Thursday, July 7, 2011

White Walls, Abundance (Part 9)

Apple's whiteness device guru, Jonathan Ive; Weissenhofsiedlung door bell
There is no greater contemporary symbol of modern economies than the smartphone; objects, dollar for dollar, millions of times stronger than the room-filling computers used by those early Cold Warriors to send men to the moon. Vernor Vinge, a reliable and fearless prognosticator, says that no one could have predicted how fast cell phone technology has spread; that already, more that half the population of the planet now has access to a phone. Additionally smartphones are blowing the curve of the already exponentially speeding curve of More's Law. The average shelf life of a new smartphone was 3 years in 2007, now it's just 6-9 months. This is an expression of a purely modern phenomenon: abundance.

Unlike the agrarian economies of finite surplus, that required sacrifices on the part of the many for the benefit of the few, abundance depends on the highest level of participation and the greatest possible benefit for as many people as possible. The economies of abundance have their origins in the middle ages. According to Lynn White, "The chief glory of the Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on human power." Like many trends of technological progress it took centuries before the increasing gains in productivity became obvious. And even longer before they began to look inevitable. 
Child workers spinning cotton into gold (1908); Gandhi spinning cotton into justice (1946)

In her 1969 book, The Economy of CitiesJane Jacobs points out: "When Adam Smith looked at England, the most advanced economy of the eighteenth century, he found clues to future patterns of economic development. Mass production was not then the dominant form of manufacturing, but nevertheless Smith saw it as a coming thing." By the time Karl Marx was analyzing class struggle in Manchester a century later, English textile mills were supplying the world with cheap high-quality cloth. 

To understand just how revolutionary the Industrial Revolution was, it is worth considering the impact of its first high-tech product: cloth. In her book, America's Women, Gail Collins goes into some gut wrenching detail about colonial American hygiene and housework. Most telling however is the value put on rags:
The most time-consuming chore was making cloth, and it was also one of the most critical. Early on, fabric was in such short supply in America that there are records of court suits fought over a missing handkerchief or a hole burned in a blanket... One of the great mysteries of colonial women's lives is what they did about menstruation. They did not where underpants, and while latter settlers may have used rags, the early colonials probably would have been reluctant to waste precious cloth. 
The Scarlet Letter (1927); That Girl (1967)

Contrast the material scarcity of the colonial era with these observations on state of the art of textile manufacturing made by an American woman (Jane Jacobs again, this time writing on what she dubbed "differentiated manufacturing") in the years after WWII:
Thanks to this third kind of garment making, one can look at a crowd of thousands of persons in a large city park on a fine day of gathered to watch a parade, and be hard put to find two women or two children dressed in identical outfits... This kind if garment manufacturing that used to amaze visiting Europeans; they took back the extraordinary news that even shop girls and factory girls in the United States were fashionably clothed in a dazzling variety of dresses.
White cladding - from Terrence Koh's suits, to the annealed curved glass curtail walls of Frank Gehry's IAC building, to the iPhone 4 - is an expression of wealth. It is a way of expressing that either, you are prepared to abandon an expensive overcoat as soon as it is (inevitably) stained; that you can afford to invest in building material that will stand up to the elements without aging badly; or that your company is ready to take the care and do the difficult research to find materials that will stand up to the wear and tear of life in a pocket without scratching and yellowing. The reason it looks futuristic is because it represents a particularly modern idea about what wealth is: abundance.
Clad in whiteness: Terence Koh; IAC HQ

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