Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Neurath’s boat

The Propagelle Project has been humming along now for almost 20 years. We had a vision of a regenerative, self-sufficient, owner-built homestead popping up like a mushroom in just a few years.

That did not happen. What has happened is that we have had our vision tempered by the exigencies of reality—go to work, pay for stuff only with cash, do the work yourself, and learn and document daily. Nothing has slowed us down or taught us more than constructing a compressed earth block machine to make the bricks that will form the walls of our new (and final) off-grid home.

Getting a block machine to make perfect blocks (which it finally does) reminds me that the focus of our lives and technology must be on process and not on the product.

By focusing on “process,” it makes it easier to stay focused and solve each problem as it arises rather than get frustrated about the unforeseen problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. Goal-orientedness is a major affliction of innovators. It makes us stressed and angry and, worse, it leads to abuse of those around us and those who must help us—even if we pay them.

The process of perfecting the CEB press nicely defines the difference between goal-orientedness and having a trajectory—which I have commented on before. A trajectory allows me to see the big picture and the general direction I intend to go, but it does not drive me—condemn me because I am “off” some self-imposed schedule. I only have to ask each day if I am moving and headed in the general direction. If a problem arises I didn’t foresee, then I just have to fix it. If it rains today, then I’ll fix it tomorrow.

But there is one other very important lesson the CEB machine development process has taught me. I wanted a perfect, out of the box, plug and play, machine that was both cheap and beautiful.

We’ve come to expect that with our cars and computers. It’s a kind of magic that deceives us by its packaging and presentation when behind it, and without fail, is misery, abuse and a huge pile of pollution.

So we take what we have and begin the patient work of thinking, design and testing so we can move towards a useful and efficient machine, not by magic or big money, but by clear thinking and efficient use of muscles and tools. Steel and wood do eventually yield to muscle and brains, and the reward is an artisanal satisfaction no robot could ever match. But the artisanal process is tiring and we want to be saved from it, transported to a magic kingdom where it all works in some shiny, push-button paradise. Well, we don’t actually, because the real cost of such a kingdom is our humanity—we become just one more fixture, and we must smile, get in line and follow the “program.”

This whole struggle of what to do and how to do it is not new. I have taken great courage from an old mathematician-philosopher named Otto Neurath. Old Otto way back in 1940, having escaped the Nazis in a tiny boat and sailed to England, suggested that changing our world-view and our technological culture was like re-building a boat while at sea. We all inherit a boat we did not make. We are alone in that leaky boat—our boat. We have to be very careful about what we take apart lest we sink our own vessel while trying to get pieces from it to make improvements. That’s one reason why advice rarely works—we are not in their boat! Fixing the next guys boat is not going to happen. Piracy, which is popular in America, actually hastens the sinking of the entire fleet—the very thing upon which a pirate depends. Very short-term approach, piracy is!

Obviously then, we can only use what is at hand to fix our leaks and keep sailing in what we hope is the “right” direction while signaling to the next boat our peaceful intentions. What’s hard, however, is if you perceive that the “armada” around you is not headed your way and so you must sail against the currents—be they cultural, technological or philosophical.

The “take home” here is that, regardless of which way we are headed and in what company, we are stuck in our inherited boat. There isn’t any magic.

It has taken three years and double the estimated cost for getting the CEB press I want and can now proudly advertise. We still have some modifications to make, but they are not substantial. I have to say it was worth the R&D money and effort to see this thing perform—finally.
4 blocks in a row

1 comment:

Aidan Williamson said...

This post is... beautiful. Thank you.