· June 2010

June 2010

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I was reading yesterday this section (Chapter 9 – Two Images of Technology) in Murray Bookchin’s excellent study on the “emergence and dissolution of hierarchy.” It is so clear and so relevant that I would like to quote it here in some length. The lessons that are so undeniably prescient in the words below and which are so important to the success of our collective endeavor toward the proliferation of healthy societies in the 21st century are very sadly ignored by many today.

In Bookchin’s words are some very serious lessons about one of the most important choices that is being made by decision makers today: what is the portfolio of our near-term energy future and how are we going to build a strong new foundation for a sustainable, non-polluting infrastructural system that will allow our fast-growing population universal access to lives of quality and value in the decades to come?

If while reading this, one keeps in mind so many of the current topics of debate in popular culture, it begs to question so many of the basic assumptions that are majority departure points for all of these conversations. When we knowingly engage in activities that are harmful to the balance of our ecosystems in order that the near-term growth rate on our dividends can be maintained and/or in order that we might have access at the consumer level to inexpensive fashions and goods or creature comforts, we are doing so in violation of very deep moral traditions that have roots into all religions and systems of ethics out of which modernity was born. It is in essence a betrayal of the best of humanity to continue to squander our potentiality for good. The right path continues to present itself despite our best efforts to ignore it. What is certain is that it not the easy path. But what is also certain is that the one we are on right now is leading nowhere very good.

Bookchin begins by setting the recent historical stage of humanity’s relationship with technology:

In trying to examine technology and production, we encounter a curious paradox. We are deeply riven by a sense of promise about technical innovation, on the one hand, and by a thorough sense of disenchantment with its results, on the other. This dual attitude not only reflects a conflict in the popular ideologies concerning technology but also expresses strong doubts about the nature of modern technological development itself. We are puzzled that the very instruments our minds have conceived and our hands have created can be so easily turned against us, with disastrous results for our wellbeing—indeed, for our very survival as a species.

It is difficult for young people today to realize how anomalous such a conflict in technical orientation and imagery would have seemed only a few decades ago. Even such a wayward cult hero as Woody Guthrie once celebrated the huge dams and giant mills that have now earned so much opprobrium. The people whom Guthrie and his radical companions of the 1930’s addressed had a deep reverence for technology, specifically those skills and devices that we place under the rubric of “technics.” New machines, like artistic works, were objects of display that radiantly enraptured not only the connoisseur of futurism, the manufacturer, and the specialist, but the general public in all walks of life. Popular American utopias were unreeled in monumental technocratic images; the embodied power, a preening mastery of nature, physical gigantism, and dazzling mobility. The largely technical “New World of Tomorrow,” celebrated in the last of the truly great fairs—New York World’s Fair of 1939—fascinated millions of visitors with its message of human achievement and hope. In fact, technics had become as much a cultural artifact as a mechanical one. The early part of the century witnessed the emergence of an intensely social and messianic art (Futurism, Expressionism, the Bauhaus, to cite the most celebrated ones) that was overwhelmingly technological in its exhortations and in its derogation of more leisurely, reflective, craft-oriented, and organic traditions.

The hold of technics on the social imagery of that time was more fetishistic than rational. Even the First World War, which witnessed a massive use of the new technological armamentarium to slaughter millions of people, did not dispel this technical mythos. Only in the sequelae of the second of these worldwide conflicts, with all its terrifying results, did we begin to witness chilling doubts in the popular mind over the wisdom of technical innovation. Nuclear weaponry, perhaps more than any other single factor, has created a popular fear of a “technics-run-wild.” The 1960s began to exhibit a pronouncedly anti-technical bias of its own that has since turned into a complex duel between “high” and “hard” technologies (those associated with fossil and nuclear fuels, industrial agriculture, and synthetics) and the so-called “appropriate” or “soft” technologies (those structured around solar, wind, and hydraulic sources of energy, organically grown food, and human-scale, craft-like industries).

What clearly renders “appropriate” technology increasingly attractive today is not any popular celebration of its achievements of promise; rather, it is a growing fear that we are irretrievably committing ourselves to destructive systems of mass production and widespread problems of environmental pollution. The artistic messiahs of a technocratic society are gone. Humanity now seems to feel that technology has ensnared it; it has the mien of a victim rather than a beneficiary. If the first half of the century witnessed the emergence of “high” technology as a popular “art-form” because the great majority of the industrialized world’s population still lived in small communities with almost antique technical artifacts, the end of the century is witnessing the emergence of “appropriate” technology as a popular “art-form” precisely because “high” technology has placed a gilded cage over the suffocating millions who now clutter the cities and highways of the western world.

