Almost Everything I See Is Artificial (book excerpt)

These are the opening pages of my new book:
Design for a Better World: How to create a meaningful, sustainable, and humanity-centered future. MIT Press (expected publication, early 2023).

Almost Everything I see Is Artificial, and Almost Everything Artificial has Been Designed

A picture containing tree, outdoor, plant

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Figure 1. The view from my window: Everything is there by design (photo by the author)

Figure 1. The view from my window: Everything is there by design (photo by the author)

As I sit down to write, I peer to my left out the window looking south to the scene outside. I live on a steep hill (the local name is Mount Soledad), so my view extends for miles, across the trees and vegetation outside my window populated by bees, lizards, and hummingbirds. Juncos and crows, red-breasted hawks, and others that I cannot yet name. Even the occasional rabbit. In the distance, I can see the waters of Mission Bay with its many small boats, to the right (west) is the Pacific Ocean with its larger boats and ships, and on a clear day, even the hills of the Coronado Islands, which are in the adjoining country, Mexico.

Almost everything I see is artificial, designed. The house is designed and made by people, but even the yard was carefully crafted out of the hills and ravines to be level and smooth, partially by excavation of some parts and by artificially building up other parts with dirt, some of it from the building of Mission Bay which was created from what once was a wetland and marsh. The result is the largest human-made aquatic park in the United States. “The bay was created to enhance recreational opportunities in San Diego, but doing so has fundamentally altered the ecology of San Diego County” (Wikipedia contributors, 2021).

The plants and animals are natural but carefully tended by people, killing or removing those we disapprove of. The houses and roads are clearly designed, the plants are carefully planted and maintained, from the grass to the towering palm trees, some over 100 ft. tall (30 meters). The weeds were not planned, they are side effects, sometimes called the “unexpected consequences,” except weeds are always expected. So, even the weeds are the results of human action.

What about the animals? The wildlife is natural, but its habitat and survival depends entirely on the protection offered by this quiet community and its plants and buildings that offer shelter and places for burrows and nests. All aided by the availability of food: leaves and flowers for some of the birds, seeds, insects, and worms for some, and small animals and birds for raptors such as hawks to feed upon. So you could say that the presence of all this living life is another side effect: I suspect some of the animals were both expected and welcomed, but some of them, like the weeds, are considered nuisances and pests, as are animals such as the gophers and rattlesnakes.

Note that even the terms “weed” and “pest” are artificial, for they are not descriptions that nature would use. A weed is a perfectly reasonable plant, just as an animal that is a pest is simply living the way it had evolved to live. It is people who label these natural lives depending upon whether they like plants such as the Palm trees or the animals such as the hummingbirds or don’t like them. People prefer grass, carefully trimmed and maintained: weeds are ungainly. People like animals that do not disturb the environment (or at least the animals should do it out of sight). Gophers make holes in the ground, destroying the “naturalness” of the artificially planted, cropped, and maintained lawns. This is not a bad metaphor for many of the ailments of the world. We like the concepts of diversity and naturalness, as long as they do not interfere with our lives.

We live in a world designed by people. Artifacts abound, from our homes and clothes to our tools, our books. The notion of countries and of forms of government are all artificial, designed by people. Even things that we think of as natural, a part of nature such as the earth, the environment, animals, and plants have all been shaped and impacted by the creations and activities of people. And it isn’t just objects. People invented – designed – organizational structures and ways of governing themselves. Hunting and farming. Ways of preparing and cooking food for eating. What else? Name it, and you realize it is artificial, designed. Money, laws and lawyers, clothing, the notion of a country, how people are named. And just as these designs have shaped, molded, and constrained the others, they have in turn shaped ourselves, so we are no longer natural, but have been shaped by the things around us.

Each of us is but one of the many parts of a complex interacting, dynamic system that encompasses all of humanity, all of the earth, and for that matter all of the solar system, for our lives and even our genetics have developed to fit within the cycles of weather, ocean tides, daylight, and climate controlled, in part, by the location of the earth within the solar system. We can neither survive nor even act alone, but only within the constellation in which we exist. So we are one of those things that we live amidst.

For eons we, people, have behaved as if we were rulers of the world, using its resources freely to construct our lives, designing, and creating tools for clothing, for agriculture, for housing and perhaps more importantly, for war, the better to kill the animals that we eat, the neighboring tribes that invade our territory, and those that would take away our power in favor of their own power. The dictionary definition of “territory” states that it is “an area defended by an animal or group of animals against others.” Why does territory, an area of the earth, belong to anyone? Territories are artificial boundaries, invariably designed by the power relations among those designated “ownership.” The concept of territory and of ownership are both invented by people: they are artificial. Even when there appear to be natural dividing principles, such as using rivers or ravines to divide one territory from another, the decision to use these environmental features as boundaries is arbitrary and subject to debate. So yes, almost everything important in our lives has been designed and is therefore artificial, almost everything that controls our lives is artificial, invented by people, with arbitrarily designed boundaries and rules of use and behavior.

I start with the statement that “Almost everything I see is artificial, and almost everything artificial has been designed.”  Why? Because the very act of designing is the creation of artificiality. The science of design is the science of the artificial, a term developed by the Nobel Laureate Herb Simon (1996). Moreover, even though the field of design exists as both an academic discipline and a practice, long before the discipline was given a name, throughout the history of humankind people have designed the tools and structures that have altered their lives and ways of living. Everyone designs who attempts to devise an artifact to aid them in their activities and lives. The artifact can be a physical device (a tool) a way of controlling natural phenomena (e.g., to harness fire for warmth, protection, light, and cooking), or a way of governing groups of people, of recording events, counting objects (starting with animals that were being herded) and manipulating ideas. Designs, whether by professional designers or by everyday citizens or not so everyday mechanics and tinkerers, scientists and engineers, royalty, and its servants, all of these individuals are designers who have created today’s world. A world that is unsustainable. A world that pits the rich and powerful against the poor and the weak.

The root causes are political and economic, deeply embedded in our systems of government, economics, laws, and procedures, all of which are artificial structures and modes of practice designed over many centuries. Many result from the colonization of the world by the European powers coupled with the scientific and technological revolutions developed by these powers. Because these are all human-made, they can be changed.

If it is design that got us into today’s mess, perhaps it is design that can get us out, though not the way design is conceived of and practiced today. We need a new form of design, one that understands and can work with the extremely large variety of issues, people, politicians, and business people across the world.