Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Ideal Society, Part 1: The Suburbs; Occupations

Alright, we've hit on all of the major problems of the world, as far as I can tell. Occasional posts will still appear here regarding them, but today, I start a new series: An Ideal Society. It's time to stop talking about why our current situation is bad and start talking about what a good situation -- independent of whether a preceding bad one ever existed -- would look like, hypothetically. Over the months, I've hinted at some of the ideas that I'll be posting in this series, but I think that it's about time that I lay them out more explicitly.

Let's get started with the following two premises:

1. Our entire infrastructure is out of whack.

2. This is caused by bad values.

We waste things. A lot. The environmentalist movement seems to be aware of this, but in their quest to find a bad guy to blame, they've neglected the vast majority of the waste that humans produce in this society; perhaps one of their biggest blunders has been their blatant disregard for how we manage oil. Sure, there's lots of talk -- some of it legitimate -- about alternative energy, but what never gets discussed is that we could have continued to use oil for far longer than we will if we'd only structured society itself in a more rational, efficient way.

Let's pretend that society as we know it doesn't exist. If humans were to be dropped onto the Earth today, with big brains, language, and a need to understand whether the universe has any redeeming qualities whatsoever, how would their society (or societies) be structured in the ideal scenario?

For one, there'd be no suburbs. For two, there'd be no occupations.

Something that people generally don't seem to realize about jobs is that, in addition to being nauseatingly bureaucratic in nature, they're usually designed only to help someone else do his job; furthermore, for some reason, they don't really end.

Curious, isn't it? If jobs actually accomplished something, wouldn't they end at some point? If you need to paint your house, doesn't the need terminate once the house has been painted? You don't devise new ways to paint the house just to keep your family on the payroll, do you?

You might bring up more indefinite chores, like taking out the trash. To this, I say:

1. We already have the technology available to us to automate the majority of modern jobs. The only reason for why 90% of our jobs haven't been taken over by machines is that people need to make money in order to live. If we didn't need to make money, then machines would already be doing most of our menial chores.

2. Menial chores do not require that you hop into a car and drive for two hours to an entirely different building every day at a set time which cannot be violated. This is because menial chores are not enough work to constitute a true occupation, generally; they can be done by anyone whenever they're required to be done without forcing someone in particular to be "the guy" who does them at the same time every day. In short, while the chore of taking out the trash may be indefinite, my role as the person who handles the chore needn't be.

Number 2 takes us to the first assertion above: that the suburbs are a pathetic waste of resources.

Here's how our living spaces should be structured instead:

Housing units as large as one entire neighborhood -- or at least as large as some substantial portion of one, depending on architectural technicalities -- would exist all over the Earth. These units would look something like shopping malls in their openness, though they'd probably be much more aesthetically pleasing, given that no money means no capitalistic concerns over architectural parsimony. They would also contain individual quarters. There would be no leases, no deeds, and no mortgages, just as there are no leases, deeds, or mortgages for those who routinely and lawfully enter shopping malls all over the country every day today; if you wanted to take up residence within a housing unit, you'd simply walk inside at your leisure, just as you do today in parks, malls, libraries, and other public places where accommodations like benches and water fountains already exist.

For our ideal living quarters, though, the difference would be that, instead of mere water fountains and benches, you'd have access to cushioned resting areas, computers, pleasing scenery, and food kiosks. The analog to mall security in this scenario would be a centralized computer, complete with a camera system, alarm system, and connection to the main global network, where all information regarding individuals and material resources would be tracked (everyone would be monitored by a GPS in orbit around the planet). Of course, without money, there'd be no reason to hoard items and, more importantly, no reason to steal, so while the computer's sensors might get tripped from time to time, items leaving the premises wouldn't be one of the reasons for this.

Temporary residence would be encouraged, as exploration, innovation, and creativity would be valued in the place of self-indulgence, material excess, and expectation. The people within a particular housing unit's major lounge areas would likely be entirely different from one month to the next, with those bored of the area or finished with a particular project moving on to see the rest of the world, and newcomers (or past frequenters returning for one reason or another) constantly stopping by to relax and enjoy themselves.

Entertainment would vary, and would likely depend on the technology available per the time period. Modern examples might include fully immersive video games and other kinds of audio/visual simulations, Internet access from major kiosks for learning and interacting with content, mood lighting, and replicas of outdoor locations. Social activities would also be available, such as story-telling, game-playing (including physical games, though video games are already becoming increasingly physical), teaching, humor, etc.

Walls would, in many cases, be transparent; this would discourage privacy in public (i.e. the way that we treat places of work and cars today), promote open communication among everyone (e.g. if you're gay or really into Satanic heavy metal, you'd tell the middle aged woman sitting in the lounge area and never think anything of it), and increase the vitamin D intake for the population. The exception to the transparent walls rule would be private rooms, for the sake of allotting some amount of time for both personal contemplation and sleep.

