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TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.

CO-AUTHORS

  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
    ( Archive | Contact Bob )
    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >
    EXPERIENCE DESIGN:
    THE METAVERSE....

    CALENDAR OF EXPERIENCE DESIGN EVENTS
    (Courtesy of Mark Vanderbeeken, Experientia SpA, Torino)

    Experience Design Websites
    Core 77 Website & Forum
    Business Week|Innovate
    InfoD: Understsanding by Design
    The Wayfinding Place
    Wayfinding Focus
    Design Addict
    L-ARCH (Landscape Architecture Mailing List)
    DUX 2007 Conference
    NetDiver.Net
    DesignBoom
    Digital Thread
    Archinect
    Enmeshed, Digital Arts & New Media
    Ludology (Game Playing Theory)
    Captology, Persuasive Computing
    Space and Culture
    Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces
    timet (acoustical design)
    Steve Portigal, Ethnographer
    Jane McGonigal's Avant Game
    Ted Wells' living : simple
    PingMag (Japan)

    Experience Design Blogs
    Adam Greenfield's Speedbird
    Experience Designer Network (Brian Alger)
    SmartSpace: Annotated Environments (Scott Smith)
    Don Norman
    Doors of Perception (John Thackara)
    Karl Long's Experience Curve
    Work•Play•Experience (Adam Lawrence)
    The David Report (David Carlson)
    Design & Emotion (Marco van Hout)
    Museum 2.0 (Nina Simon)
    B J Fogg
    Lorenzo Brusci (acoustics)
    Cool Town Studios
    FutureLab
    Steve Portigal
    Debbie Millman
    MIT Culture Convergence Consortium
    Luke Wroblewski, Functioning Form|Interface Design
    Adam Richardson
    Putting People First (Paul Vanderbeeken/Experientia
    Laws of Simplicity (John Maeda)
    Challis Hodge's UX Blog
    Anne Galloways's Purse Lips Square Jaw
    Bruno Giussani's Lunch over IP
    Jane McGonigal's Avant-Game The Future of Work

    Experience Design Podcasts
    Ted Wells' living : simple Podcast
    Design Matters Podcast, Debbie Millman
    Icon-o-Cast Podcast, Lunar Design

    Experience Design Firms and ED-Oriented Manufacturers
    Barry Howard Limited
    Hilary Cottam
    LRA Worldwide, Inc.
    BRC Imagination Arts
    Stone Mantel
    Experientia s.r.l
    Nokia
    Herman Miller
    Steelcase
    IDEO
    Cooper Interactive Design
    Gensler
    Doblin Group
    Fitch
    Fit Associates
    Jump
    Strategic Horizons LLC (Joe Pine & Jim Gilmore)
    Cheskin Fresh Perspectives

    Education and Advocacy
    Centre for Design Research, Northumbria University (UK)
    Center for Design Research, Stanford University
    International Institute of Information Design (IIID)
    Design Management Institute
    AIGA DUX
    Interaction Institute IVREA
    Design Research Institute (UK)
    UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Design Research
    History of Consciousness, UCSC
    Design News Magazine
    Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD)
    Design Museum London
    Center for Sustainable Design
    Horizon Zero, Digital Arts+Culture in Canada
    Design Council UK
    First Monday

    Total Experience on Technorati
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    Monthly Archives

    July 27, 2006

    “Turning the Future”: A welcome new book on futuristics

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Bookcoverweb-1
    Wwbigsmile Copy-2Futurist and long-time friend Glen Hiemstra (who actually owns the Futurist.com URL!) has announced the publication of his new book, Turning the Future Into Revenue. (I'm pretty sure that the title didn't originate with Glen, but rather some Wiley marketing geek.) Turning the Future is actually a deep investigation of futuristics: how we think about the future; how the future shapes our current behavior; and what we can do to benefit by a more thoughtful approach to the future, as a concept and as an inevitable but never completely knowable reality. Glen, a Strategic Partner of the Club of Amsterdam, lives in the Pacific Northwest but has become a global opinion leader. His book is an important new statement of the futurists' creed.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Practice of Experience Design

    Chronographic opening in Detroit celebrates the Public Clock

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    According to Michael Doyle on Archinect,

    Chrono2 Chronographic was dedicated in Detroit this morning [Monday, July 24], to celebrate the city's 305th birthday. Chronographic is a public time keeping machine (read: clock) designed and fabricated by o2 Creative Solutions. Located in the front window of the historic Himelhoch Building, the hands of Detroit's newest pedestrian-scale landmark are tubes of light which track across two large photo-murals on custom designed robotic carts.

