Design in the Service of Empire

How Innovation is Used to Advance the Interests of the State-Industrial Machine

Karl Popper called it “historicism” – problematically as the term had already established, and even contrary, meanings in various contexts. I prefer Jacques Maritain’s term, “chronolatry”, despite the moral-religious connotation, for the idea that things have a sort of historical propriety erroneously deemed to have an imperative aspect; that is, that anachronism is a crime. I like Maritain’s term precisely because it implies an idolatrous worship of Chronos, “Father Time”. For chronolatry is an error of will as much as an error of wit, a moral error as much as a logical one.

Chronolatry is fallacious in that it considers the unfolding moment to be historically determinate, which in practice means no more than unquestioningly to regard the current conception of the times to be authoritative. Chronolatry is heretically uncharitable because it places considerations of “truth to the Age” higher than finding solutions to real problems, be they immediate of structural. It moves one, when throwing a life-line to one drowning, to ask if it is a proper 21st-century life-line lest its use be sinful, instead of throwing the damned thing. Thus the result of chronolatry is to raise the vagaries of fashion to the status of exclusive moral authority.

It is remarkably liberating to “bracket” chronolatrous ideas wherever one finds them, even if only as an exercise. All kinds of fresh perspectives are enabled the moment one is able to consider things independently of their “historical appropriateness”. And equally remarkable is how difficult one finds it to do this, so deeply has the attitude of chronolatry penetrated our day-to-day perception of the world within so short a time – for this attitude was unknown a very few centuries ago. But most notably one is suddenly able to conceive of technological development in ways other than the simple, inevitable linear progression to which we are all accustomed.

It is certain that the view of technological development as a simple, inevitable linear progression is in the interests of the established State-corporate industrial machine. It is in its interest not only that the prevalent state of technology is constantly and rapidly changing but also that the broad trend of the change is fairly well established in a popular vision of “the Future”. That that vision is consistently erroneous seems to be immaterial for it to be functionally effective.

The maintenance of this view of technological development is an important component by which corporations use intellectual property legislation to maintain a position of crucial privilege. This sets up a pattern where frequent and arbitrary, but technologically significant, changes in products work to the advantage of corporations capable of dedicating substantial resources to research and development. For the same reason it is advantageous that products create problems to be solved by subsequent generations of problems. The product itself creates the market for its successor.

More than that, corporations use a popular vision of “the Future” to define the nature of their future products in the terms unique to their anticipated methods of manufacture. The design profession develops ways of conceiving and representing in line with the materials and processes considered to be “advanced”, and so products are developed to have a look that is best achieved in those materials and processes. Add to this the cachet of the designer, the unmistakable mark that suggests that the product has benefited from the attentions of a true artist in Turin rather than of a mere glorified salesman in Buffalo, and the quality of “designedness” becomes not only palpable, but marketable.

The interaction of drawing technique and product design is a fascinating question that invites a more thorough analysis. At the time of the rise of the industrial design profession shortly before WWII the prevalent technique for presentation rendering was quite similar to that of technical drawing, with the addition of colour in the form of water-colour or chalk-pastel on coloured board. The thinking was also that of technical documentation in that the form was conceived in the abstract first and subsequently represented on paper. This would appear to be an eminently sensible approach; its abandonment represents a real loss.

Over subsequent decades more emphasis was put on the use of doodling and sketching as ways of stimulating creativity, and that is when products started to “look like sketches”. Shapes came to be generated through this semi-psychological method, as shapes which were by stages moulded first into pictures of products and then into products. The conception of the object in terms of material and technique of making followed several stages later than the conception of pure form. But for the recent imposition of questionable hermeneutic aspects this approach to design persists.

Simultaneously the adoption of felt-tip pens and broad markers, with their propensity to “flow” at corners, gave an unmistakable look to components intended to be injection-moulded in plastics materials, which resulted in the “designed” look comprising graphically bold and simple shapes with rounded edges and corners. Look at any product with pretensions to design of the late 20th century, and one can almost see the strokes of the felt-tip pen. This is especially true of air vents and such: here is where someone drew four short lines with a fat bullet-nib black marker. Most importantly, the shapes really want to be injection-moulded plastic, and therefore give an advantage to those who have access to the expensive dies and machinery to injection-mould things in plastic.

Thereafter, of course, computerized rendering techniques arose, but the thinking is still the same graphic/doodle-based, designer-positive thinking. Indeed, the software was developed to pick up on the design thinking that had developed over the previous decades. Both favour abstraction, simplification; both assume a corps of production engineers subsequently to translate pure, abstract shapery into a manufactured, working product.

Of course there are practical pretexts for all of this. Aerodynamic efficiency is a common one, since Raymond Loewy’s streamlined pencil-sharpener of 1934; a pretext to hide the mechanism from the user and discourage her from taking an interest in it, besides allowing more cheaply-made parts to be used under the fairings of motorcycles, for instance.

And this is only that which touches the visible: for the Vision has invisible aspects, too, like the expectation that things will have electronic controls. Most of that is about devising reasons why a Motorola 68000 processor of 1979 would not suffice. This is difficult, as most products just do not have to do so much that a 68000 clone cannot control it, if indeed it needs electronic control at all. Hence a gratuitous multiplication of redundant functionality, all to find a reason to use a newer chip and create a market for it.

Consider for instance the profile of the edge of the battery lid and the main case of a typical mobile phone. If the consideration were cost, or ease of use, or ease of manufacture, nobody in their right mind would shape the cut that way. Other considerations prevailed: first, the free-form interface is hard for others to duplicate, and second, it works well with flexible plastic snap-tab construction, whose rapid failure renders the product unappealing. The prevailing design idiom makes this possible.

Consider plastics as such: most experience progressive embrittlement with loss of plasticizers, so that a product might be robust when new but snap easily after a passage of some years. The embrittlement is predictable if not quite constant. Why is the material used, and why is the product designed to a state of elasticity so early in the material’s life? Likewise, the prevailing design idiom is not really happy in any other material.

In automotive components, the trend is away from the generic and towards the model-specific. In fact it had in the past been quite common for components like lights, generators, starter motors, ignition components, carburettors, brakes, and even gearboxes and axles to be developed on a generic basis and sold to motor manufacturers. Before WWII complete proprietary engines were common. Today components might still be contracted out, but they would be specific to a certain model of vehicle – which changes the nature of the supply contract fundamentally. Because attempts to use intellectual property legislation to these ends has thus far been unsuccessful (see British Leyland Motor Corp. v. Armstrong Patents Co in the UK and Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co. in the USA) the adoption of complex “designed” interfaces plays an important role, interfaces that would be absurd if not for the prevailing design idiom.

There is currently much excitement about the possibilities offered by 3D printing, and rightly; but how much of that is not merely to emulate the prevailing design idiom at volumes far lower than gave rise to it? Does it make sense to put all this effort into achieving a look and feel that is not intrinsically desirable, but which was developed in response to the techniques that best favoured the mass-producer? Does it not make more sense to develop a design idiom that responds to the techniques that best favour the technologically-empowered artisan? In this I submit that 3D printing might play a subtler role than we might expect.

