Towards a General Theory of Value: An Interview with Michael Benedikt
By Gong Szeto March 6, 2003
Towards a General Theory of Value: An Interview with Michael Benedikt
By Gong Szeto March 6, 2003
Towards a General Theory of Value: An Interview with Michael Benedikt
By Gong Szeto March 6, 2003

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 of Value?

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, etc.

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 that period.

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 “value”?

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 designers.

How do you define “value”? How do most people think of value? Architects? Businesspersons?

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 interest.

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 designers?

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 customers.

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 simple.

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.

“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.”
“I posit six to Maslow's five, namely: the needs for survival, security, legitimacy, approval, confidence, and freedom.”

Tags Article business information design