At Our Door
Part Two: 'Ephemeralization' and Human Values
by Cate Gable
Once upon a time in the middle of the 20th
Century in the tiny French town of Mazamet at the foot of La Montagne
Noire (Black Mountain), the leather and wool workers experienced
a revolution in technology that swept their economy, their lifestyles
and the details of their everyday existence into the dust. If you
visit the village today, driving up into the hills that the River
Arnette tumbles through, you see abandoned factories and machinery
everywhere. The town has a sleepy quality, the look of being lost.
The old families of Mazamet, once at the center of a bustling wool
manufacturing and world economy, are still wondering what hit them
and how to transform themselves to be productive in a new era.
In last's month's article we began
our discussion of the revolution at OUR door in the form of three
trends steaming toward convergence on the rails of the 21st
- Information technology innovation
- Environmental crises & concerns
- Human & societal values realignment
Where these three trends come together, the beginnings of a revolutionary
transformation is taking place in our lifetimes. In this discussion,
I want to talk about what I'm noticing and give you some tips about
what you can do to be on top of the wave and not crushed by it.
A couple nights ago, I saw, for the second time, a one-man show
written by D. W. Jacobs and performed by Ron Campbell called "R.
Buckminster Fuller: The History [And Mystery] of the Universe."
1 Bucky, we all know, was ahead of his time,
so much so that he saw mankind heading for this train wreck in his
lifetime. 2 (He died in 1983). Bucky created
the geodesic dome, a low-cost alternative to traditional building,
and design principles that predicted the discovery of carbon-60-a
molecular element (and shape) also known as the Bucky-ball. His
idea for a global energy sharing network has yet to be accepted
Bucky talked about ephemeralization-doing more & more with
less & less-which in the dot.com world we now call "dematerialization."
Dematerialization is one of the most obvious effects of information
technology. It means that technology replaces the need for material
in the physical world.
For instance, the iMotors website creates a sales network that
allows consumers to request and receive a certified used car without
going to a car lot or talking to a used car salesman. If it works,
and Kevin Hart, Supply Chain Solutions Director, thinks it will-BOOM!
used car lots, used car salesmen, used car sales offices, file cabinets,
telephones, and fax machines evaporate. The need for used car sales
is met by technology. Knowledge, aggregated and transmitted by digital
tools, substitutes for natural resources and physical materials.
Think of the energy savings!
Here's where the environment comes in. Doing more & more with
less & less is exactly the approach we need to conserve natural
resources and, perhaps, save our natural world. Our manufacturing
processes have been colossally inefficient, producing as much as
95% waste for 5% product. Meanwhile wasps build lightweight hanging
'apartment' buildings from material they regurgitate. A spider turns
flies and insects into an excreted web that, if the sizes were proportional,
would stop a jet plane. A snail commutes on slime. Barnacles and
muscles have created glue that sets-up underwater. Nature must be
laughing at our feeble efforts to make things.
And what about the human values trend? Just read the newspaper.
NIKE is blasted for its sweatshop labor practices. COKE pays big
bucks because its diversity policy is questioned. Rainforest Action
Network negotiates a no-old growth use policy with Home Depot and
forces Starbucks to carry fair trade coffee-which insures that organic
coffee growers in Columbia and Costa Rica can make a living wage.
A business can't be successful anymore without taking human and
environmental values into consideration; and technology is both
the catalyst and vehicle for making these changes real.
And here's the proof that this revolution is not some fringe event.
Re-enter Beatrice Benne and the band of disparate thinkers, entrepreneurs,
academics and corporate managers who gathered at UC Berkeley Haas
School of Business to look at the topic of "Redefining the Construction
Industry's Value Chain: New Business Rules for Collaboration and
What blew me out of the water at this workshop was that even here,
amidst the hallowed halls of a prestigious university, focused on
the topic of the construction industry, for pete's sake!, our brainstorming
lead us to principles that are guaranteed to rock the world. Principles
that are right out of the human/eco revolution handbook I've been
What did we come up with as the new rules for business? Take a
First, we agreed that the Internet is only a communications tool.
It will speed up links and add new links to our processes for gathering,
accumulating, and communicating information. We will use it to assess
and meet external and internal needs: needs that are becoming global.
The Internet is the driver for change and will carry the values,
culture, and philosophy of our global citizenry.
In the workplace, we decided that partnership and cooperation,
not competition, are the new models for interaction. Products and
projects will be designed and created based on customer needs and
values. The Internet provides the means both to evaluate those needs
and to customize products and services. Once a product or service
is created, technology provides a simple means of duplicating or
distributing it. So the old Detroit model of creating a new car
every year won't be enough to add-value for most consumers. In fact,
there is a growing consumer movement toward less stuff; we want
stuff that we actually need, high-quality stuff that is earth-friendly
and will last.
We envision full life-cycle design which takes in environmental
costs and effects, from materials used for production to product
take-back or disposal once a product is discarded. No longer will
manufacturers be able to use (or misuse) natural resources and produce
products with no accountability. In Germany, automakers are responsible
for taking back their cars for re-use, remanufacturing, or recycling.
In the US the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at a similar
initiative for computers. 3
We also recognized that we all want a more balanced life. Workaholism,
we predict, is going out of fashion. People want their lives back,
both in a physical and a spiritual sense. We all want time to play
with our kids, to spend time with friends, and to be able to dream
and work effectively. We want to feel that our work provides us
the opportunity for personal growth and learning. We want a choice
in work and we'd like to feel a sense of accomplishment, a feeling
of contributing in a positive way to our world. No more 'cogs in
a machine' metaphor-work is about the 'whole person.'
Now remember that none of us went into this workshop with preconceived
ideas about revolution. We simply spent some time together talking,
taking time from our everyday jobs to help Beatrice think through
the topic of her Ph.D. and voila! What we found, in my opinion,
is that the seeds of revolution exist in our times in all of us.
We articulated the ideals that Bucky expressed in his lifetime,
that "we're here to take care of each other-and we have everything
on earth we need to do that." This is the revolution at our door.
It's simply the next wave of the Mazamet revolution. And even in
Mazamet, the merchants are aware now that the riches of their area
include the river, the forest, and their cultural heritage. Local
Mazamet colleges are featuring courses in technology; the leather
factory of Claude Bonnet talks about "le respect de l'environnement."
These trends and the ideals that will drive them I believe are
universal. I encourage all of you to think about this cusp of change
we're on and to be willing to stand up and speak the truth about
the world and your place in it. We must find and use nature's basic
principles, and, with the innovations provided by technology, put
those principles back into service for the world with the best of
human values behind them.
In the play, Bucky's last words are still ringing in my ears, "Don't'
Vive la revolution!
b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning
NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher,
and President of Axioun Communications
International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA;
the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her