    st-imier.jpg Public clocks once played a significant role in the experience of civic life. Everyone within earshot simultaneously experienced the same passage of time and organized their lives accordingly. Louis Mumford is perhaps the best known historian of science and technology to have examined the importance of public clocks. The personal wristwatch and now, digital clocks in every appliance, by eliminating this shared experience, have played a tacit role in the dissolution of community. Perhaps Chronographic can turn back the hands of time and help to restore Detroit's sense of community, hard pressed of late by changes in the global economy and the composition and spirit of Detroit itself.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: ED Projects of Note | Events and Happenings

    July 25, 2006

    This new design jobsite rocks! Coroflot, by the folks who brought you Core 77.

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Want a job in design, and specifically, experience design? Check out the new Coroflot, launched by Core77's Allan Chochinov and his colleagues. (That's Allan at the podium in this pic from Design 2.0.)

    111941311 226857D43E MPost a profile (with your portfolio, if you have graphic or audio samples of your work), enjoy the great features -- as befits a class design website -- and see who's looking for someone with your talents. This jobsite rocks!

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Practice of Experience Design | Websites, Blogs, and Podcasts

    John Thackara's Power Laws Of Innovation

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    In Power Laws Of Innovation, Doors of Perception's John Thackara offers his thoughts on successful collaborative innovation.

    Thackara Portraithome-1I'm at a Cursos De Verano (summer school) near Madrid. Just down the corridor, a bunch of senior generals are discussing “the Army of the 21st Century”. Next to them, some egg-head priests are discussing “the Church of the 21st Century”. Our lot is doing “Innovation of the 21st Century” and I promised to post the following Power Laws before the Church and State guys leave town.

    Power Law 1: Don’t think “new product” - think social value.

    Power Law 2: Think social value before “tech.”

    Power Law 3: Enable human agency. Design people into situations, not out of them.

    Power Law 4: Use, not own. Possession is old paradigm.

    Power Law 5: Think P2P, not point-to-mass.

    Power Law 6: Don’t think faster, think closer.

    Power Law 7: Don’t start from zero. Re-mix what's already out there.

    Power Law 8: Connect the big and the small.

    Power Law 9: Think whole systems (and new business models, too).

    Power Law 10: Think open systems, not closed ones.

    John is one of my heroes of experience design and collaborative innovation. John's “business website” is just as interesting and in many ways, more personally revealing, than his Doors website. Be sure to visit.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | The Practice of Experience Design

    July 21, 2006

    PingMag: “New levels of Experience Design,” an interview with Liisa Puolakka, Nokia's new Head of Brand and Sensorial Experiences

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    PingMag - The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things” features Matt Sinclair's probing inteview of Nokia's new Head of Brand and Sensorial Experiences, Liisa Puolakka. The lengthy interview, interspersed with copious visual examples of how Nokia takes to heart the lessons of experience design, is worth careful reading.

    Puolakka offers this observation regarding the deployment of experience design:

    Experiencedesign01You can see it used everywhere nowadays, but I think the main thing is that rather than just designing an object you take a more holistic approach. That means the design language and how it relates to other products; how does it feel to use, both rationally and emotionally; how it’s packaged; what accessories are available; the kind of environment it may be sold in; what services should be targeted to the consumer of that product. And when you start with that kind of approach you end up with something much more purposeful for the user, but not just purposeful, also more pleasurable, so the consumer is surprised, in a positive way, when they use the product. That’s perhaps why experience design is so talked about right now, because those things relate back to the brand, to the way that consumers think about a company’s image. Experience design is about the way a person experiences a brand.

    And how does that translate into a job? Puolakka's is a broad mandate to intervene throughout Nokia's product-design and brand-management activities:

    For the last two months I have been working as the Head of Brand Visual and Sensorial Experiences, and basically that means the way the brand is experienced by the consumer, the ‘look and feel’ of Nokia. That can be in any of the situations where a person touches, or comes into contact with, the brand; it could be online or in a Nokia Flagship store, it could be advertising campaigns on TV or in magazines, it could be events which Nokia sponsors or attends. In terms of execution most of the work is done by agencies, so that means we need a clear view of the brand strategy in order to brief and communicate with those agencies. I’m not really involved in the creation of the product any more, though of course there is a strong link, we need to start at the same point and head in the same direction.