The grim fatalism slowly permeating western humanity’s response to technics derives in large part from its ethical ambivalence toward technical innovation. The modern mind has been taught to identify technical sophistication with a “good life” and, to a large extent, with a social progressivism that culminates in human freedom. But none of these images has been suitably clarified, at least not from a historical perspective. Today, by far the great majority of people view the “good life” or “living well” (terms that date back to Aristotle) as a materially secure, indeed highly affluent life. Reasonable as this conclusion may seem in our own time, it contrasts sharply with its Hellenic origins. Aristotle’s classic distinction between “living only” (a life in which people are insensately driven to the limitless acquisition of wealth) and “living well” or within “limit” epitomizes classical antiquity’s notion of the ideal life, however much its values were honored in the breach. To “live well” or live the “good life” implied an ethical life in which one was committed not only to the well-being of one’s family and friends but also to the polis and its social institutions…

…The dichotomy between the modern image of a materially affluent life and the classical ideal of a life based on limit parallels the dichotomy between modern and classical concepts of technics. To the modern mind, technics is simply the ensemble of raw materials, tools, machines, and related devices that are needed to produce a usable object. The ultimate judgement of a technique’s value and desirability is operational: it is based on efficiency, skill, and cost. Indeed, cost largely summarizes virtually all the factors that prove out the validity of a technical achievement. But to the classical mind, by contrast, “technique” (or techné) had a far more ample meaning. It existed in a social and ethical contextin which, to invoke Aristotle’s terms, one asked not only “how” a use-value was produced but also “why.” From process to product, techné provided both the framework and the ethical light by which to form a metaphysical judgement about the “why” as well as the “how” of technical activity. Within this ethical, rational, and social framework, Aristotle distinguished between the “master workers in each craft” who are “more honourable, and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.” In contrast to their strictly operational subordinates, “who act without knowledge of what they do, as fire burns,” master workers act with an insight and ethical responsibility that renders their craft rational.

Techné, moreover, covered a wider scope of experience than the modern world of technics. As Aristotle explains in Nichomachean Ethics, “All art [techné] is concerned with coming into being, that is, with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and wnose origin is in the maker and not in the thing made.” Here he distinguishes the crafted product—even artistic works such as architectural masterpieces and sculpture—from natural phenomena, which “have their origins in themselves.” Accordingly, techné is a “state concerned with making, involving a true course of reasoning….” It is potency,” an essential that techné shares with the ethical “good.” All “arts, i.e., productive forms of knowledge, are potencies; they are originative sources of change in another thing or in the artist himself considered as other.”

These far-reaching ethical and metaphysical remarks indicate how much the classical image of techné contrasts with the modern image of technics. the goal of techné is not restricted to merely “living well” or living within limit. Techné includes living an ethical live according to an originative and ordering principal conceived as “potency.” Viewed even in an instrumental sense, techné thus encompasses not merely raw materials, tools, machines, and products but also the producer–in short, a highly sophisticated subject from which all else originates. To Aristotle, the “master-craftsman” is distinguished subjectively from his apprentices or assitants by virtue of honor, a sense of “why” products are created, and generally a wisdom of things and phenomena. By starting with the rationality of the subject, Aristotle establishes a point of departure for bringing rationalization to the production of the object.

Modern industrial production functions in precisely the opposite way. Not only is the modern image of techné limited to mere technics in the instumental sense of the term, but also its goals are inextricably tied to umlimited production. “Living well” is conceived as limitless consumption within the framework of a totally unethical, privatized level of self-interest…

I will have to stop there, or I will end up re-typing the entire book. What is clear is that humanity was not yet responsible enough for the delicate gift that it was given (our planet’s natural resources and the potential to manipulate them to “inorganic” ends). Our ability to tamper with the balance of nature and to squander the precious resources available to us has been in the past 150 years a tragedy of epic proportion. The incredible bounty of the Earth can instead lead to a heroic triumph over poverty, over suffering, over the petty vestigial inheritances of our survival-oriented evolutionary incubation. We have the amazing conscious ability to ask “why” when we are confronted with the opportunity to flex our technical muscles. We need to very soon institute some sort of measure collectively through whatever means are available to us in order to make this “why” as ubiquitous within our system of innovation and production as the less ethical notions such as “do it because it is possible” and simple mathematical considerations of return-on-investment are so ubiquitous today in our technical decision making processes.


