Category Archives: theory


I was just finishing reading Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop and near the end he wrote about a conference held in 1990 regarding sustainability…

Gus Speth, a founding member of the MacArthur Foundation, made a list of 6 fundamental transitions that must take place in the very near future for us to reach a level of sustainability.

1. A demographic transition to a roughly stable world population.
2. A technological transition to a minimal environmental impact per person
3. An economic transition to a world in which serious attempts are made to charge the real costs of goods and services – including environmental costs – so that there are incentives for the world economy to live off nature’s “income” rather than depleting its “capital”.
4. A social transition to a broader sharing of that income, along with increased opportunities for nondestructive employment for the poor families of the world.
5. An institutional transition to a set of supranational alliances that facilitate a global attack on global problems and allow various aspects of policy to be integrated with one another.
6. An information transition to a world in which scientific research, education and global monitoring allow large numbers of people to understand the nature of the challenges they face.

I thought this was a nice holistic view of the issues that need to be tackled (also I like point 3 and his use of the world deplete:) I think breaking up the problem into the different types of transitions that need to occur make us feel like we all can use our particular skill to help solve the problem. As a student of communication design, I feel like I can help in the information transition, and I think this project is a demonstration of a type of information transition. This goes to show that you don’t have to be an engineer, politician, or architect to have an impact. I think it should also be noted that this is an extremely complex problem, and looking to make any of these transitions independently of any of the others is impossible. Each transition is interdependent.

On a side note, tonight I went to the Toronto launch of the World Changing book. Edward Burtynsky hosted the event and spoke about his work in China and about his involvement with the World Changing team and with Zero Footprint. I haven’t picked up the book yet but it looks good, also I would recommend you check out their blog, they have also just started a local Canadian blog as well and are looking for submissions of world changing work going on in your area.


Network Theory [are we like telephones?]

Last week I tried to relate what we are doing to a biological system, using Richard Dawkins concept of a meme as a starting point. It was a fun exercise, and learning experience.

Tonight I’m going to see how this depletist project fits into network theory. Again, please bare with me as I am no expert in network theory, but I did spend a good part of the day reading up on it. If you by chance are an expert of network theory I’d love to hear what you think, heck even if you aren’t an expert I’d still love to hear what you think.

Here we go…

Environmentalism has always seemed like an all or nothing deal to me. I have found myself asking why should I stop driving when no one else is going to stop? Why pay more for green power if everyone isn’t going to?

This is dangerous thinking. This logic is seen when people buy bigger cars for safety (thus requiring the next person using this logic to buy an even bigger one, etc), also when countries have nuclear weapons (if country x has one then country y thinks they need one to protect themselves, so country z thinks they need one to protect themselves from x and y, etc.)

This phenomenon uses logic skewed through a lens of fear. What if we exploited this form of logic for a good cause. If we used this logic, but skewed it through a lens of faith, to create positive change. The faith I am talking about has nothing to do with religion, it is a faith in man to make a decision beyond short term gain. This made me ask, is it our lack of faith in others that holds us back from embracing environmentalism?

As I learned today on wikipedia there are two kinds of economic value to be concerned about when thinking of network effects:
1) Inherent – My value from my using the product
2) Network – my value from your using the product

The network value can then be subdivided:
2.1) Direct Network Value is an immediate result of others adopting the same system (i.e.. e-mail).
2.2) Indirect Network Value is the secondary result of many people using the same system.

Let’s look at network theory in context to this project. Economic value can be seen as positive environmental change, so an increase in economic value is an increase in positive environmental change. The product is the word / thought depletist, and the network is society. We can look at system as being analogous with environmental lifestyle.
What is the inherent and network value of this project? My value from using the word is that I have a tool to label both people and actions (of others and my own). This allows me to identify concisely when something is going against the system, giving me an opportunity to avoid or condemn the activity. The networks value increases because I am using a tool to forward the goal of the system.

This will (hopefully) create a positive network effect. The more people using the word the more powerful it becomes. A common example of a positive network effect is telephones. If one person has one, there is no value, but as the number of users increase the value (usefulness) of having a phone increases. There is also the possibility of negative network effects. In the case of phones, a busy signal is an example of negative network effects. This is a result of limited resources. I don’t think a word / thought can run into issues of limited resources, but feel free to prove me wrong…

There are a few equations (the most well known being Matcalfe’s law) that try to define the value of a network based on the number of users, but it seems to be a bit inconclusive as to whether it proves the actual or potential value of a network.

Are environmentalist like phones? If there is only one environmentalist they aren’t going to make a difference, but as their numbers increase they become more powerful. So how can we get people to jump on the bandwagon?

This got me wondering how bandwagons exist in western culture when we are all striving for individuality? Are the bandwagon just getting smaller than they used to be? Two things that are thriving in our culture are MySpace and the iPod. I think one of their keys to success is that they foster individuality. They both offer a space that can be filled with whatever the owner feels represents them.