    Liisa Puolakka is inspiring and instructive -- and in her new role, she demonstrates why Nokia continues to rule the mobile devices field despite assaults from its lower-cost (but little-inspired) competitors.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | ED Projects of Note | Experience Design & Technology | The Practice of Experience Design

    July 19, 2006

    HGTV's “Design Star” cable series: 21st-Century Rococo

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Hgtv Design StarFor me, interior design is to architecture what “styling” is to industrial design: spiffing up design objects that can't make it on their own. Stylists put fins on automobiles, and now big shiny wheels; interior designers engender “flair” or “adventure” or “personality” in built environments that otherwise are savagely dull or downright uninhabitable. So when the Home & Garden Channel -- HGTV, for non-channel surfers -- recently promo'ed “Design Star,” a new reality/competition show, I gagged. Not only does the show demean “design” (as does interior design generally), it presumes to identify “stars” among the practitioners of this 21st-Century Rococo.

    Extreme Makeover HomeHey, I'm not against reality shows dealing with human habitats: I find ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition entertaining and enlightening. Ty and his team of oddball carpenters and contractors philosophizing are fun and their banter is always grounded in the practical realities of home construction. Interior designers, on the other hand, play with fluff.

    Project Runway

    For fluff, I prefer to watch Bravo's Project Runway, where supermodel-producer Heidi Klum depicts the stressful business of high fashion in a way that makes me want to care for the aspiring fashion designers. At least “star's" meaning is appropriate for the runway, more akin to celebrity than to the important business of designing habitable, comfortable living spaces for human beings.

    Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | Events and Happenings | Odds and Ends: Random Observations

    July 17, 2006

    “A Beautiful Conference”: SIGGRAPH 2006's creative schizophrenia

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Sig2006SIGGRAPH 2006: The 33rd International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, happens this year in Boston, MA, close to MIT and...? Well, sure, there's more happening in the Northeast than interminable rain, blistering heat, and high-humidity -- but Boston isn't the epicenter of computer graphics that LA, the longtime home of SIGGRAPH, has been and remains. (For those that do not know, SIGGRAPH is the Association for Computing Machinery's “Special Interest Group” -- SIG -- on “Computer Graphics” -- GRAPH. The ACM is the world's largest organization of computer-associated professionals, academics, organizations, and fans.)

    This year's SIGGRAPH is truly fascinating, in that its organizing committee has slipped the surly bonds of computer graphics to fly high with interaction design. SIGGRAPH's keynoter is Joe Rohde, Disney Imagineering VP and Executive Designer responsible for Disney World's Animal Kingdom attractions, most recently Expedition Everest. (I like the DW website's request to “Choose Your Experience.” Very nice.) Themed attractions are interaction design raised to a very high level.

    The result is a creative schizophrenia that on the one hand thematically subordinates computer graphics (CG) to the creation of experiences (mainly interactive) -- the conference's main draw -- and on the other hand continues to focus, via expert panels, on the specifics of creating, producing, and selling/using CG technology and techniques. Don't get me wrong: I applaud this blurring of boundaries. CG is a computer-science concept. Sequestering CG from the broader human context within which it's being applied -- to increasingly holistic experiences, beginning with film but now expanding to full-blown experiences like Expedition Everest -- has always been an artificial distinction. Attendees noticed this in the mid-90s, when virtual reality exploded on SIGGRAPH's stage as the Next Big Thing. (It's once again the Next Big Thing, I happily note, now that Web hysteria is subsiding after a decade, “Web 2.0” notwithstanding.) Synaesthesia is the Bomb.

    Sigchi-Logo-Homepage(How does SIGCHI, the ACM group on Computer-Human Interaction, feel about this? SIGCHI's April conference came and went without much fanfare, that's for sure. Since SIGs compete for members and vendors to survive, does SIGGRAPH's poaching signal hard times ahead for SIGCHI -- or a merger?)

    TruckI'm sorry I can't be at this year's SIGGRAPH. SIGGRAPH is always a wonderful event, full of surprises, a lively gathering of unusually knowledgeable, talented, and adventurous people. Plus, the exhibition floor, at least for me, is far more interesting, involving, and provocative than such circus affairs as E3, which features nothing more than loud “ka-booms” and dead avatars. On this point, I draw SIGGRAPH attendees' attention to the Sandbox Symposium on videogames, colocated with SIGGRAPH 06, and organized by my friend and colleague, and noted CG authority, Alan Heirich (now with Sony). Have fun in the Sandbox...!

    Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Events and Happenings | Experience Design & Technology | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design

    July 15, 2006

    A unique future role for design research?

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Co-author Paula Thornton posted this insightful comment to her Experience Design newsgroup on June 7, responding to an article in Business Week, June 3, 2006, “The Science of Desire”:

    One quote from the article: “Ethnographers' findings often don't lead to a
    product or service, only a generalized sense of what people want. Their
    research can also take a long time to bear fruit.”

    This is absolutely a “'symptom'”of something that is clearly not specifically
    called out in our disciplines. We always like to think that we need to be
    the ones doing the research (and/or be involved in it). Clearly, that's a
    symptom of our experiences -- where in most cases there is little or no
    background information.

    But imagine a future where there is a specific role dedicated to Design
    Research. A "team support" role that is akin to a Findability specialist and
    a Content Management strategist. While individual projects would engage
    "deeper" research, the work starts by tapping into a base of continuous
    research. Such research informs what additional research would be most
    effective -- it determines which questions haven't been probed deeply enough
    and/or warrant more investigation.

    There are four distinct areas of focus for experience design research:

    . Discovery
    . Continuous Listening
    . Metrics
    . Synthesis and Sharing

    Of course, there are the Centre for Design Research at Northumbria University, in the UK, and its new counterpart at Stanford University, the Center for Design Research.. But these centers' foci are universal, about design, less project-specific. So, Paula -- want to finish your thought? I'd love to see where you go with this.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design | Theories of Experience

    July 14, 2006

    LRA Worldwide, a customer experience firm “that gets it”

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Lra Logo Top MenuRob Rush is the CEO of LRA Worldwide, Inc., located in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA. Until Rob contacted me -- with nice words to say about Total Experience -- I didn't know about LRA or that it was in the “customer experience management” business, with an impressive array of clients and a long list of projects completed in their behalf. I'm glad that Rob got in touch. LRA is every experience designer's dream: a thriving company that validates the vision shared by many in the experience design community, but heretofore largely unrealized.

    What's LRA about? Here's how it describes its primary activity, Customer Experience Management, or CEM:

    Customer Experience Management is a relatively new term with a number with a number of different interpretations in the marketplace. Our view of Customer Experience Management, however, is quite simple. Every time a company and a customer interact, the customer learns something about the company that will either strengthen or weaken the future relationship and that customer’s desire to return, spend more and recommend. LRA's customer experience management consultants identify each of these “moments of truth,” ensuring that the company and its people, products, processes and culture are aligned across all of these “touch points” to best serve the customer... based on what is most important to that customer.

    I like that. Simple, concise, and easy to understand. But then, that's what these guys are all about: understanding.

    Karl Long, on his ever insightful Experience Curve blog, seconds my impression that LRA is an experience design firm of a type we haven't seen before. In an exchange with me on Paula Thornton's Experience Design newsgroup, in which I compared LRA with better-known “experience design” companies like IDEO and BRC Imagination Arts, Karl had this to say:

    What [LRA does] is engage at the right level in companies to help change happen across departments and organizations. IMHO, the IDEO's and BlastRadius-type companies can create staged experiences, but they don't have the influence at the right level across all departments.

    LRA is truly in the “customer experience management” space.

    To which he added,

    Don't you think if they wanted to move into “experience creation,” they would need some distinct skills that they probably don't have now, a kind of imagineering division?

    Well, yes, Karl, I do.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Experience Design & Technology | The Practice of Experience Design

    July 9, 2006

    July 7, 2006

    Living In (And Learning About) Our Risky World: Toward the World Simulator

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Horsemen-1We live in a risky world. War, disease, genocide, crime, natural disasters, and random violence destroy lives and livelihoods. Political strife, oppression, poverty, and homelessness take a toll, widespread and continuous, on the quality of life for billions of people. We don't know what to do. Even in advanced industrial nations, even within the pockets of prosperity where the wealthy and upper-middle classes live, there is a desperate perception that world events increasingly are out of hand. More often than not, the unexpected consequences of rules and regulations imposed by national governments and transnational institutions (like the International Monetary Fund) exacerbate rather than mitigate risk. High-speed telecommunications, the media, and the Internet accelerate humanity's sense of a world out of control.