I think many of us would really like to have in the home a refrigerator that looks something like a Shaker wardrobe, if only we can get past the idea that to be a proper modern refrigerator that works well it must look like a large bar of soap stood on end. The former is much more easily constructed using artisanal techniques – including new and innovative artisanal techniques – and if the praxis is well established in a working community the cost may be better than competitive. Moreover, it is natural to and flows readily from those techniques; and as such the refrigerator can be a thing of beauty.

* * *

In debates around the effect of intellectual property legislation on technological innovation the value and kind of innovation that is encouraged is seldom questioned. If, however, one considers the innovation that does happen radically one cannot but wonder what size of majority comprises innovation that does nothing but mitigate prior innovation. The truly, basically valuable innovations are few and far between.

One has to kick the habit of chronolatry if one wishes to understand the problems of the Third World. The notion – thereupon patently ludicrous – that the woes of the Third World derive mainly from a sort of temporal shift that leaves people there “two centuries behind” persists even among those whose direct experience of conditions there ought to enable better insights. The idea pollutes all thinking on the subject and results in gross misdirection of efforts. Most of all it blinds all to the true nature of the problem, which revolves around the relations of land access, discontinuity of skills, and domination by foreign economic presences. To understand what is wrong in the Third World one must adopt the idea that the culture involved was at least 99% technologically functional and complete when colonized. Very few – in the West or elsewhere – can make this jump.

This is by no means to suggest that individuals in the Third World, having been exposed to certain innovations, are unreasonable in wishing to adopt them (and though one could say to that that corporate marketing has skewed this situation, one could also say that many in the Third World have been quite astute in resisting corporate marketing). But it confronts us all with the question of which innovations are really necessary; which are necessary for life to be bearable; which are necessary to live well. And then, again, we find that those innovations which describe living well are fewer rather than more plentiful.

Now, as an anarchist I wholly reject the criterion of necessity for what is allowed and what is not. It is typical of the authoritarian mind-set to equate “unnecessary” with “forbidden”. Nor am I a proponent of “primitivism”: my conception of humanity is one of technological beings. So why do I propose that the vast majority of technological innovation is unnecessary and even undesirable?

Because that proposition changes utterly our idea of technological development. If we cease to see technological development as a relentless march to the fulfilment of a crucial need, lacking which life would be unbearable, we are suddenly free to see it as a free and generous outpouring of possibility – or not, as we variously wish. And that must radically change the form that technological development takes.

And if we moreover understand how the techniques outlined above have been used to create needs for the sake of the “roundaboutness” economy, and how their use has become more aggressive than ever in recent years; and if we understand that the alternative best suited to a freed market and a culture of liberty is a “directness” economy which, though far less productive in terms of sheer product, is far better at provisioning all of us, the appropriate mode of technological development for it might best be called “nonprogressive innovation”.

The prevailing view of technological development as a simple, inevitable linear progression in fact describes an ongoing erosion of possibilities through obsolescence, and it is an historical anomaly. Nonprogressive innovation piles on new methods without thereby making old methods practically impossible. It would give us ever more to work with: and it has, for most of human history.

Posted at C4SS on 21 November 2012

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The Future Machine

Because all technological developments undergo a process of vernacularization as people get into the nitty-gritty and figure out how to make the technology work for them; and because there is on the side of vested industrial interests an undeniable agenda to ensure that the prevailing technology remains a step or two ahead of that process of vernacularization, so that a substantial majority of users never get to figure out how to get the technology to work in any way except as decreed from on high; it is tempting to conclude that our problem with certain technological developments is purely a matter of our position in the processes of vernacularization relative to the prevailing cutting edge, as it were. The corollary implication is that there are no substantive qualitative shifts in technological development that are not resoluble by accelerated vernacularization by vigorous endeavours to “keep up to date”.

As will come as no surprise, given the username I favour on several fora, I take issue with this on several points. Firstly, there is a fundamental change in the mode of technological engagement implicit in digital micro-electronics, in that a third class is inserted between the natural and the man-made, the raw and the wrought: and that class has a linguistic, formal character whose terms are required to be accepted above and beyond the acceptance of pure physics or chemistry. That is to say, this mode of technological engagement relies on the facilitation of an additional agency, which facilitation is not readily duplicated or emulated even in part on a back-yard basis. The protocols need to be animated from without before anything can happen.

Secondly, the very process of change is neither blind nor spontaneous but constitutes the functioning of a “future machine” whose purpose is to maintain the conditions necessary for its own perpetuation, i.e. to maintain sufficient demand for ultra-high-volume mass-manufacture through a state of constant obsolescence. This is predicated on an increasingly vigorous intellectual-property regime, i.e. an unmistakable instance of State-enforced privilege.

The result is an historically largely unprecedented character of technological development that is linear and non-cumulative, i.e. later developments tend to make earlier methods impossible, so that we are all constrained to a perpetual game of Simon Says without really gaining in real net technological power. In this the development of digital micro-electronics has played a pivotal part, as its characteristics are ideal for it. This is in contrast with the broad historical trend in technological development until relatively recently, which has generally broadened the available range of techniques.

Thirdly, as cultural developments the above have resulted in a sort of blindness to the technical prerequisites for the use of the technology. Hence the prevailing view, especially among the technophilic, that microchips are “just there”, and not manufactured in fairly heavily capitalized factories; that they cost virtually nothing; and that every product generation represents a sort of Final Answer. Any normal person would be able to see that this is not so, but for the pervasiveness of this attitude.

What I’d like to see is certainly not technological stagnation, but a different form of technological development, a sort of non-progressive innovation that really does increase the range of stuff we can do, by adding new techniques without thereby invalidating existing techniques.

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Energy and Transportation Issues: Response to Kevin Carson

This is in response to Kevin Carson’s excellent research paper, Energy and Transportation Issues: A Libertarian Analysis, which was recently linked on the website of the Center for a Stateless Society.

It is in the interests of a robust argument that I offer the following, as I am in full agreement with the ideas presented in this paper.  Nevertheless, though perhaps strictly correct there are passages which invite an interpretation, especially when read adversarially, to the effect that the author does not know what he is talking about. There are always details that fall outside an author’s expertise, and it is not good if the possibility of convincing a reader of the merits of an argument hinges on the precise accuracy of these. It is fortunate, then, that a handling of those details out of an intimate familiarity with their minutiae would tend to support our argument more, and not less, effectively.

Though it is understood that reference to power steering and V8 engines is intended as an example of inefficiencies resulting from inflexible, centralized corporate management, the reader familiar with the history is immediately drawn to the apparently anachronistic reference to 1930. The mention of V8 engines likewise may or may not betray the layman’s common conflation of number and layout of cylinders with engine displacement. The most common V8 engine in the years from 1932 to WWII was Ford’s famous “Flathead”, which during that time had the decidedly small displacement of 221 cubic inches (3621cc), considerably smaller than many of the six-cylinder engines on sale then, and only 10% larger than the four-cylinder engine it replaced.

