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Michael Benedikt's books include For an Architecture of
Reality, Deconstructing the Kimbell, and
Cyberspace: First Steps. He lectures widely to business
and professional audiences, and has written over a hundred articles
on architecture, design, social-economic theory, and the
information society. He is the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism and
Director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at the
University of Texas at Austin.
What transpired during the period of writing A General Theory
Started in 1992, this book took ten years to write. In 1992, the
Internet was just beginning to spur the investment boom in digital
communications that would prevail until this year (and that was
predicted in Cyberspace: First Steps (MIT Press, 1991), a
book that was written before there was a “World Wide Web.” What was
not clear to me then—or clear to anyone else at the time—is what of
value would sustain the boom other than the confidence that “great
things would happen,” that the Information Age had finally arrived,
The nineties went by. Fortunes were being made mainly in providing
infrastructure, programming tools, and access, but no one was
making a profit offering content. There was no there
there—or not enough there there, somehow, for people to want to pay
for content over and above access. In all, Internet-based
investment soon began to look a Ponzi scheme, where growing numbers
of late investors pay off the fewer numbers of early ones. Who, one
had to wonder, would be left holding the over-valued baby?
At the same time I was also lamenting that cyberspace—that
wonderful, phantasmagoric three-dimensional alternative reality
imagined by William Gibson—was not actually shaping itself on-line
as I and many others thought it surely would. What Mosaic, then
Netscape, then Explorer delivered was mostly the content of your
local drugstore newsstand, but worse: delivered more jerkily, more
shallowly, and more resolutely two-dimensionally—like paper flyers
blown against the back of the computer screen. (99% of it still
looks that way, Flash graphics notwithstanding.) Set aside the
code-writing required: by 1993 it was clear that the transmission
and processing speeds required to sustain cyberspace were going to
be long in coming. They are still not here. To this day, only
advanced intranet gamers have a foretaste of Gibsonian cyberspace:
a real-time, shared, virtual space seamlessly mixing useful data,
personal presence, and real-world, real-time connection.
Forget cyberspace. Over all the whole digital communications
enterprise hung the question of why? What good
was it all (notwithstanding the fact that many of my friends, and
one member of my family, were becoming dotcom millionaires, at
least on paper)? Discovering that “good”—finding the value of
networked computers for the masses—would be essential to achieving
sustainable economic growth in the 21st century.
So there must have been some valuable things that emerged during
By the late nineties there were some candidates. Quick and
inexpensive access to hard information—like news, manuals, and
other business and legal documentation—from anywhere on earth
seemed like a durably Good Thing. So too did access to
entertainment and shopping, with consumer-oriented companies
offering 'reception areas' and catalogs to the public as well as
establishing real-time global markets in certain goods. Add the
larger category of enriched asynchronous communications between
individuals (whatever the reason for or content of those
communications), and one seemed to have incontrovertible grounds
for believing that the digital revolution could deliver real value
to millions of ordinary people for decades to come.
All very promising. Missing from the picture, though, was a
sufficiently modern theory of value: a deeper way to understand
why and how these things had value over time. In
the new, so-called post-industrial, information-age era, if we
didn't have a theory of value–and in particular, a good theory of
economic value—then we couldn't decrease our failure rate,
we couldn't steer our efforts, and we wouldn't have the
ideas we needed to come up with new enterprises and
solutions. Trial and error would remain the only method, with “guns
or butter” utilitarianism our only economic doctrine.
So what was missing in current thinking about
After much research it became clear to me that neither by
themselves nor together had the disciplines of psychology or
economics anything serious to say as to why people spend
their time and/or money the way they do (although econometrics
could say roughly how). And when the good in question was as
ephemeral and cheaply reproducible as “information”—i.e. not food
or steel or real estate—the problem was compounded. Of what (and
how much) value is “information,” after all?
This was the question and that my theory set out to answer. It
would eventually have something to say about the value of
everything, from food to architecture.
Which is just as well, because there is more to our lives than
computers and communications. Indeed, economic growth over the next
few decades might not be driven by the information industries at
all. These might have peaked as providers of value already, and
what they produce might be heading for commodity status: in
constant over-supply and competing on price alone. (Look at what's
happening to popular music and the radio and recording industries.
Or to cable and satellite TV. Or to wireless phone service...) If
this is the case—as I believe it is—then it's critical to ask
“what's next?” What new areas of production, employment, and
enjoyment are going to carry the economy into the future? I offer:
design and architecture. But that's at the end of the book, in the
last chapter and Coda, entitled “The Value of Architecture.”
Who is the audience for this book? If you find what I am saying interesting,
you ...and people like you: informed professionals and
academics, intellectuals with a stomach for mixing science, social
science, and business; future-looking developers, marketers, and
CEOs; graduate students, and, hopefully, many architects and
How do you define “value”? How do most people think of value?
My definition of value is simple: “positive value” is what we
attribute to that which intensifies and/or prolongs life.
(Conversely, “negative value” is what we attribute to that which
dilutes and/or shortens life.) The bias is naturally towards human
life (over animal or vegetal life), and towards life in the social
and physical proximity of the judge over life further away. But I
argue for constantly moderating that bias—i.e., for widening the
ambit of consideration—if only, interestingly enough, in self
How do most people think about value? In the singular (value): as
getting a lot of stuff for a little money; and in the plural
(“values”) as virtues or ideals worth achieving: for example,
loyalty, honesty, efficiency, control... The list is long and full
of intrinsic conflicts.