    Ciaseal-1Unwilling to deal with the stress, it's not surprising that people, in America especially but also globally, studiously remain ignorant about world events (even bare-bones geography). But businesses and governments can't afford voids in their knowledge. For them, specialized services exist -- often very large and lucrative -- to assess the state of the world and the meaning of things. The best known are institutional, like the CIA and its counterparts around the world; university centers and foundations; and the think tanks (like RAND, SRI International, Global Business Network, and INSEAD) that trade focused intellect for influence and profit.

    More interesting, however, are the private firms that offer informed analyses, scenarios, and forecasts about global processes and world events that most of us may never even know about. This knowledge has commercial value. So the knowledge these firms provide is protected, proprietary, and confidentiality. If you have the means, however, they'll share it with you (usually at a considerable price). Though not always accurate or actionable, the knowledge these firms provide mitigates uncertainty for their clients. Able to see through the fog of world events better than the rest of us, the knowledge buyers can act to abate or exploit real or imagined risk in their own interest. For this article, I took a spin on the Web among the private knowledge providers.

    Zoom-Globe-PressIn the English-speaking world, the best known of these private knowledge providers about world events are publishing houses including Reuters, Pearson's Financial Times Group (Financial Times), and Dow Jones & Company (Wall Street Journal and Barron's). Also publishers, but more deeply vested in consulting, are The Economist Intelligence Unit and Jane's Intelligence Group. I was particularly impressed by Aon, Inc., a global insurance and risk-management firm, that offers on its website downloadable “risk maps” depicting global and regional risks and dangers. A tier of lesser-known companies operates more quietly and privately. These include Oxford Analytica, Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor), and Kissinger McLarty Associates (whose amazing website features...nothing!). And then there are the “black” intelligence providers that are so secret, they defy Google itself (or anyone else) to locate them on the Web. Although I knew a few of these dark dealers during my prior professional work, I'm no longer able to say who's in the business today and what they're doing. They aim to keep it that way. C'est la vie.

    There is a moral dimension to informing others, as there is to being informed. No religion condones lying, at least overtly, or refusing to render aid to the endangered and suffering. In most legal systems, withholding vital information that can prevent harm is a criminal offense. And most of us feel it's reprehensible to withhold information that would result in socially beneficial outcomes. That's why the majority of firms engaged in analyzing world events and risk-abatement eventually are open with their findings, albeit after giving first notice (and advantage) to their paying clientele. But this openness comes with blinders imposed by professional and cultural biases, and political and disciplinary boundaries that isolate rather than integrate knowledge domains. These limitations defeat the practical benefit of sharing knowledge, which is to help people generally make better, more beneficial decisions about how to live in the world.

    NationalgeographicThe nonprofit National Geographic Society, is an exception. Its National Geographic magazine's universal content and ever bolder coverage reaches a broad public, making its brand of global awareness (and advocacy for geographic knowledge) available for the price of a mere magazine subscription. National Geographic's topics range the gamut from geophysics to cultural geography, but increasingly, unavoidably, it's editors, writers, and photographers are drawn into geopolitical conflicts and topics that force the magazine's readers to confront the realities of life in a risky world. Happily, new leadership in the Society has abandoned the pollyannish “only good news” philosophy that was conflated with an almost exclusive boosting of Western values. National Geographic has gone “International Geographic” in deed, if not in title.

    Another exception, in blog form, is the excellent worldchanging, whose mission I find perceptive and highly sympathetic:

    Worldchanging-2 WorldChanging.com works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us. That plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected. That the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present. That another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together.

    What if there was an open, global system that enabled everyone to learn about, understand, and cope with world events, current and anticipated? It would be revolutionary. To a small extent, today's Internet serves this function, if one has the ability and is willing to slog through swamps of information to discover and organize gems of knowledge that give meaning. However, because most people don't have knowledge about world events in the first place, most of the knowledge available on the Internet is trivial and can't be acted upon.

    Several initiatives may point the way to this System. These include (of course) Google Earth and the online bulletin board, Digg, on which readers direct other readers to the best articles on the Web dealing with pressing problems; and Meople.net, an “attention bazaar” that enables experts to advertise their availability and sell their knowledge in Attention Stores open to all comers at affordable prices.

