Saturday, April 14, 2012


Progress, by Arthur Brown Durand, 1853

I wrote this post last week while sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in Vancouver, B.C. I didn’t upload it until I returned home to Oregon because they lack an Internet connection. In fact, my elderly parents don’t have a computer, or a tablet, or a smart phone. They’re not Luddites; they simply fail to see a reason to own any of these technological marvels.

There was a time not so long ago when we all got along perfectly well without the Internet. That’s no longer the case today. The wheels of commerce fall off when computers cannot talk to each other. We shop and bank, file our taxes, and monitor our investment portfolios online. Retailers track our buying habits. For better or worse, we’re tethered together in an electronic ecosystem.

The rapid rise of social networking is a case in point. Facebook is only eight years old; Twitter even younger. Those of us who use these services (or Linked-In, or Skype, or Google+) on a daily basis are so obsessively interconnected that we cannot imagine our lives without them. The irony is that few, if any of us, could have envisioned the explosion of Internet-based social networking a mere decade ago.

If you’d asked the college-aged me back in the late 1970s to imagine today’s hyper-connected world I wouldn’t have been able to (if I had, I’d be a wealthy man today). Instead, my disco-era visions of the world in 2012 would have included hackneyed dreams of space exploration, dramatic breakthroughs in medical research, or utopian communities. Surely we’d be commuting to work in flying cars by now. Without doubt work itself would occupy fewer of our waking hours thanks to robotics and other labor-saving advances, and our free time would correspondingly expand.

The point is the future has a way of surprising us. Progress isn’t always predictable, nor does it always follow a straight line. Despite the prognostications, our daily existence has not become simpler and filled with leisure. Instead, our lives are more complex than ever and subject to the interaction of myriad systems beyond our individual control. At the same time, our society is more diverse and more tolerant of differences. We live longer and healthier lives. We’re increasingly aware of the harm we are doing to the environment and marshaling the will to do something about it.

While in Vancouver, I read Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was emotional, ruthless, and self-absorbed. He was also a fearless genius, a self-identified rebel, champion of the “insanely great.” Jobs believed his customers didn’t know what they wanted until he showed it to them. He created Apple, a company that played an outsized role in conceiving the future we now live in.

We don’t know who the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg will be. There is undoubtedly a visionary in the pipeline who will likewise impact our lives and culture in ways we cannot foresee. That visionary may be an exceptionally gifted and charismatic architect or planner whose “killer app” resets the paradigms under which we practice.

What will this leap of imagination be? I like to think it is out there, just beyond our grasp. The Internet transformed the way we learn, interact, and conduct business. There may be a breakthrough that likewise transforms the design of our built environment. Picture our world if we had a solution at hand which wondrously solves some of the most vexing problems confronting architects.(1)

I suspect my parents wouldn’t immediately appreciate the importance of such a breakthrough. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful it will occur and alter our current trajectory to move us toward truly sustainable communities and lifestyles. That would be progress.  

 (1)   The scope of these problems, which boils down to unsustainable growth, is much greater than architects alone can address.

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