Why is a deep understanding of value necessary for
Well to start with, what is design? I would say: thoughtful making,
or rather, thought before making. Design is not just about shapes,
colors, and materials. It's about the close consideration of the
ways in which the product of design—be it a building or a
bicycle—might enhance the life of its makers, purveyors, owners,
users, fixers, and disposers. It's about human needs, and the
planet's needs. At the most global level, design is speeded-up
evolution, courtesy of our excess of gray matter.
You would think from this that I would be against “new” and “cool”
in design. I'm not at all. “New” and “cool” are significant
epithets, because if you look at the reasons people spontaneously
say them, you will often find a genuine need being met in a new and
better way, if only the need for refreshed vision, for believing
that the future holds promise. I don't think Frank Gehry meditates
much on the nature of value in the abstract. A sharp deal-maker and
astute businessman as well as a brilliant designer, his Guggenheim
museum in Bilbao was an aesthetic as well as value-economic
tour de force. Who says art museums had to be neutral
white boxes with gauzy skylights and low-voltage track
lighting—minimalist visual Muzak? Who put “flexibility” above all
other values? Certainly not the artists, and certainly not art's
How do you envision a deeper understanding of value affecting works
of design? the business world? I think the answer is two-fold.
First, if understood, my theory will put pay to business's
predilection for reductive simplicity in design, which yields only
temporary and local economic advantage. The thrust of life's
evolution is towards greater degrees of complexity and, at the same
time, towards greater degrees of organization, the two together, in
balance, at many scales. Evolution entails a life of production
'til reproduction, adapting, with success, to crowding and
competition, and laced with happy (and unhappy) accidents. Knowing
nothing of “efficiency,” life loves only itself. Life wants more
life, and goes always from the few to the many and from crudity to
refinement, which is to say, from relatively
simple-and-disorganized to relatively complex-and-organized. We are
part of life's evolution, and neither we nor our social
institutions nor the things we make and put into the world as
artifacts can, in the long run, opt out of the trend towards
greater complexity and greater organization—the equal balance of
which, in any absolute amount, yields optimal omega.
Second: value presents itself to us first through feelings of need.
When one feels thirsty or uncomfortable or insignificant, one feels
a “need” for water, for a change of position or clothing, for more
attention and respect. And so on. To have a theory of value one
must have a theory of needs. In my book, I expand upon Maslow's
hierarchy of basic needs. I posit six to Maslow's five, namely: the
needs for survival, security,
legitimacy, approval, confidence, and
freedom. The order is significant.
Usually the lower needs (earlier in the above list) trump the
higher ones until they (the lower ones) are sufficiently satisfied.
All goods serve to satisfy one or more of these needs to some
degree; and great design is merely (!) great sophistication in how
one goes about addressing, satisfying, and sometimes also
stimulating these needs.
I also point out the existence of what I call the “token economy,”
in which the goods manufactured, traded, and, after a fashion,
consumed, are purely social and psychological—I mean speeches,
gestures, plans, stories, compliments, licenses, and so on. What's
important to see is that the token economy parallels the material
economy we're all familiar with, but is made almost entirely of
immaterial information. The token economy influences the
material economy greatly. (Indeed, I argue that money is a
token—the prime one, and very “psychological” because of it.)
Tokens satisfy needs; and the job of many goods, like the jobs of
many people, is to design, produce, and trade in tokens profitably.
Right now, very few economists think in these terms. In the
information age, we cannot afford not to. The law of supply and
demand operates a little differently when tokens dominate and
information is the good in question. The resultant market dynamics
are different too. I wish more economists would put their minds to
modeling the social-psychological token economy. It's always been
there, of course, but it's becoming more and more important as
material goods become increasingly commoditized.
In the business world, the “value chain” is a popular way to
describe the process by which value is created for end-products,
yet most designers are concerned mostly with the end product and
not the value creation process of raw materials, etc - why is
that? The people who are asked to invent products that,
by their form and color, material and message, appeal to consumers,
are called designers. The people who optimize the processes of
product manufacture are called engineers. Engineers surely design a
great deal, and designers—good ones anyway—give real consideration
to manufacture, if only because this often affects cost. But for
designers, efficiency-of-use is at least equal in importance to
efficiency-in-manufacture, and usually more important. And
sometimes, even efficiency-of-use (and manufacture) is eclipsed by
other values: craftsmanship, show of class, meaning, style,
newness, 'atmospherics,' and so on, all of which are inimical to
straight-ahead efficiency considerations. These turn out to be too
For designers (in general) to bring ecological, social,
production-efficiency and other values to bear in manufacture, and
stay “designers” nonetheless, they must make consumers conscious of
these behind-the-scenes realities and opportunities. How? If not by
evidence in the material and form of the final product, then by
printed information on sales tags, in brochures, in advertising
campaigns, and so on.
By the way, the value added at each stage in a production process
consists of increasing the omega of the product at that
stage, like a lengthening and improving of a melody. The happiness
of the consumer is his or her omega increasing too.
...First published in Gain 2.0:
AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy.
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Section: Inspiration -
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