climactic burst of consumption by a single species is overwhelming the skies, earth, waters, fauna". It's interesting that information technology consumes little energy and is, by definition, "immaterial". Economists have talked about the de-materialisation of the economy, and stated that networks and connectivity would accelerate the trend.
I'll take the liberty of quoting wholesale from Paul Hawken again. (Do please buy and read his book - it explains the whole story clearly and leaves you feeling optimistic that something can be done). Hawken says: "The word sustainability can be defined in terms of carrying capacity of the ecosystem, and described with input-output models of energy and resource consumption... Sustainability is an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations... Leave the world better than you found it; take no more than you need; try not to harm life or the environment; make amends if you do... Sustainability means that your service or product does not compete in the marketplace in terms of its superior image, power, speed, packaging etc. Instead, your business must deliver clothing, objects, food or services to a customer in a way that reduces consumption, energy use, distribution costs, economic concentration, soil erosion, atmosphere pollution, and other forms of environmental damage.
It's an idea, more than a 'fact'. Various experts and think tanks, such as the Wuppertal Institute, the Santa Fe Institute and others, have calculated that, in order to achieve the balance of energy and matter consumption that Hawken and others talk about, we must improve the efficiency with which we use matter and energy by a factor of about 20 times by the year 2040 - particularly when population growth and rising living standards are part of the calculation.
It doesn't really matter if the figure "20" is scientifically exact; the number could be 8, or 80. The important point about Factor 20 is that it signifies a break - a qualitative discontinuity in the way we live on the planet. It means that 'making things better every year ' - which is what many industries are indeed now doing - will not be enough by itself to achieve a balance. Hawken argues that if every company on the planet were to adopt the best environmental practices in the world, the world would still be moving towards collapse - because these 'best practices' would only make things better by a factor of about five.
Well, that's impossible. We may as well give up now. Well, no. Doors is an optimistic project. Our motto is: "If you're in despair, try elsewhere". Ghastly scenarios and projections are indeed dispiriting - particularly when they make you feel guilty as hell for killing the planet. But aiming for Factor 20 is not quite as hard as it sounds: it means "making things last twice as long with half the resources". And we've been told that the economy is dematerialising, so it's not as if we have to reverse some vast trend. It's happening already.
Thinking and acting along Factor 20 lines does not mean we all have to live like Buddhist monks, tramping along dusty roads with no possessions and eating rice. It's about using energy and material much, much more efficiently inside the system - in much the way that nature does already.
A good question. We are a design institute, and it's by no means clear to many people what business we have getting involved in this whole business of the internet, not to mention the environment. Although some people use 'design' as a noun - to describe an object, a building, or a document - design can also refer to processes by which things are produced, or the way things are organised. Design in that sense is as much about people, infrastructures, materials, energy, matter and information, as it is about things. So when you look at the principles of sustainability outlined by people like Paul Hawken - such as minimising the waste of matter and energy, reducing the movement and distribution of goods, using more people and less matter, and so on - you see that all this is about re-designing the systems to make them much more efficient, much less damaging to the environment, etcetera. I must emphasize that we are not proposing professional designers as saviours of humankind on the planet! But we have to start somewhere, and exploring with today's designers what it means to design processes, and not just products, is where we have chosen to start.
Not exactly. Green design " or "eco-design" -tends to be concerned with today's industry - what they call in the eco trade "end-of-pipe" work - re-designing existing products to be recyclable or less wasteful. This is important work, but "end-of-pipe" is only half the story when it comes to achieving sustainability. For that, we have to design completely new ways of living - new products and new services.
We don't know yet! The aim of Doors 3 is to explore scenarios. We are saying to designers: given these eco or sustainability objectives, how might we re-design processes using information technology as one of the ingredients?
Well, consider the eco principle: replace nationally and internationally produced items with products produced locally and regionally. Now we know that information networks can connect the maker of something directly to the user. We also know that logistics technologies - the use of information networks to optimise distribution and storage - have become amazingly sophisticated. So the question we pose is: in what way could we harness information networks to the eco objective of producing locally, without requiring the world's international businesses to shut up shop?
If you look at the Workshops home pages you'll see some other examples of experiments in which we try try to develop scenarios for info for eco ends.
The basic thrust of information networks is to join up with each other, and people are asking whether connectivity means that the sum will be greater than the parts. There's a fair bit of mystical mumbo-jumbo being talked about all this - but on the other hand, we will only reach Factor 20 if large numbers of people work together to an unprecedented degree. So we ask at Doors 3: will the new communication networks help us achieve a new level of collective intelligence, and if so, how?
Doors is about new uses for multimedia and the internet, but it is not about emigrating from this physical world into cyberspace. On the contrary: the root of the eco crisis is that we do not take enough care of the planet. So one of the themes of Doors 3 is about re-sensitising ourselves to physical things, such as our bodies and the planet.
There's been a lot of talk about "community" and the possibility of so-called "virtual communities' among people who only meet in cyberspace (i.e. on the internet). We want to discuss this subject clearly, and make sure we're not exaggerating the potential of virtual communities at the expense of nurturing real ones, which will be extremely important in a sustainable future. On the other hand, we do not believe that five - soon to be eight - billion people can all live in cute little villages growing their own carrots. Most of us will live pretty densely packed together - but we have to do so without gorging on energy and without fighting each other like rats in a box.
We are negotiating with publishers about a possible book but for now DOME (the website where you are now) will be the main way we communicate the results of Doors 3.
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