    200607070015But by far the most ambitious of these initiatives is one in which I'm personally involved, the World SimulatorTM. Fully developed, the World Simulator will be an open-architectured Web service accessible to everyone for learning about world events. Real-time data feeds will keep its world model always up to date. Individuals and groups will be able to easily access the World Simulator to see what's happening and, if they follow the rules of construction, also be able to compose and integrate regional, process, and domain-specific knowledge modules with the world model, making it ever more realistic. People can then run simulations to test hypotheses and scenarios, globally or regionally, depending on the knowledge modules they choose to implement. We're concentrating our first efforts in the domain of geopolitics, because geopolitical events as a class are familiar to most people even if they aren't fully understood or their meanings appreciated. In the same way that Linus Torvald's open-source project resulted in Linux, the software language that drives most Web servers, or as the Wikipedia community is building the world's most comprehensive encyclopedia (caveat lector), we expect the World Simulator to result in a broadly public, heightened geopolitical awareness ( “Gaia consciousness”, in its most enlightened form). In turn, that awareness we believe will enable real-world action with beneficial outcomes, public as well as private.

    I don't want to get ahead of myself while the project is in its early stages, but if you'd like to learn more, write to me. As well as being project organizer, I'm its evangelist. I can't think of a better cause, living in this risky world.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | ED Projects of Note | Theories of Experience

    July 2, 2006

    July 1, 2006

    The Experience of Immobility: Transportation -- or not -- after the oil runs out.

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Highway1This week marks the 50th anniversary of the National Defense Highway System, America's multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar building spree, initiated by President Eisenhower, resulting in this nation's massive network of freeways and highways: 47,000 miles worth, enough asphalt to coat the world twice. The NDHS was sold using a Cold War rationale: when the Russian and Chinese armies approach our shores, we need to get American troops and tanks there, pronto. This problematic explanation served as cover for the NDHS's other (and some would say, more realistic) purpose: to encourage high-speed auto and truck traffic; accelerated urban growth, worker migration, and commerce; and the expansion of the auto industry. The NDHS succeeded magnificently on all counts. And each factor increased the consumption of oil.

    The NDHS' growth was paralleled by a succession of Federal aviation laws that resulted in building more airports and establishing the FAA's national flight control system.

    These magnificent government projects produced equally magnificent subsidies for the auto and airline industries and tremendously ramped up Americans' mobility. They also contributed to the decline of mass transit, particularly buses, trolleys, and trains that didn't receive similarly robust subsidies. The same has happened overseas, except that in most countries, trains have survived as part of a larger social contract. Burgeoning business-travel, tourism and hospitality, and telecom industries have been built on the expectation that more and more nations will become mobile societies. And we've come to take for granted a certain ease of motion that is part and parcel of the experience of living in a modern industrial society.

    Instead, we're headed for an Age of Immobility. Not because there are too many cars on the road or planes in the air. Of course, there are. Everyone living in a city has experienced insane levels of traffic congestion and aching, two-hour commutes. The automobile is no longer a net-gain way to travel -- and air travel in the 21st Century? Forget it!

    Graph1The ultimate cause of the Age of Immobility is that we are reaching “Peak Oil-- characterized by the Hubbert Curve -- when the world is producing all of the oil that can be easily gotten, without heroic exploration. From that day forward, our oil stores and production will begin an irreversible decline. Peak Oil, when it arrives, will slowly strangle not only ground transportation, but also movement through the air and on the seas. Easy mobility will become another memory from the Golden Age of Petroleum. There is no escape in turning coal into oil, as some recommend: the process is long, expensive, environmentally catastrophic, and ultimately, requires more energy than it produces. Burning more coal to make coal into oil would only multiply the offense to the Earth.

    OilproductionpercapitaSome say that Peak Oil already is here. In any case, its arrival in the next decades is almost inevitable. What will it mean for most people in the world, including the industrial nations, to experience constant immobility?

    Think back to earlier societies, when the only accessible workplaces were, for serfs, the farm; for traders, the village market; and for small producers, the small shop easily walked to. Most people walked. Relatively few people owned horses or oxen, the only sources of mobility other than walking. There was no petroleum-fueled transportation, so goods and services were acquired locally or not at all. Only the very rich could afford to journey on business or pleasure. The nobility in their coaches, running roughshod through Paris streets before the Revolution, trampling anyone in the way, is a movie cliche that's hard to forget -- because once it was real.

