Erratic Frequencies of Activity in Time

04.06.30 / 13.01.28

The thought struck today that what makes for an uncomfortable level of environmental and technological change is not necessarily the speed or magnitude of change. If change happens extremely quickly, then the fallout may not be uncomfortable or detrimental. If it is to the extreme, then it may be over before we know it is happening. So then it is not the magnitude or the speed of change by itself that is a problem. So what is it? In pondering this, I began to think of magnitude and speed as amplitude and frequency, and this made it a more tractable exercise in logic. Presumably, if the rate of change is steady, and then all of a sudden the amplitude or frequency changes drastically, but then immediately rebounds and re-assumes a comfortable and useful equilibrium, the shock may be significant but not too destructive.

If, on the other hand, an erratic frequency — not even necessarily with a large amplitude — but if a sustained erratic frequency exists meaning we do not give things we are assimilating time for the frequency to settle into a rhythm, or we knowingly engage in activities which disrupt existing frequency stability, it is this behavior which imparts tremendous economic, cultural, and psychological stress on a civilization. To reiterate, it is not the shear magnitude of a change or perhaps even the shortness of the frequency of change which threatens physical/social/psychological equilibrium. Nor is it the fact that there are always changes and that there are always varying rates of changes. Rather, it is when we attempt to sustain continually erratic frequencies that we become unable to assimilate changes into our civilization in a healthy way. This latter condition is the same, in effect, as making the process of innovation and development itself into the noise which weakens and threatens the system.

What are the ramifications for product, process, and environmental design? Now that I’m thinking along this trajectory, I can see manifestations of this in building envelope design. For instance, our wall sections are vastly more complex with more materials, many more different types of materials, and also materials more likely to be synthetic or foreign to the environment in which they are deployed. Many have different rates of expansion and contraction and react chemically to contact with each other.  The result is a ‘high-tech’ but ill-conceived contemporary wall system can literally push/pull itself apart because of the different rates of expansion and contraction of the system’s materials.  In summary, for some reason, we innovate new building products faster than we assimilate them into existing building envelope systems. The result is cracking, shifting, leaks, mold, settling, pre-mature aging, and discoloration that was not foreseen and is costly, at the least, and occasionally dangerous, and which probably could have been foreseen if not rushed to market.

The question I keep coming back to is: why? If a new technology has tremendous potential to greatly increase building envelope performance but is not yet fully tested or understood and, if used incorrectly, could possibly result in a lower-performing envelope system, then why rush it to market? Beyond the actual material performance, there are also the skills of the fabricators and constructors, the knowledge bases of the designers, and the legal, political, and social aspects of every product, system, method, and strategy. Why accelerate change to the point where no one and no system can keep up, except by suffering tremendous waste and loss along the way? At the very least, churn is recognized as a real problem in our culture, and a technological equivalent, which has been referred to as Apple fatigue, or i-fatigue, or Mac-fatigue, also exists for consumer electronics.  In almost all cases, ‘not rushing it,’ is not a matter of killing innovation or decades-long product trial periods. It is usually a matter of a window of probably 2-10 years of rigorous testing. That seems like a small trade-off to ‘get it right’ and not flood the system with unintentional ‘noise.’

Though my example is of a construction material and building envelope system, I can see examples in software, computers, consumer electronics, motor vehicles, and entire professions, such as the medical and engineering fields. This goes back to my common theme that just because we can do something (as a society) doesn’t mean we should. Or at least, we should be more mindful of the impact of our decisions.

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