Friday, December 02, 2005

A Design Science Revolution vs. the Other Kind

What is the best way to “change the world?” As the members of any activist group, left, right, libertarian, religious, secular, or other can testify, “reforming people” is no easy task. Consult the literature or Internet presence of any activist organization—regardless of its particular orientation—and you will hear the voices of frustration. Why won’t people “wake up” to what really matters (to the activists)? Why won’t they make the needed changes to society?

Most people are now and always have been more interested in securing access to the necessities and pleasures of life for themselves and their families than anything as abstract as “reforming society.” Revolutionaries and reformers frequently bemoan this “bourgeois” sentiment and try to change through guilt-tripping harangues, or even brute force. Yet, isn’t securing access to the good things of life for everyone the stated goal of most “reform” movements? Reformers of different stripes may differ on what those “good things” are (a society governed by Christian or Islamic moral values, a healthy biosphere, a secular, rational order freed from the bonds of superstition, access to various material and cultural values ranging from health care to jobs to leisure time), but all claim to advocate “the good life” in some form. And so, they find themselves attempting to “wake people up” from their individual pursuit of “the good life” to join the activist group in pursuit of…the good life.

When an ideology gains access to the levers of power and uses them to force the bourgeoisie to “wake up” and undertake the needed “reforms,” the results have ranged from the uniformly bad to the utterly horrifying. From Stalin’s purges and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, each killing people in the tens of millions, to the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs (neither of which has even come close to eliminating its target), no government-imposed “reform” can claim anything approaching unalloyed success, and many became outright atrocities.

The core premise of any political “reform” movement, regardless of its ideology, is that the activists “know better” than all those “other people” what they ought to be doing with their lives. The people need to “wake up,” but the activists, presumably, are already awake. It is easy to see how such a superior attitude (right or wrong) could invite resistance from the people, and abuse of power on the part of the “reformers.”

Another problem with any proposed reform calling for major changes in society is that people must be willing to face large-scale alterations in their lifestyle before they can find out if the reform will actually work or not. Naturally, this results in people ignoring, or actively resisting the reformers. Imposing the reforms by government fiat, as in Communist and Fascist societies resulted in a death toll well over a hundred million.

After being “tried” at such horrendous cost, the collectivist “reforms” proved to be a dismal failure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the dream of a government-less freetopia of absolute liberty in which private enterprise provides all “state services” is one that will almost certainly never be tried, at least as long as its advocates’ strategy involves persuading 300 million Americans to rebuild their society from the ground up as an *experiment.*

Is there another way to create positive change in the world, one that can work far more effectively than political “reform,” while respecting the freedom of individuals and avoiding the disasters—and the dark temptations of power—inherent in the political process?

Imagine going back in time to 1895 and proposing the following series of “reforms:”

  • Workers should not live in tenements in cities, but in more spacious homes located outside the city in which they work.
  • People should commonly relocate to different cities or even different states every few years as they pursue new career opportunities and improvement of lifestyle.
  • The vast majority of the American population should be able to travel anywhere in the country within a few days, whether or not railroad links to and from these locations should prove profitable.
  • Teenagers should be able to travel more than a day’s ride on horseback away from their parents as a routine part of courtship and social activity with their peers.

What are the chances that you could gain a political consensus in favor of these reforms, to the point of funding the massive amount of railroad construction and subsidies necessary to make them possible? How long would you spend wishing that people would “wake up” to the value of “universal transportation?”

Though impossible to accomplish by government fiat or crusading advocacy, all were accomplished by one man who created two artifacts: Henry Ford, the assembly line, and the mass-produced, affordable automobile. Ford did not have to urge people to “wake up” from their bourgeois lives and adopt the reforms his creations generated. People went to work for him, and bought his cars in pursuit of their bourgeois lives. By the time the government got involved in a major way—creating the national freeway system—driving was already the true American national pastime.

Though it is possible to complain about various side-effects of the automobile revolution, the historical example is clear: create and market a technological artifact that provides services demonstrably superior to the status quo, and you can cause sweeping changes in society. This approach, called a “Design Science Revolution” has decisive advantages over the other kind:

It is not necessary for all of society to “change” in order to see if the Revolution will work. Each person trying the artifact can decide if it improves their lives or not.

The artifact itself is its own demonstration. No one need read weighty treatises by Marx or Ludwig von Mises and engage in debates over who is right. Failed Design Science Revolutions will be rejected long before they can cause destruction comparable to that caused by totalitarian “reforms” by governments.

The “revolution” is entirely non-coercive.

The “revolution” is self-supporting, even profitable for the “revolutionaries.” Henry Ford never had to ask for donations.

There is no need to scold people or try to get them to “wake up.”

The need for political involvement is minimal, confined to preventing the power-structure from banning the artifact. There is no need to worry that an activist group could grow into a bloated lobbying operation that depends on the continued existence of the problem for its existence and the high salaries of its officers.

There is, however, one major caveat that would-be Design Science Revolutionaries should keep in mind as they create their artifacts: the need to think comprehensively and make sure their artifact will not cause worse problems than it solves. This is best expressed in the following parable, a paraphrase of an anecdote by Buckminster Fuller:

“Draw a triangle in the sand,” the Teacher said. The Student took her staff and drew a triangle. “Now, how many triangles have you drawn?” “I have drawn one,” the Student replied.

“Not so,” said the Teacher, “you have drawn five.” The Student looked on, uncomprehending. “The first triangle is the area within the lines you have drawn. But the World is a sphere, so all of the area outside the lines is also a triangle. Now these triangles are ‘spherical’ triangles, being inscribed upon a spherical surface. The two I have mentioned, viewed from outside the sphere, are convex spherical triangles. But from the perspective of the inside of the sphere, there are two concave spherical triangles. And then, there are the lines themselves, the structure you have created, which divides the surface of the World into insides and outsides, thus creating the other four triangles.”

“But I only meant to create one triangle!” the Student protested. But the Teacher replied, “Even so, you are responsible for all five.”

Likewise, the creator of an artifact (“structure”) is responsible for all its effects, desired and undesired. Hence, the would-be Design Science Revolutionary must think in whole-system terms in order to best insure that their artifact helps to create the world they truly want. As in the parable, this means viewing the artifact and its effects from multiple, broad perspectives.

As a program of "reform," the Design Science Revolution represents the manifestation and application of intelligence to the challenges we face on Earth.

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