    There were exceptions. Wooden ships used wind and coal for power; and trains for a few brief years burned wood or coal to generate steam; but in those early industrial days, there were vast forests for the taking, and "global warming," to which burning wood and coal contributes, was unknown. Today's steel ships and high-speed trains run on oil, as do the automobiles and aircraft with which they compete, or using electricity generated by burning oil. In our future, ships and trains may join cars, buses, trucks, and planes as relics of an earlier era. Little by little, our roads and airspace will get emptier as cars and planes first get smaller and more fuel efficient, then begin to disappear, except for those owned by large businesses and wealthy individuals. LonelyHighway.jpgFor a short while, these last few will command the highways and airways; then they, too, will be used only for special occasions or cease to operate entirely, starved for petroleum-based fuel. Note that this goes for electric cars, too, at least as they currently are powered: by electricity generated from burning oil and coal. (See Corey Powell's "Black Cloud," a review of Jeff Goodall's new Big Coal in the NYT Sunday Book Review.)

    Our children may live in a very different world. Award-winning author Ursula Le Guin's allegorical Always Coming Home describes a future pastoral society where walking is the main means of mobility; the trains are powered by oxen. Always Pb(In Le Guin's future, cars and planes ceased to exist millenia earlier. What happened to all of the “People With Their Heads on Backwards” -- meaning you and me -- is a mystery. Supply your own unhappy theory.) People take it easy. But also, their ambitions are turned completely inward, toward community, ritual, and the routine. There is beauty, but it is small, personal, unsensational. The Internet, now called “The City,” has become sentient. It's an oracle occasionally consulted, but mainly out of sight and out of mind. What can technology offer these people without synthetic energy, rooted in place, whose furthest journeys are from today's Napa Valley to the San Francisco Bay? Cellphones? Mobile Internet? iPods?

    How quickly scenarios like Le Guin's can become reality. We get a preview every time a shock occurs to the world's oil supply: producer boycotts, a civil war in Nigeria, earthquake damage in Indonesia, politics in Venezuela, fighting or sabotage in distribution choke-points like the Caucasus or Kazakhstan -- wherever there's oil, there's crisis, and then prices rise. But we've learned to live with momentary burdens. It's the larger, more benign events, like the growth of China's and India's economies, that will create disastrous outcomes for the world's supply of petroleum and petroleum-dependent, mainstay industries including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, defense -- and transportation. Of course, a nuclear war anywhere in the Middle East would hasten the petroleum economy's demise.

    What is the experience of being limited in range to the distance one can walk in a day? Or doing business in terms of mule-miles? What consequences has immobility for sustenance, health, education, commerce, and community? Will we all inhabit villages again, albeit most of us within what used to be integrated cities? Perhaps those living in deprived regions of the world, like Darfur, Afghanistan, or Chad, have something to teach us about our own futures.Fruit Cart 170604

    Barring a miracle, like major governments truly committing resources for developing renewable fuels, or the invention of a device for turning discarded plastic into bio-safe liquid fuels -- still only hopeful visions -- our ability to easily circulate, a freedom we've taken for granted, is in trouble. With the trivial exception of mixed shopping/loft developments, however, you don't see many designers designing for mass immobility. The very notion is taboo.

    Blogs: check out Matt Savinar's Peak Oil: Life After the Crash, for a picturesque portrait of post-Peak Oil civilization; and C. Peppard's Getting There, devoted to “Transportation for the Masses.”

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    America in Miniature takes steps forward

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    American In Miniature RevisedI earlier wrote about America in Miniature, the first miniature theme park in the United States, a planned companion to the 50-plus other miniatures of nations around the world. Edward van de Meer, who leads the America in Miniature venture, subsequently wrote to share with me America in Miniature's updated design (see the thumbnail) and its acquisition of additional executive talent. Edward also wanted to make these points:

    1. More than three-quarters of all miniature theme park visitors are adults. We are not Legoland: we'll welcome kids, but America in Miniature, like other miniature theme parks, is designed for adult enjoyment.

    2. Education, education,
    education! At America in Miniature, a major effort will be made regarding education about the United States, its geography, history, and culture.

    3. America in Miniature will be the only indoor miniature park in the world. In Las Vegas, providing a climate-controlled environment will benefit our guests and the miniature models alike. Also, we can take visitors from day-time to night-time at will.

    4. “Patriotism.” How far can we take this? In the end, I promise an amazing experience, seeing all the beauty this country has to offer! Our mission statement reads,
    “Provide a guest experience well beyond the visitor's expectation.”


    Interested parties -- especially potential investors -- are invited to write to Edward directly.

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