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We are thrilled this week to have received coverage in the Arabic Language press. It is the first time that we have. A very big THANK YOU goes out to Lisa George, the director of Iris Public Relations here in Dubai. She has been very generous with her time and support, providing in-kind PR services to the LAGI project. She also booked our appearance on Emirates News and arranged for us to be on the “Tonight with Richard Dean” talk show Dubai Eye 103.8 this Wednesday at 7pm. We hope that you’ll tune in!


The exhibit at DIFC is generating a lot of interest in the LAGI project!
Watch this video of our recent appearance on Emirates News.

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A public exhibit of the entries is on display for popular voting at DIFC beginning today, June 23, and continuing until June 30. We are asking the public to stop by any time during the week and write down their favorite entries in order to arrive at a winner of the popular vote in Dubai. We thank DIFC for their support of this exhibit.

The display is located in the Marble Walk (B1 Level), Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). It will be running around the clock and I’ll be there to answer questions whenever I can during the week.

PopSci Article
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We’re thrilled to have had the 10MW tower concept included in Popular Science Magazine’s July issue on “Ecotopia”. It’s a great theme that they have put together and Suzanne LaBarre did an excellent job of distilling the most important aspects of the tower design into an exciting synopsis. Thanks to her and to Nick Kaloterakis who created the cover image rendering of what might be a future version of Dubai. While we are really glad that he included a modified version of the 10MW tower in the rendering, we’d like to point out for the record that only the south-facing facade could function in the manner designed (CSP integration), and two wind turbines back to back would cancel each other out. Also, the solar updraft chimney appears to have been closed off to a spire-like point and the building would not function as well if shaded by surrounding towers. But the rendering is fantastic even if the reinterpretation of the architecture has lost something from the original and we thank Nick for his herculean efforts at rendering “Ecotopia”.

The online version of the article can be found here

Joby Energy has a nice video of their interesting airborne wind turbine. An array of them perform a sort of synchronized flying routine that would be beautiful to sit and watch from a nearby hillside.

via physorg

Credit: Skyline Solar

Nipton, California will soon be powered 85% by a new High Gain Solar (HGS) array in the Mojave desert. With just short of 1,000 residents, Nipton is a small railroad outpost town. But such small steps are a good example and an excellent parallel track to be pursued along with the large-scale more ambitious projects. One small town at a time…
via CNET News

Here in the UAE, the 100MW massive installation, Shams 1 in Abu Dhabi, a joint effort between Masdar and Abengoa, is critical, setting the bar higher for the rest of the world.

It may also be a good idea to install 5-10MW arrays near smaller UAE cities like Kalba or Al Mirfa. It would provide such cities with a security of energy and assist the peak load of the existing UAE grid especially during the summer daylight hours. Such installations would be a fraction of the cost and would be prime candidates for creative design and methods of building (LAGI?).

Thank you to all of those who participated in this year’s design competition! It could not have been a greater success. Last Friday we received hundreds of entries from more than 40 countries around the world, and we’ve finally finished sorting and cataloging everything. Between July 1 and August 1, the jury will be reviewing the entries.

Once the $15,000 prize winning entry has been determined, we will be posting the designs at this blog—about three per week during the autumn. So stay tuned right here starting this August for some ideas that give a new interdisciplinary relevance to public art and open a window onto the future of sustainable cities everywhere!

Great historic shots of early solar power technology in this photo essay.

Seems that if we hadn’t had been so “lucky” to have had “inexpensive” access during the 20th century to ready supplies of fossil fuels, we would have come a whole lot further with solar power in the last 60 years. As it is, the technology then seems quite familiar to that being employed today.

Some quotes from the LIFE piece:

In 1960, Dr. Charles A. Escoffery discusses the solar-powered car he invented. The 1912 “Baker Electric Mode” featured 26 square feet of silicon cells on its roof.

More benign uses for solar energy and power have always been on scientists’ and inventors’ radar, i.e., this solar distiller, used to draw fresh water out of salt water, demonstrated at an international conference on solar energy in 1955.