The problem with bandwagons is that they require everyone to listen to the same band. How can the environmental movement foster individuality within certain guidelines. I think I’m started to veer of in another direction here, but it might be worth coming back to another day…

Back to network theory…

In network theory there is something called positive feedback, essentially the more people that use a product, the more people that want to use the product. This causes the network to grow more quickly as time passes. I gave an example of positive feedback when I talked about people buying increasingly bigger cars. That was based on fear, what if we created a positive feedback system on faith (I believe that if I do recycling other people will too). This will create a domino effect (the domino effect indicates that some change, small in itself, will cause a similar change nearby, which then will cause another similar change, and so on in linear sequence, by analogy to a falling row of dominos standing on end – wikipedia). I think in this case it has the potential for exponential change. Another example of positive feedback occurs when people vote for a politician who appears to be in the lead, thus increasing the voters odds of being on the winners side, and the politicians odds of winning. In positive feedback loops preference increases as popularity increases. 

I wonder how long this loop can sustain itself? Especially in our culture, where as soon as something becomes too cool it’s popularity quickly drops.

Does sustainability not deserve a sustainable solution?

I think this post might offer more questions then solutions (I suppose it would be stranger if I had more solutions than questions…)

I guess what I’m trying to say is have faith that your little (or big) changes have the ability to start the dominos falling, and as more people see the dominos falling the more they will want to be a part of it, thus creating a positive feedback loop and increasing the value of our network.

Love to hear what you think, good and bad.


ps. A few topics I’m going to be reading up on, and hopefully writing on in the next week or so; Tipping Point (Mark Granovetter), Media Ecology (Marshall Mcluhan), and Flock and Flow – predicting and managing change in a dynamic marketplace (Grant McCracken). I’ve really appreciated the suggested readings in the comments, I’d love to hear more.

Meme 2 [we are all cells]

Before I get into a this post I just wanted to share what a nice old eastern european lady said to me after seeing the video at the OCAD open house on Saturday. As she was leaving the room she thanked me, I asked her what for. She replied, “For exercising my mind.” To which I said, “Oh, did you like it?” Her response to this is probably one of the nicest things someone has said about any project I’ve worked on, “It is not a matter of liking, it was intellectually stimulating, it made me look at something in a new way, and that is what I desire from artist and students.” So good work everyone, let’s keep the intellectual stimulation going…

I’ve done a little more reading about the concept of memes, very interesting theory. I like that it relates the structure of biology to the structure of culture. I’m going to attempt to break this project down and explain it in terms of biology. Maybe looking at this from a different vantage point will shed a new light on what we are up to.
To start I’ll explain the analogies I’m basing this on.

Given that, here is my attempt. If you have a biology background, I would first of like to apologize for what I’m sure is an over simplification (and possibly out right wrong), also if you could help me tighten this up I would really appreciate it.

What we have created with our project is a gene. The only way we can have any influence over the organism is by introducing genes. The gene we have introduced will become part of a cells DNA. The gene will be one piece of the instructions that tell the cell what to do. We have the power to introduce the gene to any cell’s DNA we come in contact with (although in this case contact is not limited to the physical realm). Those cells are now capable of passing the gene on to any other cell’s DNA they come in contact with, and so on.
What we do not have any control over is whether the gene we introduce will in fact become a part of the cell’s DNA. The DNA must have a favorable combination of genes to allow this new one to join them in dictating the cells behaviour. We can control how many cells we try to pass this gene on to, but we can’t control whether (even if they have accepted the gene into their DNA) they will try to pass the gene on to other cell’s DNA. We also have no power over whether the gene will have a strong enough effect on the cell’s DNA to be able to perceive any noticeable change in the cell’s behaviour.
We are left hoping that the gene finds a favourable combination of genes in the DNA to have the desired effect on the cell’s behaviour. Once one cell’s behaviour changes, it will begin to have an influence in creating a more hospitable organism for our gene, making both other cells and the entire organism more likely to accept the gene into it’s DNA. Once enough cells’ DNA have been altered then we will begin to perceive change in the organism as a whole.
The gene will likely evolve along the way, trying to find the optimal niche in the DNA for it to affect the cell. We, as introducers of this gene have no control over it’s mutations and combinations, but we know that evolution will result in the fittest gene. Now we just have to hope that the organisms altered DNA is in line with our original intentions.

Well I hope I haven’t over complicated this, or made it more confusing.

So this meme we’ve created with the concept / word depletist will hopefully affect peoples behaviours, and once those behaviours start to change we will see a change in culture. In theory this all works. I’m really excited to see what happens in the much more complex environment of society. What mutations will this project take along it’s way to influencing culture, assuming of course society deems this idea fit enough.
I guess there are a lot of examples of scientist tampering with evolution, with mixed results. I personally think we should let evolution take this idea for a ride. What mutations will be necessary for it to become a part of our culture? What criteria does culture use to evaluate the ‘fitness’ of an idea? If you tamper with evolution will you create something that requires constant maintenance and supervision (I hear corn can’t even grow in the wild any more…).
Let me know what you think. Did looking at this from a different angle bring any new thoughts about what we are doing?



My new word of the day is Meme.

meme (memes)
1. Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples might include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, ethnicity etc.
2. A self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics).

As Steve Portigal has kindly pointed out, this is what we have created.

I am going to do a little more research on memes (as they are new to me) and write another post (hopefully) later today, and look at some ways that we can use the theory of memes to disseminate the word. From just skimming the wikipedia entry on memes, it looks really interesting.

Thanks again Steve for pointing that out.