If the intention was rather to point out the excesses of the “classic” American overhead-valve V8 as it developed between about 1950 and 1955, it must be mentioned that they represent a measurable advance in efficiency over what had gone before. They coincided with the adoption of thin-wall iron-founding, which allowed cylinder blocks to be considerably lighter than before. Moreover, a cursory analysis of data contained in Langworth, R (ed), “Encyclopedia of American Cars 1930-1980”, Publications International Ltd., 1984 reveals that the industry-wide trend in specific output, that is, the power produced by an engine per unit of displacement, which had been stagnant through the 1940s after a steady gentle increase through the 1930s, suddenly underwent a 50% jump between 1954 and 1957. The average American specific output was 19.90bhp/litre in 1930 – very low by European standards even at the time. By 1940 it had increased 32%, to 26.32bhp/litre; but would barely increase again until 1954. By 1957, however, when the effects of the new, lighter, short-stroke, high-compression V8s could be felt, average specific output had in three years risen from 33.00bhp/litre to 48.13bhp/litre. It was therefore suddenly normal to get more power out of smaller engines – or, as was often the case at the time, even more power out of somewhat bigger engines.

Now, on the one hand, there is no absolute correlation as such between specific output and specific fuel consumption. Given, however, the unsuitability of extreme states of tune for the broad American automobile market at that time – more on which below – it is safe to expect that fuel efficiency generally followed specific output over those years. On the other hand, the fact that efficiency of output manifested here largely in greater output for the same input rather than reduced input to achieve the same output does point to a real limitation of efficiency as a measure.

It is implied elsewhere in the same paragraph of the paper that weight savings might be effected through electric propulsion. The truth is precisely opposite. The weight of the requisite batteries or accumulators has been the main disadvantage to electric propulsion from the start, and even given the most power-dense modern types this remains prohibitive. The much-vaunted Tesla Roadster is in fact gross, at almost double the weight, compared to the elegant Lotus Elise on which it is based.

Nor, as an aside, is the demise of the early electric vehicle the result of a sort of competition in which the internal combustion engine was victorious, as is often presented; much less was that competition unfairly weighted in IC’s favour by nefarious agencies. The early electric was for the most part a phenomenon restricted to the context of the American east coast in the first decade or so of the 20th century, and specifically to the society ladies in that context. It is remarkable that no parallel phenomenon appeared among wealthy European women, or anyone else in Europe, at that time. The early electric offered a specific performance envelope that suited the requirements of a specific context, outside which I submit it has little value. The job they do best is that most likely to be done by walking in any sane world. At least those early Detroits and Columbias used nickel-iron Edison-cell batteries which, though rather heavier for their capacity than many other types, are virtually indestructible and supremely permeable to artisanal manufacture.

Power steering appeared in the the early 1950s as an extra-cost option on the most expensive American cars, and would not reach anything approaching ubiquity for another two decades. It therefore trailed the tendency to heavier vehicles by almost half a century, during which time the only recourse, for the most part, was to very low-geared and therefore unresponsive steering.

The fact that the American motor industry came to prefer heavy automobiles over quick-steering ones gives a clue to the real issue at play here. Before the early ‘30s there had been greater similarity between the American and European motoring environments than any time since. Thus the development of a wide variety of vehicle types followed distinct parallels on both sides of the Atlantic. This extended to phenomena like the cyclecar, with American examples embodying very much the same sort of thinking as their British and French counterparts.  Motoring was concentrated, with the population, along the east coast of North America, which had by then developed effective and established systems and patterns of mobility, just as such systems and patterns had existed in Europe for many centuries. There certainly was such a thing as an American engineering style, with a penchant for large T-head four-cylinder engines, for instance, being as much an element of it as deeply-V’d radiators were of Austrian and German engineering. But it was not the separate world it became subsequently.

By the early 1930s a small number of American automobile manufacturers had reached a level of political and economic power that allowed the development of a total vision of what the automobile would become. Apart from the systematic extermination of small, specialized, and regional competitors, this entailed defining the automobile as an ubiquitous necessity of life, used by everyone. In the presence of the systems and patterns of mobility mentioned above, the European automobile was marketed to a specialist user, of whom a certain technical interest and skill could be expected. The American automobile would henceforth be marketed to all and sundry; it would be developed specifically for the expected user’s lack of technical interest and skill. Systems of dependence would be created out of thin air by State collusion, to which end existing systems of mobility would be deliberately dismantled.

The American car was, from the 1930s on, marketed to people who did not know how to take care of an automobile, and who didn’t care. Such people need automobiles to be extremely reliable and resistant to abuse. Such was the technology at the time that it was not possible to build such vehicles except by making them extremely durable in the process. It was only with the introduction of electronic engine management at the end of the 20th century that the motor industry achieved its holy grail, and became capable of producing vehicles that perform with absolutely reliable consistency over an absolutely limited period of time.

At the same time an artificial abundance of cheap petrochemical fuels was made available in North America, through the same processes of State privilege that elevated a small selection of American automobile manufacturers at the expense of the rest. Combined with the absence of the sort of tax measures that tended to promote smaller engines (or at least small-bore, long-stroke engines) in Europe, the need for abuse-proof vehicles led not only to the robust construction but also to the characteristic low specific output of the American car of the mid-20th century. Moreover, such big, lazy engines producing little power tend to be “flexible” in use, i.e. they require little in the way of gear-changing. And that makes them easy to drive for the target market, in the absence of automatic transmissions. (Personally I think the big, lazy car has its place, provided that its understressed robustness is accompanied by mechanical simplicity and potentially open-ended durability.)

We can see, then, how the American manufacturer’s need to ensure ease of use by unskilled and uninterested users made the slightly more “nervous” V8s of the 1950s impractical until it had developed the automatic transmission. That marketing agenda is also what led to the rapid penetration of the automatic transmission once it was introduced: the American car is simply not meant for a driver who appreciates the sense of control and takes pride in the skilful shifting of a good manual ‘box. Likewise finger-light steering was preferable to steering “feel”; and heavily-assisted but mechanically meagre brakes preferable to mechanically-powerful brakes with little assistance.

The reason for all this is clear: despite the permeation of automotive meaning in modern world culture the enthusiast motorist continues to represent a tiny fraction of the whole. The American motor industry built its position not on people who wanted to drive but on people who needed to drive, their need being a thing painstakingly constructed by collusion between the big manufacturers and the State. The American motor industry is selling not to a spontaneous minority but to an engineered majority – and so, these days, are the European and Asian motor industries, and with greater nefarious dexterity.

It is interesting in this light to investigate the history of State regulation of vehicle specifications, from the forcible introduction of feeble sealed-beam headlights in 1940 on. In each case the danger of exceptionalization of the vehicle market is identifiable. In 1940 it was considered preferable that large numbers of vehicles be in operation at the same time at night than that a solitary driver on a lonely road might be able to see where she is going. Likewise in the late ‘60s it was preferable that existing levels of California traffic congestion be maintained than that a few motorists might have efficiently-functioning exhaust systems by declining to pay for the otherwise useless platinum-series precious metals in a catalytic converter. For all that that device accomplishes is to accelerate the deterioration of intrinsically unstable compounds that would deteriorate all by themselves given low enough levels of traffic, besides endowing platinum interests with artificial value and creating a vehicle-life regime responsive to corporate-State manipulation.

I have long maintained that the effect – and possibly the purpose – of everything done to mitigate the effects of the automobile has been to increase the incidence of the automobile, and by a greater margin. The ostensible environment-and-safety regime has made current levels of traffic possible, not by making them less noisome but by making them necessary. And recent attempts to mandate efficiency directly will only make matters worse.