Although such private areas would be available, when it would come to sleeping, they would be built to accommodate only one person, as group formation would be discouraged. Of course, it would be acceptable for a group of, say, four people, for example, to seek out a quiet room for planning an activity or working on a project, but each room would probably have one bed in order to both discourage the development of special needs (i.e. cutting down on pointless customization of infrastructure while in the process standardizing room sizes) and promote social transparency among the populace.

Rooms would be checked out by a user who would manually change the status of a door's computer from vacant to occupied, with additional settings including a "Please don't just barge in, but I'm open to talk if you need me" setting and a "Do not disturb" setting; the latter would call a computer-authenticated lock, and would also be monitored by the central computer in case the sensor ever remained flipped for substantially longer than is required by humans for sleep -- a sign of someone hiding something, in many cases.

There would be no need to "check out" a room the way that you do at a hotel, as the computer would handle everything by automatically updating the database to reflect room status changes. Check-out times would also be nonexistent, as the number of rooms per living area would always exceed the average population traffic size; where the main computer for a given population center detected that the average number of tracked people within the defined boundaries of the center was encroaching on an arbitrary maximum, an alert would be generated for someone to initiate a new building project for a separate housing unit.

So what about going places? The above description might be fine for a place to live, but what about the exploration that would allegedly be promoted by this model? Isn't what I've just written about the same as what we have today, only larger in scope and more socially open?

Well, no, it isn't. Remember that point two was that there'd be no occupations. Let's run through an example.

I, along with five people whom I've never met before, am a de facto overseer of a research project aimed at developing a way to clone organs. For convenience purposes, our research team has unanimously consented, without intervention from a third party or "leader," to meet at a specific population center designated on our communications devices' maps by an ID number (everyone would have a handheld computer that would provide him or her with names, IDs, and contact information for everyone else).

Perhaps we've chosen the population center based on the recreational activities available there. In any case, we convene at one of its living areas with tentative dates for when we'll be finished our research; there are no deadlines. To get to the population center, we take the public transportation system -- a series of interconnected, centrally managed, and automated vehicles tracked by the GPS. Once we arrive, we live there for about three months, often checking out local places of entertainment or enjoying time at the beach, but never really needing to go anywhere substantially far away. Remember: Every time that anyone in the society needs to commute to a new place of work, he changes where he "lives" to match.

My associates and I become close friends over the three months that we work together, sending our progress to the central computer for anyone in the entire society to read and add onto at any time. Once we've determined that we've made a substantial amount of progress and have heard back from a few interested individuals who want to pick up where we left off (without needing to preserve some profit-generating model, we'd have no reason to shun those interested in temporarily taking the reins), we part ways to relax or work on another, unrelated project elsewhere on the planet -- even if the latter project has nothing to do with medical science.

Contractors, freelance artists, and Wikipedia editors already do this; with the right amount of granular control, central management, and redundancy, real work can get done much faster in this model than it can in our current society -- especially given that there are no CEOs to demand that we manufacture the right amount of basketballs by a certain date or show up at exactly 9 AM every morning to begin scanning papers that are perfectly readable in their non-digital forms. The bottom line: Most "work" today is unnecessarily pushed into arbitrary time slots with pointless deadlines, all because the impetus is personal enrichment and not the betterment of society.

Alternatively, perhaps most or all of the research that I just outlined is done remotely, meaning that my imaginary team and I merely communicate via email and video chat, and are free to move around the world as we please. Maintenance and technical jobs might require physical meetings and close proximity to something in case it breaks, but again, as soon as someone else came in to take my place, I'd simply leave to do something else at another location on the planet.

So, there you have it. No ridiculous commutes, no traffic jams, no preposterous amounts of gas wasted every day. If you want to commute to a place and do work there, you go once, live down the street, and leave when your project has been completed. Even if the project takes years to complete -- an unlikely scenario in a sane, granular society with a socialistic bent -- there would never be a physical place of work without some living space within proximity, available to anyone free of charge. Really, if we can do it for libraries, we can do it for our homes.

Want to save gas? Don't do less; change the locations of your activities.


  1. You might really love Christopher Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language on person-centered urban design, and design of systems in general (a friend of mine who's a programmer on the Google search algorithm gave me my copy of the former). Both books are in my top ten of all time, and my undergrad degree is in urban design, if that's any incentive to read them.

  2. Thanks for the links. The second one sounds especially interesting. I see problem-solving as an activity requiring granulation/modularization, relation, etc., so the idea that base-level problem-solving is most efficiently conducted with flexibility in mind is something that I like to stress. I also see how a morphology of problems and solutions, when designated a syntax, could be represented as a language.

  3. Actually, Notes on the Synthesis of Form is the theory, A Pattern Language is the instantiation. (I discovered this on acid, but it remains accurate.)