Friday, August 27, 2004

Sacrificial Design

I have resisted the siren call of blog-dom as long as could, but the cotton slipped from my ears or I wasn’t bound tight enough to the mast or something equally metaphoric because here I am, writing run-on sentences in Daniel’s little outpost of social e-commentary, totally against my better judgment and taste. In my own defense, not only did Daniel pull out the cotton and cut the ropes, but he also kicked me over the side of the ship, gun in hand, while nodding meaningfully towards the shoreline. I hold him personally responsible for my fallen state.

In any case, this is going to be a post about a few things: industrial design, my high-school self, straight edge punk, and the upcoming Republican National Convention. Let’s start with the grand old RNC, whose delegates are beginning to swarm into New York (or at least some sort of politically-sanitized alternate reality New York where the Metro is free and Harlem doesn’t exist) as we speak. The Convention is predicted to be a wonderfully orchestrated bit of televised propaganda, with the Republican Party going in drag as political moderates, just as the Democrats tried to seem as hawkish and pig-headed as possible during their little Riefenstahl moment last month.

Of course, the counter-development to all this is the formation of many planned protests by various groups and individuals during the Convention. With an eye on the upcoming marches and rallies, the national media has been discussing the violence at the ’68 Democratic Convention and are eagerly licking their chops at the prospect of some of the old ultra-violence with which to titillate their viewers. But aside from the typical fear-mongering, all the current references to Chicago ’68 do serve to bring up a pretty valid point of discussion: how does one protest effectively, without either being ignored by the public or used by the opposition?

The classic example of being used by the opposition comes from ’68, when the Chicago police force basically rioted against the protesters, assaulting them on national television with a great deal of bloodlust and cruelty. However, rather than helping out the anti-war cause or getting any amount of sympathy for the victims of the Daley Gestapo, the American public saw the violence as a confirmation of all their worst fears about the anarchist youth and voted Richard Fucking Nixon into office. Conversely, when marches are both massive and peaceful, they are also completely ignorable, as all the many protests in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq turned out to be.

Either way, it feels like the people in power are already a step ahead of you, as they don’t seem adversely effected by peaceful protest, violent protest, and least of all by apathy-induced lack of protest. And all this put me in mind of sacrificial design, which is a very useful concept in industrial design that can be applied to lots of different things outside of construction, and which will be the subject of the ensuing tangent (we’ll get back to politics soon, I promise).

Let me explain by way of example: say you’re manufacturing a car, and you are told that the most common part of a car to collide with a foreign object is the side-view mirror, given that it sticks out from the body of the vehicle and tends to clip mail-boxes, old ladies, and other cars in narrow parking spaces, etc. You are asked to design a better side-view mirror that won’t snap off every time it hits a by-standing geriatric. Now, you could try and make some sort of indestructible black-box type of mirror, which would never ever break. As satisfying as this would be, however, the mirror would probably end up the size and shape of a small tank, and probably cost as much as well.

Option number two is what most side-view mirror-makers do; create your side-view mirror on a pivot, so that it is designed to give way when it hits something and can then be pushed back into place. And that’s pretty much sacrificial design in a nutshell. You build into your design a way for it to break when confronted with too much stress, so that you can easily restore it back to its original state after the stress has been released. If your plastic action figures keep getting their legs broken off, don’t waste time, aesthetic, functionality, and money by recasting them in metal. Instead, make it so that their legs can be popped off and popped back on again, and your problem is solved.

Incidentally, making things disposable is, I guess, the sort of zenith of sacrificial design, in that you make it irrelevant whether any part of the object can survive stress, since it can be easily and cheaply replaced once broken. Anyway, when I first learned about this concept, it really struck a chord in me, and seemed to be a way of articulating something I had felt for quite a long time.

I went to high school at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, South Carolina (represent!). It was a massive, impersonal institution that I hated very very much. I remember seeing the whole thing in suitably narcissistic and epic terms, with High School as this Orwellian system designed to crush me and re-mold me into some obedient young Republican who loved Big Football Team and did as he was told. Most of the kids that went there hated the place, I guess, as everyone hates high school to some extent. And a lot of the kids rebelled against the oppressive authority of the system by doing what the system told them not to do, whether it be goofing off in class, not studying, drinking on the weekends, or getting fucked up in the parking lot.

Now, I hated the school and the people that ran it, but getting drunk at every available opportunity seemed to me to be a pretty stupid way to rebel against them. As I understood it, they wanted kids to drink. They wanted kids to smoke up and fight in class and get thrown out of school, because it gave them an opportunity to fuck kids over. And on top of it all, it wasn’t even original. Everybody, all the adults running the place as far as I was concerned, had experimented with drugs and drinking and violence in their youth. It was part of the established narcotics of suburbia. It seemed to me that typical "youth rebellion" was a pre-designed path that the powers that be had set up, and they weren’t disturbed at all when kids chose to travel down it.

I think these were things that I felt at the time, but might not have been able to give much expression to. However, later in high school, when I first came into contact with the ideology guiding straight edge music and culture, it seemed like something really familiar and I responded very strongly to it. I’m not really militant about alcohol and drug use and take a pretty libertarian attitude towards what people choose to do in their personal lives, but in my personal life, not drinking and not taking narcotics has been a way for me to be more assertive and active and in control, if that makes any sense.

But back to sacrificial design and straight edge philosophy. I think that the way drugs and alcohol were used by high school administrators (and by the legal administrators of this country in general (the continued criminalization of drugs is no accidental occurrence)) is a perfect example of a system of power built along the principals of sacrificial design. In fact, I think any really successful system of power will make sure there are ways of rebelling against the status quo that will do the system no harm (and will, in many cases, only serve to strengthen it). But being straight edge was a way for me to fuck with the rules of that system. Ultimately, I’m not sure that my choices did much to tear that system down, but it certainly kept it from tearing me down, and I’ll count that as a victory.

In any case, here we are on the eve of the Republican National Convention, with many unsavory options before us. I sincerely believe that peaceful marches are not going to have much effect, violence will have a manifestly negative effect, and apathy will have less than no effect (whether that’s logically possible or not). Conventional means of protest have simply been co-opted into the design of the dominant system of power (a system that includes the Democratic Party just as much as the Republican (and yes I know that the Democrats are different from the Republicans in many positive ways, but they are still two sides of one globally hegemonic coin)).

And I know that this is a pretty unsatisfactory note to end on, but I don’t have a fourth option, the one that can go outside the system and really challenge those in power effectively. I hope someone does, and maybe Daniel and I and our circle of friends can come up with one, because another sincere belief of mine is that with our powers combined, we can form an invincible Voltron-like robot of political action (or artistic action, or party action, or whatever the situation calls for). But until that time, however, heaven preserve us from another four years of the Naked Emperor, and God bless Fugazi.

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