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Dudder: The Comedy of Tragedy

If only the participants at the Art Center College of Design's recent summit had as great a grasp of irony as they do of what's wrong with the industry, they might have had as much fun as did I.

A number of the interviews and comments in this month's feature regarding the future of the automobile industry were drawn from the Art Center School of Design Summit held in Pasadena, CA, this past February. Though Art Center deserves recognition for trying to establish a way to approach sustainable mobility, the summit also had its comedic aspects. That's what happens when cynical audience members (that would be me) can't help but notice that the king's socks don't match. What follows are some of my observations.

Alex Steffen, a "solution-based journalist" whose World Changing book and web log are quite influential in the eco sphere (I'd never heard of him), gave a masterful presentation full of observations like these: "Six thousand square miles of the U.S. have been paved for parking, an area larger than Connecticut (5,544 miles2)? How large is the U.S.? (3,537,441 miles2) I think we have a long way yet to go, don't you? You're proud there's a web site out there (FUH2) where folks post photos of themselves flipping off Hummers, and that Americans say their possessions don't make them happy? Could that be because their equally narcissistic fellow citizens are flipping them off?" I'll skip the section about overcoming then regulating out of existence "evil special interests like conventional energy providers and large automakers," or calls for "one planet living" where all of the planet's resources are "divided equitably among the earth's population" because I misplaced my college critique of Das Kapital.

On the second day I couldn't help but notice the design students, many wearing the black tone-on-tone uniform designers the world over have adopted. According to my notes: "Shouldn't Art Center do us all a service and teach its students there are colors other than black, and styles other than a sport coat over a collarless black shirt? For all of the talk about its independence and individuality, the design community has its own uniform every bit as predictable as the corporate garb they abhor. This includes the de rigueur severely rectangular glasses (black, clear, or with a splash of color), but it is better than the sloppy 14-year-old (jeans, T-shirt, ball cap) look adopted by the more rebellious students who think they aren't conforming, though they are." Ironically, some of the students were creating scenes of future mobility scenarios on computers that were beamed onto the auditorium's walls. As I wrote: "Would someone explain just how 'sustainable' this is versus sketching with pen(s) and paper? There are four projectors and five computers, yet yesterday we were scolded for not living more communally. Do the poor kids in Brazil have the same set up? How much coal and nuclear does it take to run all of this stuff?"

My favorite, however, was Jan Chipchase, principal researcher, User Research, Nokia Design, who described cell phones as "transcending time and space." Heck, I'd get one if I they could do more than let me call anyone on the planet at any time (his definition of transcending time and space), as I'd like to go back and settle a few scores, stop the assassination in Dallas, and cook yesterday's meat loaf a little longer. However, his view that cell phones are sensors (time, weather, position, etc.), self-documentation devices, and a way to broadcast status (who you are and what you feel), really had me wondering: "Do we want a world of 'totally connected' jerks that place speed ahead of thoughtfulness, understanding, and context? Does this not change the dynamic from working to live to living to work, tear asunder the idea of permanence, and shift the desire to acquire to data from things? Doesn't that suggest a future of data storage facilities that hold 'interesting' but ultimately unused information, much like the ones that hold old furniture today? Aren't Facebook and MySpace a way to avoid deep, meaningful contacts, and a way to talk about yourself while pretending to be involved with/care about others? Or like giving your money instead of your time and yet claiming Mother Teresa-like status? Baby Boomers (like me) were supposed to save the world from greed, etc., but actually are the crass, selfish jerks they supposedly detested. Therefore, if the pattern repeats can we expect the supposedly 'social' Millennials to be quite the opposite?"

There are many other examples in my notebook, including Axel Friedrich, director of the Environment, Transport and Noise Div. of Germany's Umweltbundesamt telling Freeman Thomas, Ford's director of Strategic Design: "Why do you believe the industry that created the problem is part of the solution? That's like asking the devil to regulate the temperature in Hell!" If he wasn't absolutely serious, it would have been the funniest line of the entire event. 

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