For efficiency as such, being a ratio, is neither here nor there. As we have seen with the V8 engines that powered the befinned behemoths of the ‘50s, it’s no good having a more efficient engine if the systemic requirements of its emergence have it pulling a load that is heavier by a factor greater than the increase in efficiency. Efficiency is value-for-money, as it were; and it can be more for the same as easily as the same for less. Most easily of all it can be much more for a little more, which is no good if what is wanted is less.

If we go further and think in terms of sustainability, we find ourselves working towards closed systems. Closed systems have no input or output to compare to one another, and can therefore have no efficiency to speak of in any strict terms, however plain the beauty of their functioning is to the muddiest observation. It is then to be expected that no simple aggregate of unitary component efficiencies could add up to the undefined efficiency of a closed system. Indeed when we begin to think in such terms we discover that 100% efficiency is certain in any individual component of a system if we refrain from distinguishing between outputs in which we are interested and outputs in which we are not, but instead consider the nature of all inputs and outputs purely in terms of how they support the system as such. Hence the criterion is no longer efficiency expressed as a percentage but “fit” expressed as a more or less sound judgement.

As a practical example, the inefficiency of a cow as a converter of solar energy embodied in grass into meat or dairy products, as evinced by the fact that its dung burns quite readily, is a key characteristic that determines its place in a sound system of organic agriculture. For it is that very inefficiency that allows the cow to produce a manure fertilizer, to provide traction, etc. A more efficient cow would be one without useful dung or strength to pull anything, which would induce a reliance on external sources of fertilizer and traction, thus collapsing the closed system.

We thus find ourselves confronted with the idea of optimal efficiency, rather than a general clamour for the greatest possible efficiency. This is the level of efficiency that allows the best fit into things that work well. (I am not sure if I am duplicating Illich here: I have not read him, and I suspect that I ought.) For an optimal level of mechanical efficiency for automobiles I should require that level at which the volume of production is capable of matching spontaneous demand, which I hold to be a mere fraction of current engineered demand; that is, where the embodied technology is thoroughly vernacularized, and forgiving enough to obviate the need for strict adherence to type. And this, I propose, is the approximate level of efficiency of a typical European car of c.1970. And I submit that this is the level of efficiency to which a freed market would tend to gravitate, which would be quite sustainable ecologically given the concomitant drastic downward adjustment in the scale of the phenomenon.

This is the context in which ethanol begins to make sense as a vehicle fuel. The processes involved in its manufacture represent a much better fit when production is local and demand is small, for then the processes slot easily into the network of inputs and outputs that are the life of an organic farm, or that of an organic farming community. I should direct you to Blume, D, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas”, International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, 2007; and to the relevant pages at journeytoforever.org.

I speak of the level of efficiency of 1970, but not of the actual type of vehicle which predominated in Europe at the time, for that was already the product of a long-term State-corporate project to define the automobile in terms of a type to which only the industrially large and powerful might attain. An analysis of the development of unitary construction of the body and frame of a vehicle from c.1934 on, by Ford in the USA and Citroën in France (discounting the rather tentative attempt by Lancia c.1922) should prove informative. It is by a concerted programme of propaganda that the idea was established that any modern automobile worth its salt will have a body of stressed steel panels welded together, which obviates the need for a separate frame. It is claimed that this makes for a lighter structure, which is more rigid in torsion, necessary as the accompanying development in suspension technology has been to techniques that require torsionally-rigid structures. Such vehicles – nowadays universal – cannot be set out by aligning lengths of stock steel profiles to marks on a workshop floor, but require expensive body jigs and panel presses and dies, all suitable for only a single design.

It is ironic that it should be a much-weakened Citroën who should develop the first car whose interconnection of suspension obviated the need for the torsional rigidity which is one of the primary pretexts for unitary construction, in the body-on-frame 2CV of 1948. I should recommend very close study of the 2CV to anyone wishing to speculate on what a car might be in a truly free market. Likewise the Triumph Herald seemed an historical anomaly when it was introduced in 1959, with its separate frame, a design approach intended to facilitate poorly capitalized production in developing countries. Like the 2CV it represented a sophisticated interpretation of the age-old body-on-chassis idea, though its swing-axle rear suspension earned early versions notoriety for vicious handling. It nevertheless survived in India until 1978 as the Standard Gazel.

The paper concludes with a vision of localized, pedestrian-oriented urbanity which matches my own vision very closely. It is however not uncommon to expect the residual handful of automobiles in that environment to be rather meagre and austere, even if there is no reason for them to be so. It seems rational to me that where automobiles are uncommon, only uncommon automobiles should exist; that absent artificial need for mobility, unless an automobile has a spendour of some kind it will not be built at all.

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Occupy the Motor Industry

The main thing is to end dependence on motor vehicles. Anything else is at best inadequate; at worst it exacerbates the problem. All the little incremental efficiencies touted on every street corner will not begin to add up to the proportions of the ecological problem facing us. Most of them would actually reinforce the very mechanisms that have allowed an oligopolizing industry to cultivate so widespread and thoroughgoing a dependence on its products.

Every popular blurb on “What You Can Do for the Environment” contains, after much sound advice about composting and basic generic household chemicals like vinegar, borax, and ammonia, the suggestion to consider buying a new car, as it is more “efficient”. I urge quite the opposite: buy the oldest car that will do the job, regardless of efficiency or emissions. Buy a car that its manufacturer had hoped would have been scrapped long ago, the longer ago the better, and further subvert the industry by doing whatever is necessary to keep it running.

Starve the industry of the sales it needs in order to ensure that its productivity remains above the critical threshold below which it cannot operate viably. This is the nature of the problem: the motor industry does not respond to spontaneous demand, be that practical need or spurious “greed for more stuff”; it responds to the requirements of its technical operating basis, a basis chosen and cultivated precisely because it requires huge production outputs of which only a powerful industrial elite is capable. Once this is established the industry goes about generating a market for its output. It does this primarily by manipulating states, through transport planning and road-building, to create living environments that do not allow for easy living without a car. More recently, as markets have come closer to saturation, the industry has manipulated states into all kinds of supposed safety and environmental regulations, firstly to curtail product life and take second-hand cars out of the market, and secondly to enforce designs that raise critical production-volume thresholds even further, by outlawing any alternative.

That really is what those regulations are about.

Reject the electric car and the hybrid. They exist only in order to entrench the power of the motor industry even further. The extent to which the design of a car depends on the current operating basis is not constant: some designs serve that basis better than others, and indeed all modern cars are designed specifically to be virtually impossible to make in any other way. In this the modern electric and hybrid represent an unprecedented advance. They would simply not work in a context in which vehicle sales, replacement rates, distance travelled, and traffic congestion do not increase significantly. Never before has anything come so close to a single-use, disposable car.

Excessive carbon dioxide production is a pure function of fossil-fuel consumption: but even so, fuel efficiency is moot. This is not only because real alternatives to fossil fuels exist, but because likely incremental improvements wouldn’t be nearly enough, especially if the motor industry engineers more sprawl, longer commutes, quicker scrappage, and more cars to achieve the per-unit numbers. A system can be sustainable at any given level of efficiency, and if anything more easily at lower levels; it all depends on its need structures. End vehicle dependence and total systemic vehicle-fuel consumption falls by well over 90%.

