Massive Change: Optimistic and Simplistic, but Worthwhile

I took a long lunch today to squeeze in a long-delayed visit to the last day of the Massive Change exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, before it goes on its multi-continent tour. I do recommend it as an interesting, thought-provoking show, if you happen to intersect its flight path. The exhibit’s tagline is “It’s not about the world of design, but about the design of the world”, and is (remarkably, for a tagline), accurate.

The show presents a mostly coherent view of a broad swath of disciplines, from urbanism to materials science to ecology to philantropy, environmentalism, development, and hardware design of various kinds, all of which deal with the effect of human endeavors on humanity and the world at large. The show, curated by Bruce Mau, has been reviewed in all kinds of publications, from the (predictable) Globe & Mail ($) to the New York Times Magazine ($) and the New York Times Art section ($), as well as in the blogosphere. Not that that will stop me from putting my 2 cents in.

The show is in an art museum because it uses somewhat trendy “installations” to make specific points (somewhat obscurely), but, as someone commented in the “sound-off” room at the tail end of the exhibit, the content is almost more accurately aimed at a science museum audience than an arty audience. Still, it’s refreshing to see a design perspective which deliberately avoids aesthetic concerns, and focusing instead of notions of societal impact.

First, a couple of random tidbits that stick in my mind a few hours after the fact.

  • As explained in a nice evolution of prototypes, when designing the Segway, the designers decided to make the left hand the “control” hand, even though it’s usually the weaker, less precise hand, because the right hand was deemed too important in its social roles of waving hello, shaking hands, as well as for other non-social tasks like opening a mailbox or picking things up (all of which Segway users do while driving). I like that anecdote because it shows that good design takes incorporates the interaction of the human with other humans and with the rest of the world in consideration of the design of the thing.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has an endowment of $27 Billion, and spends $1 Billion a year, both obviously large numbers which are hard to truly understand. I found it much more interesting to know that the World Health Organization (with similar aims to the Gates foundation) spends only about $2.7 Billion a year. So Bill has a global impact on world health on the scale of the WHO (and possibly greater — my guess is that the Gates foundation is likely to be more efficiently run than the WHO, and he doesn’t have to worry about conservative constituencies). That comparison was fascinating. There’s a whole room in the exhibit about comparisons, some of which are quite thought-provoking.
  • There’s a massive solar thermal tower planned for the Australian desert which, if it works as planned, will be pretty impressive (although it doesn’t seem easy to build or install in all locales. Somewhat more down-to-earth, people are making progress with interesting, dirt-cheap, high-efficiency stoves and fuel for use in the third world, some of which are actually widely deployed.

The section on advanced materials (high-strength glass foam, self-cleaning glass, fancy microfibers, etc.) was among the most dissapointing to me, for two reasons. First, because I love that sort of stuff, and I wanted more physical contact with the materials. Somehow it’s harder to get excited about “nanotechnology treatments” of textiles if you’re not allowed to touch and feel the textiles themselves. More seriously, though, many of the materials presented were presented as better, smarter alternatives to currently problematic materials (PVC-laden foams, asbestos, etc.). The descriptions for the newfangled technology, however, seemed like updated “world-fair” style utopian descriptions of the engineer’s dreams for his inventions, with not even a sliver of skepticism in the presentation.

Asbestos, for example, is still as technically amazing as when it was discovered, and does its job very well, even though it clearly fails spectacularly in some circumstances. With asbestos, as in so many other cases, society’s reaction to the risks of technology have been somewhat irrational. In Paris, for example, gigantic buildings are torn down or rebuilt because of (as far as I can tell) simplistic laws banning asbestos, even though the process of tearing down the buildings is apparently much more deadly (and expensive, broadly defined) than carefully using the relatively safe asbestos already in place. The same can be said about the anti-inflammatories which are being taken off the market because they were overprescribed. Because of what looks like a lousy regulatory regime and overoptimistic drug companies improperly pushing anotherwise good drug, a whole class of drugs for which the risk/reward ratio is exceedingly positive for some patients risks dissappearing off the market altogether. For some folks I know, that risk amounts to a personally terrifying sentence of chronic pain. I still believe that a broader understanding of statistics could have a more positive impact on the world than almost any other field of knowledge. In so many cases, the challenge isn’t in the design of the technology/product, but in its rational use.

In the materials section as well as in the military, recycling and biotech sections, I couldn’t help but think that the text describing the products was the product of marketing departments rather than a curator’s perspective. Maybe I’ve just been too influenced by conversations about The Corporation and No Logo, but that was a dissapointing lack of distance between marketer and social activist.

I did appreciate the context-setting evident in the section on biotech (that most polarized of fields), which touched on genetically modified crops, stem cell research, artificial organs and the like — its description of the products on display were probably taken out of corporate brochures, but at least the exhibit presented a critical “hopes/fears” section, and asked the audience to vote on a question that designers don’t often ask themselves: “should we do this?”.

The New York Times and Globe & Mail reviews of the exhibit, if memory serves, both commented on the unbridled optimism of the show. I must agree. It’s certainly a change from the usual doom and gloom to have a show that touches on global warming, population growth, inequities in development, and the like and doesn’t try to make the audience feel terrible. Still, I feel like a layer of caution, interpretation, and analysis would have been beneficial, especially given the corporate source of some of that optimism. The closing question of the show is “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”. If one is willing to concede the antecedent, it is a great question.


  1. Your talk about the rational use of technology reminds me of DTD, something which has done far more good in the world fighting malaria than it has done bad in terms of environmental impact. I think I read the anti-malaria campaign for all of Guyana used about as much DTD as a single farm in the US. I can’t defend the agricultural excesses, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the health uses.


  2. This show is currently being installed in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. From the point of behind the scenes, this is a very contradictory event. So far, the materials and structures requested from the museum are done so in such a wasteful and non-eco-friendly way it almost puts me in tears. There is so much bullshit going on behind this show and SO MUCH money going into it, that it is nothing more than obscenely ironic. I really hope someone investigates this side of the exhibition.


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