11.16.12 | Transblog
Judging by a quick survey of the Transdisciplinary Design class and Jamer’s colourful Obama T-shirt worn on November 6th, most people seemed to vote for the Democratic candidate in the recent election. Putting aside issues of abortion, AK-47s and “binders of women,” one of the crucial differences between the donkeys and the elephants is their political Liberalism and Conservatism, respectively. However, if we compare political Conservatism to some of TransD’s claims and values, then perhaps we should be voting red and not blue.
Let me explain.
The Democrats claim that to raise the standard of living, create jobs and get the economy back on track, we need more social welfare, higher taxes and generally more government involvement. Romney, for the Republicans, shoots these ideas down claiming that government is inefficient and we should have more privatisation, free-markets and lower taxes for business. Let us then compare these policies to some of our readings in the Trans-seminar.
For example, by raising the taxes for the rich, Obama wants to generate more income for public programs and balance the economy. Romney, however, argues that in doing this you slow job creation. By his thinking, if you give people freedom to do what they want with their money, they will invest it much more effectively than if the government takes it away from them, a concept popularly known as trickle-down theory (although Romney would never be so bold as to call it that).
I think this is directly comparable to discussions we have had about bottom-up design. Rather than having a central governing body, let the smaller base level components of a system redistribute wealth and jobs as they see fit. You could also call this designing for emergence – creating a self-organizing system that transforms into something unexpected new and better. So why is that TD is seems to be so staunchly blue?
As Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems asserts, the intended purpose of a system often isn’t its actual behaviour or outcome. Romney’s claim that tax breaks for the rich create more jobs is a fallacy. Making the rich richer creates a reinforcing feedback loop that perpetuates the wealthy’s ability to make more and more money while leaving very little for anyone else. Romney’s plans to increase privatisation and give more tax breaks while cutting public programs clearly falls into this system trap.
Similarly, the problem with designing for emergence is that you are designing for unintended consequences or, tacitly saying, “I am not sure what’s going to happen and that’s ok.” Design and the unintended don’t go well together; in fact, they are the antithesis of each other. Design is creating preferred situations and unless your preferred situation is chaos, you should probably attempt to contemplate as many long and short-term consequences of your design as possible. Steven Johnson in Emergence cites ants as a good example of emergent behaviour. In ants, we don’t understand their self-organizing behaviour or the long evolutionary process that created those behaviours, so we call it emergent. Unfortunately, by the same definition one could call everything from rain to the Big Bang emergent, which leaves it rather redundant.
The Republican party’s policies are an excellent example of what I think it really means to design for emergence: they have designed a system they think will work, but there will be unintended consequences, of which some will be good and some will be bad. This doesn’t sound like design at all, but rather an experiment; a process of design, but certainly not something that should be used to solve a “wicked problem” like the US economy.
“Designing for emergence is oxymoronic,” said one classmate of mine, and he’s right: if you intend the unexpected, then it is no longer unexpected. I say, either you design well or you design badly. By this standard, the Republicans design badly, perhaps explaining our class’ swing toward the Democrats. However, if we are to knock the Republicans policies and call them ridiculous and immoral, then we should be willing to be a little more self-reflective and question: is what we discuss just as ludicrous?