Good work is being done by the open-source movement, but while it labours under the misconception that its agenda is aligned to the purposes of existing safety and environmental regulations, and moreover expends its energies trying to achieve extreme levels of fuel efficiency, it will pose no real threat to the existing motor industry.

Likewise emissions are neither here nor there. None of the “traditional” pollutants, for the control of which, ostensibly, catalytic converters were forcibly introduced, are stable compounds. Both carbon monoxide and unburnt hydrocarbons soon oxidize, leaving only the carbon dioxide and water that the catalyst is supposed to emit; it just takes a bit longer. Likewise, small concentrations of oxides of nitrogen fit easily into the natural nitrogen cycle. As long as concentrations are low and there is enough time, “uncontrolled” vehicle emissions are not problematic. Old cars are not, in themselves, “toxin-spewing jalopies”, even when in questionable tune. Vehicle emissions become problematic only when the intensity of vehicle use reaches the levels required by the motor industry’s technical operating basis. Then one gets photochemical smog and acid rain.

Buy the oldest car that will do the job, to starve the motor industry of custom. Do this not to bully the motor industry into making “cleaner” or “more efficient” products – nor even to change its operating basis, supposing that it could – but to kill it. The motor industry needs us more than we need it, especially as long as automotive technology has a deep vernacular penetration in society. In other words, as long as there are people around who know how to repair, modify, and ultimately to make cars, and as long as there are cars out there that even vaguely conform to their knowledge.

Do not expect the motor industry to die without a fight. Remember that it is really an organ of the State, and has much of the mechanism of government at its disposal. But be clever. Be creative with old parts. Stockpile whatever you can find, regardless of its apparent usefulness or desirability, as long as it is legally “grandfathered”. If they impose annual-mileage limits for “historic” cars, fit a tachometer to judge speed and drive with the speedometer cable disconnected. Or run twelve old cars, if you can afford the licensing, etc. If they impose “events only” use restrictions, form a club and organize your own events. Keep a step ahead of them. If all else fails, get about without a car, and make a huge noise about how difficult it is. None of this legislation is about making it any easier to be without a car. It is about effectively being compelled to buy new cars often. And keep the technical knowledge and the skills alive. Refuse to be a Pure Consumer.

Above all, spread the word.

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Scale and Scope

The following is based on my comment upon a link posted on Facebook by Australian author, co-operative economist, and former member of Parliament Dr. Race Mathews. I’ve edited it a bit:

I’m inclined to the view that the greater problems with the corporations arise from their scale rather than their ownership structures. Organizational scale and industrial/economic scope are closely bound together. Large economic entities will tend to magnify markets by huge factors, through their ability to shape their operating environment, e.g. by cultivating need structures or, in Austrian terms, “roundaboutness”. They will do this whether they are owned by top-hat-and-cigar rich Englishmen, by investment-portfolio shareholders, by the State, by the entity’s employees, or by “the community”.

Certainly there are instances where the workers’ co-operative is the right tool for the job. I think of bulk industrial materials like steel profiles, for instance, and fasteners. I believe that automobiles are, however, a prime example of something that would better be manufactured at a small scale. I think it would be beneficial to everyone, including the most avid motorist, if the market for cars were to be reduced to something like five to ten percent of its current size.

Most automotive histories characterize the early automobile as “a plaything for the rich”, and give very little in the way of further analysis. A brief survey of the types of cars on the market in those early days and the techniques used in their manufacture would tend to support my view that this was due mainly to the fact that cars were as yet structurally redundant, and that the market for structurally redundant goods will lie with at least the moderately affluent. The most desperately indigent are, for instance, not great consumers of sailing dinghies today, even if some form of sailing craft is within the means of anyone who has some surplus funds and an inclination to go sailing. In the early days of the automobile the vast edifice of contingent (in the sense of ‘dependent on something else’) need that has us using cars daily did not exist. And the one does not logically necessitate the other: inventing the car does not imply making the greater population need it.

Design for mass-production trailed actual mass-production by a considerable extent. We think of the Ford Model T as specifically associated with the moving assembly line, though there is nothing intrinsic to its design to cause this to be so. It was certainly possible to manufacture a Model T using traditional artisanal techniques, quite probably at the same cost. The changes made to the Model T’s design during the course of its production run all point in the direction of greater – or rather coarser-grained – capital investment, which I find it crude to interpret solely in terms of production cost, especially in the light of the labour politics at the time, specifically as pertaining to Ford. The unit saving brought about by changing the 1909 flat timber firewall first with a rolled-tinwork scuttle and then an assembly of steel pressings could not have been great. In the light of capital investment it might even have cut into unit profits. But it very effectively prevented Ford’s employees from making Model Ts without using Ford’s machinery.

Nevertheless I doubt if the design of the last Model T of 1927, or that of the subsequent Model A of 1928-31, really offers a clear advantage to the techniques of mass-production. With its profiled pressed-steel chassis rails the short-lived 1932 Ford certainly did. I find the history immediately subsequent to that much more interesting for the study of corporate scale than the early days of the automobile, as it was then that the design of the product was first geared specifically to the techniques of mass-production, and through the new machine of public relations a vision of the future was first cultivated to support that design of product. Since then a natural, linear conception of automotive technological development has been painstakingly maintained. Through this Ford in North America and Citroën in Europe began in 1934 a slow process to establish the effective necessity of unitary construction of body and chassis frame, in the process eventually killing the coachbuilding industry and steering half a century of suspension theory in a compatable direction.

(It is ironic that a much-weakened Citroën should introduce, in 1948, a design that contradicted all its ambitions to world domination. The little 2CV was supremely permeable to artisanal methods and was designed around an extremely clever suspension system that allowed safe roadholding and an extremely comfortable ride without necessitating the torsional rigidity afforded by a unit-body. PSA and the rest of the modern European motor industry had to construct spurious safety-and-environmental measures through the EU to kill it 42 years later. It wasn’t the sort of thing it wanted to make but would have incurred much ill will were it to have stopped production unilaterally. The 2CV remains a strong indicator of what cars in a sane world might be like.)

So, while the processes required to make a new 5-series BMW at an affordable price do indeed require a large scale, it is quite possible to design a car that is every bit as good a car, indeed is a car that is better for conditions where far less motoring happens, and quite as affordable, that is specifically geared to small-scale artisanal techniques. And such are the myriad advantages of having far less motoring happening that I think it more than justifies an insistence on smallness for other reasons in this case!

The only problem is that it is illegal in most parts of the world.

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Warp-Articulated Suspension

This is by way of demonstrable publication, lest someone patent this out from under me. I myself have no interest in patenting it, as I do not believe that that would enhance the likelihood that it gets applied in practice, to my personal benefit or otherwise. Certainly it is at best foreign, at worst downright contrary to the aim and future vision of the established motor industry. The common notion that industries can be “revolutionized” by embracing original and unexpected innovations is quite false, as it rests on the misconception that industrial development arises from product performance rather than the strategic construction of a specific type industrial operating basis. In this histories of technology, particularly of automotive technology, are standardly erroneous.

Be that, for the moment, as it may; though the relevance of all that to the content of this blog should be obvious. So too should be the observation that the foremost technical problem of the automobile – which contrary to popular belief is not the same thing as the non-technical problem of mobility – is to devise not a novel system of propulsion but a system of suspension better suited to the anticipated use and manufacturing scenario. That is, one where manufacturing volumes are too low for capital investment in unit-body production plant, where social and political conditions favour wide diversity in local designs, and where motor vehicles are too few to justify heavy public investment in roads infrastructure.