The main mirror (flat, foreground) and the parabolic mirror of a French “solar furnace” built atop a 17th century fortress in the 1950s. The main mirror — a 43-foot X 34-foot giant — deflects rays of sunlight to the 31-foot parabolic shell, which then focuses the sunlight even further, intensifying it to a point where it generates temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

A Ralph Morse photograph of what LIFE celebrated as the “world’s first sun-heated home” in a 1949 issue of the magazine — a house in Dover, Mass., that featured an enormous “heat trap” consisting of two separated panes of glass with a black metal panel between them. “The sun’s short heat waves go through the glass and warm the metal to as much as 150 degrees. At this temperature the metal gives off long heat waves that can not easily go back out through the glass.” Fans then circulated the trapped warmth through the home — not doing away with the need for electricity, of course, but in the words of the article, “it could be the beginning of a big reduction in the approximately $3.5 billion the U.S. pays annually for household fuel.” [Emphasis added, for editorial effect.]

A thank you to Dr. Michael Duffey (Associate Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University) for sharing with us his amazing solar thermal music devices. A series of these devices create a sort of solar pipe organ with beautiful effect. You can see some videos of some prototype designs in action here and here.

What is equally amazing is the long history behind such devices which have their origin in one of the Colossi of Memnon at Thebes, near present day Luxor, Egypt. The two statues depict Amenhotep III from 14th century BCE. In 27 BCE, an earthquake crumbled the top of one of them. The way that the stone collapsed must have created a pocket in which water would collect from nighttime dew. During the early morning sun, this dew would steam and create a harmonic noise through a fissure in the rocks. The statues then were renamed (no one by then remembered Amenhotep of course) after the Greek “ruler of the dawn” Memnon, a hero from the Trojan War. The association with dawn is thought to have come from the singing of the stone in the early morning sunlight.

From Wikipedia:

The sound was most often reported in February or March, but this is probably more a reflection of the tourist season rather than any actual pattern. The description varied; Strabo said it sounded “like a blow”, Pausanias compared it to “the string of a lyre” breaking, but it also was described as the striking of brass or whistling. The earliest report in literature is that of the Greek historian and geographer Strabo, who claimed to have personally heard the sound during a visit in 20 BC, by which time it apparently was already well-known. Other ancient sources include Pliny (not from personal experience, but he collected other reports), Pausanias, and Juvenal. In addition, the base of the statue is inscribed with about 90 surviving inscriptions of contemporary tourists reporting whether they had heard the sound or not.

The legend of the “Vocal Memnon”, the luck that hearing it was reputed to bring, and the reputation of the statue’s oracular powers, travelled the length of the known world, and a constant stream of visitors, including several Roman Emperors, came to marvel at the statues. The last recorded reliable observation of the sound dates from 196 (AD or CE). Sometime later in the Roman era, the upper tiers of sandstone were added (the original remains of the top half have never been found); the date of this reconstruction is unknown, but local tradition has this circa 199, by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in an attempt to curry favour with the oracle (it is known that he visited the statue but did not hear the sound).

The Colossus of Memnon is a beautiful thousands-year collaborative artwork between man and nature. And not only is it a beautiful sculpture, but it is a solar powered sound art installation as well. This powerful history has influenced a number of creative minds over the centuries since. While they don’t create energy outside of that which is used to create the sound, they may still be inspirational references to those who are interested in designing Land Art Generators.

Detailed background about the solar thermal music project with technical links and more information about the Memnon history can be found at Dr. Duffey’s website on the project which he warned us is a little out of date, but which we nevertheless found riveting.

The Eco Friendly Expo was an amazing event. We met hundreds of great people who are doing great things.

Some of the people who were presenting at the Expo:
Mr. Ellie Pooh: Exotic paper pulped to perfection by the elephants of Sri Lanka
Decorazon Gallery: Great photographic prints on recycled materials like salvaged wood
and Second Souls: Beautiful sculptural creations from found objects by Suprina.
Suprina and some of her art are in the photos below.

See the Eco Friendly Expo site for links to many more of the 2010 participants. Thanks to everyone at Eco Friendly Expo for having us and for making it such a successful event!

Click here to vote!
With your help and your votes (you can vote once every day!), we can win the June challenge which will fund a 2011 competition in the United States.

Thank you!

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