The Plenitude – making stuff in a sustainable way

The Plenitude – Creativity, Innovation and Making Stuff is a deep and intelligent book of Rich Gold (MIT press 2007). The book is funny and serious at the same time. Gold is talking about creativity and innovation, where he was a master. But my concern here is to present his account of plenitude and its problems and possible solutions to them.

The plenitude is the totality of all stuff we create, produce and consume. To quote:

“It is commonly believed that new stuff is hard to make. … But at the local mall, just like in my backyard, almost anything and everything seems to works! Not only are there fifty kinds is clothes (shoes, socks, shirts, pants) and new ones being added each day, but there are thousands of variations of each. … And new categories of stuff are added all the time.”

All industry is based on creating and producing new stuff, because imitation is prohibited by law (IPR). “Variation is built into the legal system of the culture and lies in the heart of the Plenitude.” Although stuff might be immaterial like works and symbols, a lot of stuff is physical stuff. Hundreds of millions people are involved to design and produce material stuff. And Rich Gold, a designer and inventor, said that he feels comfortable making stuff – seriously.

We associate Progress and Industry to the Plenitude. Progress means better products and new kinds of stuff. Industry makes the mass production and mass mediation possible. The new trend is customization, the fitting of stuff to the special needs of consumers.

But – of course – the Plenitude divides opinions. On the other hand

“the Plenitude has such a remarkable ability to provide all the basics in such wild abundance and endless variety and quantity that to those within it, it is barely distinguishable from heaven”.

In the other extreme, people thinks that stuff is Junk, something which we have enough and which is not necessary. Stuff production is destroying the Nature and is possible only by cheap labor of developing countries.

Both parties are some how right. Therefore “contradiction is simply part of our condition”, as Gold puts it wisely. Gold identifies five problems with the Plenitude.

1. The Plenitude creates a world somewhere between the bland and the ugly (look at big cities and normal stuff in homes).

2. The Plenitude blurs the distinction between the real and the faux (because brains are muddling of the real and the image of the real – virtuality).

3. While we (in developed countries) live in the Plenitude, half the world lives on less than two dollars per day (it is the price of a cup of coffee in Starbucks).

4. The Plenitude may very well destroy the world (climate change etc).

5. How many genetically modified organisms gone wrong will it take to bring our life support system down (we are re-engineering out biological Plenitude).

All these problems are wicked and well stated, I think. Are there solutions? There are many proposals, seven in Gold’s book. But all solutions prove that “there is no place to stand without contradictions”. Seven proposals are:

1. Pass the law. Say you can make five new things in your lifetime. Nobody knows how to interpret and implement such restrictive laws.

2. Reject the Plenitude. Fine, go out, but where?

3. Quality over Quantity. The problem is not in Plenitude-ness but it’s Junk-ness. Prefer a 100 dollar shirt over a 10 dollar shirt (craftsmanship, high-quality materials). But what is quality after all, by who’s standards.

4. Zero-growth economies. Develop the Plenitude of services and virtual reality. But isn’t people also material beings, enjoying stuff like driving a car and having nice things in home, instead of simulating them in screen.

5. Just make the good stuff. Concentrate on medicines, sustainable buildings, zero-emission cars etc. But innovations needed here are made perhaps in developing “bad stuff” like weapons, and crazy consumer products.

6. The real problem is too many people. New we are 6 billions and 2050 we are 9 billions. Is 500 enough for good life? What to do for the rest of 5.5 billions?

7. Just love it. We are invisible at the scale of universe. “At he scale of the universe, both in time and space, we are infinitesimal. … It just doesn’t matter. And so why not live in the Plenitude?” So goes the last transcendental solution to hard problems.

Almost any solution proposed in the public discussion about sustainable development is a variety of these seven points. My proposal is a gradual transformation of the Plenitude, it’s categories, production, distribution, consumption etc., to meet the criteria of sustainable development. So we keep the Plenitude, because we love it and because the Nature is also the Plenitude.

But the Nature of the artificial Plenitude must be harmonized with the real Nature. How is this possible? I think, by ingenious innovation changing stuff and it’s production. The first step could be a kind of innovation identified by Rich Gold: change the definition. Try this: stuff is basically not matter but activity.

The Plenitude consists of activities, creation and happiness. Not having, but being and loving.