The current state of the art, i.e. the rigid box suspended independently at each corner, clearly favours the methods of mass-production. The better capable a manufacturer is of such methods, the more prodigious the levels of dynamic performance that may be had in a modern automobile of the normal kind. Only a manufacturer capable of manufacturing a unit-body of the required torsional rigidity, and which moreover has door-cut details that work, sensible planning, and a look that reasonably appeals, will by the same process be able to endow the product with impressive ride comfort, roadholding, and handling responses. Any good cabinetmaker could produce a well-packaged, comfortable, and exquisitely detailed body; and any good amateur racing mechanic might ensure a sticky and wieldy chassis, but combining the two successfully and affordably requires either mass-production or a radically different vehicle pattern. And as it is the production of very good cars in very small numbers I’m after, the latter is what is required here.

Pneumatic tyres have a peculiar characteristic that is central to the ability of a vehicle to change direction safely at speed. They grip the road best when their state of inflation keeps them in their proper shape. They grip the road less well when they are inflated to a lesser pressure or subjected to a greater load. In fact these conditions can be understood as equivalent to one another: reducing the pressure in the rear tyres has the same effect on tyre behaviour as adding back-seat passengers, and vice versa.

It is by manipulating the loads on the respective tyres that suspension tuning is done, and a vehicle that behaves safely is ensured. If a vehicle shows signs of understeer, i.e. a propensity to plough straight ahead when the steering wheel is turned, the suspension is adjusted to load the outside rear tyre more heavily, thereby causing it to behave as if it were more softly inflated. As the total amount of lateral weight transfer is fixed, this causes an opposite effect in the outside front tyre, and it behaves as if it were more stiffly inflated. The result is better lateral grip at the front and less understeer. Conversely oversteer, the tendency for the vehicle’s tail to swing out in turns, is treated by increasing lateral load transfer onto the outside front tyre. As understeer tends to self-correct but oversteer might burst into a full-blown spin under the intuitive panic reaction of slowing down, a mildly-understeering handling balance is often considered the safest, if not the most responsive, condition. In the scenario here envisaged a greater general level of skill among a smaller overall population of drivers might be expected, so the aim in suspension tuning is likely to be closer to neutral than understeer.

Conventionally the manipulation of load transfer in suspension tuning is accomplished mainly by varying the front and rear levels of roll stiffness relative to one another, either by fitting stiffer springs or a (stiffer) anti-roll bar at the end gripping better. This has the result that lateral load transfer is moved from one end of the vehicle to the other, which causes the vehicle structure itself to act as a torsional element, something very much like a crankshaft. This is why torsional rigidity of the vehicle structure has become so important in chassis design, and why so great an advantage is found in the near-universal modern mass-production method of unitary construction, wherein the vehicle has no separate frame but the body itself, formed of many steel pressings welded together, is the structure.

By contrast the traditional method of body-on-frame construction is less effective in transferring load-transfer moments from one end of the vehicle to the other. The methods of fabricating both the body and the ladder-like chassis frame translate much better to an artisanal context, though. In this regard the desirability of a way of effecting chassis tuning without imposing torsional loads on the vehicle structure is clear.

Interconnection of the front and rear suspension has in a few instances been used to bring about this condition, usually as a side-effect of efforts to produce a sort of behaviour in pitch which has great benefits for ride comfort. The result is free articulation in warp: the front and rear axles (whether they be physical axles or not) are free to adopt any angle relative to one another, without any torsional loading resulting from this relative angularity.

Such interconnection was pioneered by André Lefèbvre in the Citroën 2CV, which first appeared in 1948. According to tradition the brief called for an umbrella on wheels, capable of carrying a basket of eggs over a ploughed field without breaking one egg. Front leading and rear trailing arms operated pullrods acting on coil springs inside floating steel tubes, themselves located in relation to a very simple ladder frame by a secondary pair of coil springs. The general emphasis was on ride quality, especially on bad roads. The roadholding of the 2CV is nevertheless legendary, given the narrow tyres, and the car is considered unrollable even while the roll angles are comical. By the time production ended in 1990 almost 9 million 2CVs and derivatives had been built.

The same goal was achieved by means of interconnected torsion bars in the 1955-56 Packards, whose Torsion-Level system Bill Allison had originally developed for Hudson. Torsion bars the length of the car’s wheelbase had conventional lower control arms at the front, and short, inward-facing control arms at the back acting on radius arms locating the rear axle. Like the 2CV’s secondary coils it featured secondary torsion bars to control pitch motion, augmented by a self-levelling feature using electric screw jacks. A much heavier car than the Citroën, it offered levels of ride comfort unmatched by its competitors, even when they were driven to adopt air suspension. Unfortunately the 1953 merger of Packard and Studebaker had precipitated a financial crisis in that led to a rationalization of product lines around cruder but cheaper Studebaker platforms after 1956. History would suggest that that had been a poor decision.

Interconnection by hydraulic means was first achieved in the BMC Hydrolastic system, developed by Dr. Alex Moulton and first introduced on the 1962 Morris 1100. This featured deformable hydraulic bladders interconnected front to rear on each side of the car by hydraulic circuits, acting on rubber springs. The system was subsequently adapted to the Mini and numerous other vehicles produced by BMC, including the luxurious rear-wheel-drive Austin 3-litre. For the 1973 Austin Allegro the rubber springing medium was replaced with diaphragms acting on nitrogen pockets – similar to the hydropneumatic accumulators in the non-interconnected Citroën DS system – to produce the Hydragas system. This remained in production for thirty years; the last vehicle to be so equipped being the mid-engined MGF. Again, these vehicles were known not only for an extremely comfortable ride but also for impressive roadholding.

These systems were abandoned not because they did not perform but because they did not fit into pre-existing manufacturing processes. The established motor industry has no interest in getting simple ladder frames to work dynamically; it rather depends on the “necessity” of torsionally rigid, mass-produced unit-bodies for dynamic performance.

Over many years of pondering I have considered many iterations of the same principle. One thing has constantly re-emerged as desirable, namely the ability to determine overall roll stiffness independently of bump/pitch stiffness. None of the above systems achieve this; and it is ironic that it is achieved in the Citroën DS hydropneumatic system which, as noted above, features no front-rear interconnection at all. In the DS system it is expedient to control the front and rear suspension hydraulic circuits separately, though such that each circuit represents an interconnection side to side, which is counteracted by a stout anti-roll bar. Thus the hydropneumatic main springs do not counteract roll at all but only support the weight of the vehicle, while the anti-roll bars do not support the weight of the vehicle at all, but only counteract roll. This arrangement works extremely well in practice: the Citroën DS’s ride comfort is legendary, if its equally impressive handling is less widely recognized. It has two shortcomings: its anti-roll bars are undamped, and therefore limited in practical severity; and its lack of front-rear interconnection leaves torsional loads to be resolved in the vehicle structure.

