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Jan 7, 2008 9:05am

napkin vs. towel

This is the post where I say pessimistic things about sustainability and sustainable design, Bruce Mau be damned.

Design blogs (incl. Inhabitat, Yanko Design, and Core77, among others) frequently feature student projects where sustainability has clearly been considered in the design process. These seem to fall into two rough camps. On one side, there are projects like the Napkin PC by Avery Holleman, a note-taking computer in a square, flat form that you can write on. On the other, there's NIIMI's Towel With Further Options, a towel.

Both of these designs are lovely, but the Napkin PC wears its environmental claims like a fig leaf: it "replaces" printers, and the layers of material (plastic, circuits) can be pulled apart for separate recycling. This is sustainability as an expectation of future dividends, active only at the end of the product's life cycle in a specific set of circumstances. Don't forget to peel the layers apart, and send each to its proper recycling destination!

The towel has a complete lifecycle embedded in its construction:

Towels take every day dirt and gradually become damaged. In accordance with such changes, you can downsize the towel with "further options" from a bath towel to a bath mat, and then to a floor cloth and dust cloth. The towel has a vertical and horizontal textured surface that does not produce pile-fabric waste when cut with scissors.

It's hard to exaggerate how happy this makes me. It's a beautiful answer to the variety of wiping cloths we use day-to-day, and the place each occupies on a "dirt gradient" from snowy white bath towels to the pile of old rags under the kitchen sink. No more difficult to manufacture than a regular towel, modifiable with just a pair of scissors, and addresses a mundane, universal situation.

The Napkin PC, on the other hand, is an expression of the technoutopian approach to sustainability, an attitude I see in many areas beyond design. I'm ignoring the questionable choice of a form factor that aims to replace ubiquitous, cheap napkins and post-its in favor of a mini table PC. 15 years ago, Saturday Night Live considered an equivalent idea funny enough for a commercial spoof, the Macintosh Post-it, but now it's seeing serious consideration.

The hallmarks of technoutopianism are faith in technological advances and the assumption that it's possible to black-box environmental considerations. Sustainability becomes a product feature that the designer put there, instead of a heightened awareness of everyday actions and their environmental consequences. There's a mismatch here between a need for conscious practice and a desire to make it disappear behind a curtain of curbside recycling, carbon offsets, and hybrid cars. An example of this tension lives in the difference between "green" building and "natural" building. My girlfriend Gem explains that the difference lies in the "green" focus on consuming new products that save resources in some way (e.g. efficient appliances, high-tech windows) vs. the "natural" focus on modifying plans to fit available resources (e.g. re-use of old materials, responding to local conditions). Both are good, I suppose, but "green" is less-good: you get situations like the City of Berkeley stipulating that new building permits require energy efficient appliances, nevermind the upfront environmental cost of ditching a washer that works in favor of buying a replacement.

I'm interested in sustainable solutions that refuse to black-box the problems they seek to address. NIIMI's towel has a patterned grid whose presence is a constant reminder of its purpose. Carbon offsets leave no such imprint on your awareness: your plane flies just as quickly and burns just as much fuel as it did before you paid for the indulgence, and it's unclear where your money went: did you pay for someone else to take a train or stay home? Check out CheatNeutral for a hilarious send-up of the offset-trading concept. Bruno Latour highlighted the weakness of the black box in Science In Action: it "moves in space and becomes durable in time only through the actions of many people; if there is no one to take it up, it stops and falls apart however many people may have taken it up for however long before." Resource and energy use is one concern that gets harder to lock up the more it's ignored, and at some point the daily consequences will make themselves felt. I don't expect it to be tragic, Jared Diamond notwithstanding: people once crossed oceans in sailing ships, and the internet is making it increasingly easier to not have to travel around so damn much.

I do believe that there's going to be a shrinking of our horizons that will need to occur over the next century in the form of increasingly expensive energy and all its implications for agriculture, travel, and the choices reified in our environmental infrastructure. The current sub-prime mortgage fiasco is an early warning shot, and I'm burning with curiosity to see how it plays out. Will the suburbs around places like Sacramento, CA or Phoenix, AZ shrink back to reflect changing realities, or will they simply be abandoned and left to decay? If they are dismantled, can the land they currently occupy be returned to food production, or is it effectively dead from prolonged concrete encasement? How long does it take for a formerly built-up area to return to a state of productive nature?

These are the kinds of ghoulish, unpleasant questions that I would be interested in seeing addressed more effectively. I'm unimpressed by a big-D Design community with a tabula rasa mindset that solves problems by replacement rather than repurposement. Like the NIIMI towel, there are ways for designers to make conscious re-use desirable and interesting in our day-to-day lives, in favor of the silly, useless, or misguided.

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