The obviousness of using the facility of hydraulics for long-distance interconnection, as in the Hydrolastic and Hydragas systems, was long a red herring to my thinking. It was only after meditating upon the DS system that it occurred to me that, if hydropneumatics were to employed at all, they might best be applied as in that system, and the interconnection achieved mechanically. It was then a simple matter in the mind’s eye to restrict the 2CV’s most basic method of interconnection to roll control, and to spring it much more stiffly. The result is as follows:

The figure shows an elementary vehicle with two axles. Simple solid axles are shown in blue, but these might as well be independent suspension systems. The system could work either way around but, as there might be more space for suspension gubbins under the rear floor it might be expedient to call the end nearer the viewer the back and the other end the front. Each axle is suspended by a single spring (shown in red) acting in the middle, or by an arrangement of springs and/or links and/or hydropneumatics etc. which has the same effect. The axles are interconnected by the green bell-cranks, rods, and the smaller red roll-control springs. There is provision to adjust the mechanical advantage of the bell-cranks, whereby the distribution of lateral load transfer between front and rear, and therefore the handling balance, may be adjusted.

The roll-control springs work only to resist roll motion, because the bell-cranks’ fulcra are mounted to the arms on the yellow cross-shafts. As long as both sides of the same axle move together, the yellow cross-shafts simply rock back and forth, imparting no motion to the rods or springs connecting the green bell-cranks. When one side of an axle moves up while the other moves down – i.e. the axle rotates about a longitudinal axis – the yellow cross-shaft cannot rotate, and motion is imparted to the rods and springs. If there is an opposite rotation in the axle at the opposite end of the vehicle, the rods and springs on one side will move forward and those on the other side will move backwards, but no force will be placed on the springs. Only if both axles rotate in the same direction, as when going around a corner and rolling to the outside of the curve, do the small roll-control springs come into play.

By making the roll-control springs quite stiff and the main springs soft, a comfortable ride may be combined with very effective control of body roll. As free articulation in warp is effected by the interconnection of the roll-control mechanism the result is quite different to simply fitting huge anti-roll bars to a softly-sprung vehicle, as the roll control is unaffected by undulations of the road surface and single-wheel bumps, which will cause relative angularity between the axles. Note, however, that the rods act variously in tension and compression, and would thus need to be sized and/or supported against excessive slenderness.

An elaboration moves the front yellow cross-shaft to a position nearer the rear of the vehicle, where it carries a pair of see-saw links (in green), which reverses the compression/tension action of the roll-control springs. This arrangement offers the option of applying the main springing at the lower ends of the see-saw links, provided the springing remains interconnected from side to side, which would ensure that the rods are always in tension and may therefore be accordingly small and light. This also simplifies the arrangement at the front (assuming that it is the front), which may have packaging and aesthetic advantages.

A further elaboration replaces the rear cross-shaft with an axle located to rotate differently in roll and in bump/pitch. Here the axle rotates about the bell-cranks’ link pivots in bump/pitch, so that no motion is imparted to the bell-cranks during such movements. Certainly many other iterations of the principle are possible, and certainly it would be possible to package the mechanism in different ways.

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The Myth of Deregulation

This has to be said sooner rather than later, especially in light of the inclusion among all the sound and salutary demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement of the demand for more regulation. The danger is that meeting this demand will leave the offending corporations even more powerful than they have hitherto been.

However fictitious the little gem doing the rounds, which places the EU regulations on the sale of cabbages at 26 911 words, a cursory search will reveal the general consensus that such a level of regulation, be it real or imaginary, is at best absurd and at worst draconian. Most people have a healthy abhorrence for petty bureaucratic interference in the form of all manner of regulations. My fear is that an undefined and unqualified demand for financial regulation might leave this abhorrence unarticulable. And it is my belief that articulating this abhorrence is more necessary than ever.

Corporations nest in regulation. Corporations cultivate regulation for their own purposes. The corporations that are responsible for our current problems are not the products of Industrial Revolution-era laissez-faire policies; they are very much the product of modern controlled capitalism. It is certainly not a case of a few maverick operators breaking the rules. Our current predicament has come about by the corporate majority obeying the rules.

It is not merely that they have adjusted to state regulation. It is not even that they have manipulated regulation to suit their own ends. They have actively sought regulation, have nurtured and nourished regulation by subtle and unsubtle means. They have done this to establish and maintain a state of oligopoly impregnable to unforeseen competition; to render their products indispensible to the consumer, and thus also themselves as exclusive providers of their products; to maintain a state of perpetual unsaturation in markets that by rights should by now be oversaturated many times over.

The corporate requirement for regulation is simple: that compliance – which includes the onerous processes of providing proof of compliance – should be relatively easy for themselves and highly troublesome for anyone else. It is the latter part that is often overlooked: corporations gladly inconvenience themselves if they thereby inconvenience actual or potential competitors more. That is how the corporations have come to be as powerful as they are: by causing sanely-scaled alternatives to be regulated out of existence.

Corporations use many means to cultivate regulation. Provocation is a favourite: corporations keep pushing governments’ buttons until they get the regulations they want. Conversely one thing they cannot do is overtly to demand the regulations they want, for negative public sentiment is too convenient – and safe – a tool to risk losing. Corporations need to maintain the myth that they do not want regulation. Regulation demanded by incorruptible paragons of virtue in the face of corporate opposition will not be questioned, even if it plays directly into corporate hands. Hence all the “free market” rhetoric. Hence, also, the misnomer “deregulation”, which is in fact an edifice of regulation no less exacting than any other which merely happens to favour the corporations. For what the world requires is real, literal deregulation: but the word by which to demand it has been stolen.

Likewise a market that is free in any intelligibly rational sense of the word is the one thing the corporations will not be able to survive.

I have no proof one way or the other, but I would not put it past certain corporations deliberately to err in order better to create a context in which they are unassailable. Did BP dump crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico on purpose to provoke a response from government that would be detrimental to some or other rival? It might well have been worth whatever cost BP might eventually have incurred in clean-up and compensation.

Some corporate acts are not explicable in any other way. Fixing the Ford Pinto exploding fuel tank thing in the early ’70s would not have hurt the profit margin on the Pinto materially. The very ease with which Ford could have made good is often cited as a case of “corporate callousness” and an argument for stricter regulation. But by leaving the thing alone Ford could provoke ever higher hurdles for European and Japanese competitors to jump if they were to compete against the Pinto in the US market, hurdles it turned out many found themselves unable to attempt. This was at a time when imports had been eating into the US market for a decade, but when a fresh fuel crisis gave smaller, better designed, imported cars a sudden advantage. By narrowing the import field through provoked regulation Ford ended up with a greater market share to itself.

Now, many will counter that the imported alternatives were eliminated by the regulations because they were “unsafe”. The truth is that their manufacturers could not afford the processes by which they were required to demonstrate compliance with, nor the extra component production facilities to make parts that are no safer but merely happen to meet, the specific requirements of the regulations.

And this does not even begin to address issues of personal responsibility expected from drivers, in the sense that any vehicle is safe in the hands of a driver who is adequately skilled, alert, and sensible. The regulatory scenario thus cultivated promotes the culture of the unskilled, inattentive, and indifferent driver, consistently with the corporate desire to sell to as broad a market as possible by maintaining dependence on motor vehicles in the vast majority who have no particular interest in using them properly. And the increase in vehicle traffic thus generated in turn increases the justification in demanding ever stricter levels of safety.

And thus regulation breeds the “need” for more regulation, and cui bono? Not ourselves, not even if we did not count creative liberty a spiritual prerequisite for all lives to be meaningful.

Would a sudden abolition of regulation put things right? Probably not: but the operative word is sudden. Slow haste is instead required to dismantle this edifice. At the very least it should not be built higher: and that needs to be understood when deciding exactly what to demand when things like the Wall Street protests provide the opportunity to make demands.

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Bicycling and the Carfree Movement

It is important to understand that bicycling happens spontaneously where walking is a viable way to get from A to B. As such it isn’t really a mode of transportation on its own, however successfully it occurs in certain places, but rather a variant of the pedestrian mode. Attempts to establish bicycling as an alternative to motorized transportation in unwalkable contexts will therefore always tend to have an element of force about them.

If the aim is walking, bicycles will follow almost by accident. If the aim is bicycles forcible measures may be needed to exclude motorcycles, measures that do not appeal to me. It involves someone standing there to see that I haven’t strapped an engine to my bicycle, and there are already too many people similarly standing there for other reasons.

Walkability is a much better standard. It contains an element of spontaneity that renders it organic.

In my experience of the Carfree crowd they are (or at least contain) a strange lot. There is an unfortunate sort of snobbery that regards a fondness for motor vehicles, and especially old low-tech high-performance vehicles, to be proof of an incapacity for independent thought. They admit to having no understanding of such a fondness yet do not on those grounds see themselves unqualified to criticize it. As a consequence they persist in getting it wrong: the fallacious notion that “car culture” contributes materially to transport modal choice persists. Because the idea is never questioned it is too easy for them to put the entire complex issue of vehicle-dependence, land use, and systems of economy down to “being in love with one’s car”. It is like ascribing the exploitation of female labour to uxoriousness: it doesn’t follow, and indeed the opposite might well obtain.

A radical reduction in vehicle use is as good for the avid car enthusiast as it is for everyone else, and the reason for this is that a personal fondness for cars is very seldom a fondness for cars as a means of transport. Less traffic means open roads, less danger from other road users, less competitiveness; it can also mean less intrusive legislation, less strict policing, more scope for technological creativity, and more fun. But some in the Carfree movement would ensure that traffic levels always remain high enough to justify taking all the fun out of motoring, just to punish the enthusiast. If they can’t have no cars they’d rather have too many, as only a few cars would cause motoring to cease to be a problem and deprive them of a basis on which to object to it.

(originally posted to the Journey to Forever Biofuels mailing list: http://journeytoforever.org/biofuel.html#biofuel-ml)

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The Widgeon-Volkswagen

Here’s my own response to the question I asked earlier about finding a use for the sorts of engines and, especially, gearboxes that are currently most prevalent.

 

It’s a sort of trials-specialish thing built out of Golf Mk 1 bits. I chose the Golf because I’ve got one parked outside and can look at or measure up any component easily, but the principle can work for just about any transverse-engined front-wheel-drive car. I’ve taken it to rather an extreme, using the Golf’s little leading & trailing rear drum brakes at the front rather than using bigger brakes from something else: but I suggest with the right sort of apportioning and very light weight it might just work. The springs are interlinked front-to-rear on the Citroën 2CV principle but they’re the Golf’s front struts, turned on their sides and modified a bit. That’s even the Golf’s cross-flow radiator (hence the inverted-T-shaped grille shell) with the Golf’s rack-and-pinion on top of it.

Yes, the chains will be strong enough! It’s amazing how strong aftermarket motorcycle chains are. Some will even hold up to an engine tuned in accordance with the sort of potential the EA827 has. But they will require more maintenance than we have come to expect from today’s disposable cellphone cars. Hence the sort of body that comes apart to let you get to things easily.

I think this can be a lot of fun. I can readily see myself buzzing about in one of these. I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting the hallowed name Widgeon, of Wodehouse fame, as this two-seater has much the sort of character Bertie Wooster’s might have had.

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Systemics

I have suggested before that most people are hedged in by the way the world in which they live is structured, responding to a complex need-structure that they lack the crucial combination of understanding, energy, and surplus resources to begin to dismantle. If we see the problem clearly we are too exhausted at the end of a day, or we don’t have enough left after paying the bills for any sort of counter-systemic practice – unless we reach third-world levels of poverty and can afford neither to pay any bills nor to behave as systems facilitate. Then we behave counter-systemically because we can’t afford to behave systemically, e.g. walking along the impressive freeway because you don’t have a car.

The solution lies in dismantling prevailing need-structures, and this needs to happen at a level where there is some sort of power to determine systems, so that a situation may be established where the most favourable behaviours will also be the easiest and most obvious ones. It does not take a genius to see that this is exactly the principle underlying organic farming.

What worries me is that there has been a shift in the discourse – doubtless bought and paid for – from sustainability to efficiency. Read the early sources and the impression one is left with is that the search for efficiency is what got us into this mess in the first place (not that those sources advocated profligacy instead). Now everything is reduced to so much energy or whatever in, so much carbon or whatever out. I recently had a conversation with a representative of a manufacturer of insulating materials, who argued the ecological superiority of his product purely in terms of emissions in use. After explaining in detail what comes out – or rather doesn’t – he was somewhat flummoxed when I asked him about what went in. He had been briefed minimally on that end, and could tell me little more than that it comes from a big industrial laboratory in Germany. In terms of sustainability that is the primary question: what else is needed before x can happen, and how does all that fit in with a system that can be sustained? Only afterwards do you ask how the emergence or manifestation of x in turn influences the sustainability of the system that produced it.

I really think efficiency as such is neither here nor there (if cows are so efficient why does their dung burn?) I’d go as far as to say that, barring extremes, emissions don’t really matter. What matters is if, and how, something can fit into a sustainable system. Strange things can fit under the right circumstances (a handful of loud, excessive, impractical hot-rods) and strange things fail to fit under the wrong circumstances (millions of long-faced puritannical Prii).

We know what such a system looks like. Or at least we used to.

There are all kinds of plans for changing the sorts of vehicles on which we depend to ones more “efficient” and “clean”, but moves to eliminate our dependence on vehicles as such have been either grossly inadequate or simply misguided. In the so-called New World the typical urban structure remains that where the bulk of land is taken by dormitory suburbs specifically designed for intensive use of motor vehicles. This pattern of land-use incidentally also supports the phenomena of centralized mass-employment, centralized mass-production, and centralized mass-retailing. Nowhere has there been any significant action to change this.

Interestingly, the suburbs are kept vehicle-dependent by structures of regulation restricting what people may do or build on their property. In the absence of these I submit that, given a certain base density, the general tendency would be to get greater utility out of each bit of land and thereby gradually to build the sort of urban environments best suited to walking – and walking is to organic urban systems what composting is to organic farming. In the absence of that base density (i.e. the really sparsely populated suburbs) one could conversely expect significant food production to happen. Bringing this about is (almost) as simple as ceasing to tell people not to!

Yet the 30′ setbacks and two-storey height restrictions persist.

Though I worry that those who ought to get it don’t – due to concerted efforts at confusion – I am given hope by the fact that, should they get it, it would really be relatively easy to implement.

(originally posted to the Journey to Forever Biofuels mailing list: http://journeytoforever.org/biofuel.html#biofuel-ml)

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