dhn 2002 11 26

Finding Vision


The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein.


A new vision is forming in me.

When I say vision I mean the reason people have for living, the meaning we place on it, the joy and peace that we find in it. Everyone subscribes to a vision. Though sometimes, the vision a person believes in is implicit and tacit. Some visions are quite physiological in nature – to survive, to eat, and to support one's family so they can survive and eat. When the needs we have in Abraham Maslow’s triangle are not met, vision is meaningless. Unfortunately, in the system our culture/society/civilization has created, many if not most of us couldn’t care less about vision. Because for those, the vision is simply to survive.

Then there are those of us who are fortunate enough to have most of our needs generally met. It’s interesting to ask these people what their visions are. “Why do you do what you do?” Ask yourself this question. Do you have a good answer? Some answers I’ve heard are: “to improve things,” “to increase knowledge,” “to live well,” “to advance civilization.” Then I ask why. “Because progress is good?” “I don’t know…”

This is a difficult question to answer because the question is effectively, “what’s the meaning of life?”

For me, up till about two years ago (2000), my tacit vision was to advance the state of the art in computing technology. And that vision served me well. I went to school to learn about the state of the art so I can advance it. School up till then meant going to classes. Classes were good to me. I did well in them and was praised by my friends and family. “David’s one of the smartest kids in his class.” “David knows how to fix this, ask David.”

All was going well and I was completely unaware of the vision that was driving me. My needs were met and I was happy. But I was still growing.

For the first half of 2000, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live and spend time in Brazil with people and situations that challenged and pushed me. This was a catalyst for a whole new worldview.

When I came back to the States to continue my research (no more classes to achieve in and be praised for, just research), I saw things in a slightly different way. My research was in a field called ubiquitous computing (ask me if you don’t know what this is). The questions I started asking dealt with scalability and sustainability. Could the entire planet, could six billion people live up to the dream espoused in ubiquitous computing? Who would benefit from having computation everywhere? The top ten percent of the population? Top five? Intel? Applied Materials? Is this sustainable? At what cost to our natural resources would ubiquitous computing take? At what cost are we (perhaps blindly) accepting to advance the state of the art?

My vision came crumbling down.

Blindly advancing the state of the art in computing technology slowly stopped making sense to me (it didn’t all stop at once). Without vision, I was no longer motivated to continue. Motivation became more and more of an issue. During the summer of 2002, I stopped.

I struggled with my meaning and purpose in life. What motivates me? Why am I here? So began my search for the meaning of life. Don’t laugh. One can get quite desperate without vision. I began reading books I would have never had time to read before, books about society, culture, religion, philosophy, love, shop girls, all sorts of books. I took up an interest in sports that made little sense (sailing and kite surfing in Atlanta?! On my salary no less?!) I flew around the country, visiting friends (all the while struggling with the idea of using fossil fuels and resources to travel). I saw movies. Listened to lyrics in songs. I spent long spans of time looking at the sky. Even tried talking to God.

Not surprisingly, my search for the meaning of life flopped. I didn’t find it.

I have no clue what the meaning of life is. Many people (much, much brighter than me) have tried before me. They didn’t find it either. Socrates? No. Karl Marx? No. Simone Weil? No. Alice Walker? While a great author and I highly recommend Temple of My Familiar, still no. But slowly, as I was trying out different angles and perspectives, a few things became clear to me.

What I do know is that I like life. I like falling asleep, I like waking up, I like swimming in the ocean, I like talking with my friends, I like being in love, I like being crushed and rejected (though not at that exact moment) only to be elated by something else afterwards. As my friend Jim is fond of saying in a tweaked accent, “Life is go’od.” However, at the rate at which our civilization is living life, we are hurling ourselves towards a proverbial wall. We and our way of life are killing the planet.

Then I thought, maybe my meaning in life is to save the planet. I want others to have the opportunity to enjoy and experience life. I want other generations to have this opportunity. I want other species to have this opportunity. So I want to save the planet…

But the system is huge. How does one begin to move it? How can one person make a difference? Perhaps it is more important to ask, how did we get here? How did we get to a point where we are killing entire species everyday? Where in keeping up our way of life means producing tons and tons of toxic waste, some with a half-life of thousands of years. Where entire regions are polluted from a necessity for living – the car. What values do we have that makes this possible?

Is it not the values we hold that defines who we are? Our values (again, some are implicit and tacit) are manifested in the ways we live, in the ways we treat each other, in our traditions, in our practices, in all the things we do. Which values do we hold so dear and which values are we promoting that makes this possible?

And then I was introduced to work of William McDonough. Through an article in US News and World Reports skimmed while waking up one morning. Weeks later through a missed talk he was giving on my campus, because I found out about it a few hours after the talk. Then through a web search. Then a museum exhibit. The introduction continues…

William McDonough and his colleagues had been asking the same questions. He ponders, “The question is, what do you want to grow? Do you want to grow health or sickness, intelligence or stupidity, love children or destroy children?” What once worked before may not work now. 50 years ago, it might have been okay to build thousands of cars all getting five miles to the gallon (50 liters for 100 km). Energy was cheap and designers didn’t care. However, today, there are not thousands of cars, but millions. Bigger, better, faster, more is not going to scale. We need to rethink our practices, rethink our thinking, and ask which values we want to grow. We need to rethink design.

Responding to the historical tendency of humans to consider themselves outside or apart from nature, the growing awareness of and respect for diversity has manifested itself in the field of architecture as “sustainable” or “green” design. Discussion of this topic, however, often focuses purely on the material properties of the built environment or on efficient use of energy or water. This narrow definition overlooks the critical roles that kinship with nature, response to the diversity of place, celebration of culture, and preservation of individual preference have played in enriching the human condition and human consciousness.

How can design begin to incorporate the best of technology and culture — while recognizing the limitations of both — so that our concept of well-being reflects a new worldview, in which people celebrate their participation in a larger, interdependent whole, and diversity enriches the spiritual quality of life?

I see this way of thinking not only applying to architecture, but to manufacturing, to computing, to medicine, to law, to all the things we do as humans. In Buddhism, this is called mindful living, having a greater understanding of the whole, seeing the connections between and among people, culture, technology, the environment, and everything else.

To add a final ingredient to my new vision, I will include my advisor Beth’s most simple and most powerful advice to me yet, “Baby steps.” I understand I can’t change the world in one big revolution, but perhaps in baby steps. I understand that movement, no matter how small or how large, is still movement. How can I be mindful in the ways I do research? How can I be mindful in the ways I live? How can I be mindful in the ways I love others?

Einstein said (perhaps in German, because I’ve seen this quote in many forms in English), “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the thinking we used when we created them.” So we all can’t be William McDonough, but we all can be mindful in what we do, whether we are architects, presidents, CEOs, teachers, computer scientists, students, chefs, or other. If we can be mindful, perhaps we can get our friends to be mindful, our children and family to be mindful, our students to be mindful, then perhaps they can get their friends, family, and students to be mindful. Then perhaps, slowly, in baby steps, the whole society will change direction just a bit. And perhaps with enough people, at that tipping point, we, as a planet, can avoid that wall.

And that is my vision. It isn’t new. It can be squeezed down to a few ideas – be mindful, understand the values we want to grow, question current practices, rethink, redesign, and repeat. I still don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I want to enjoy it while allowing the community of life and future generations of this community to enjoy it, too.

A Zen monk once said, “Before I began to practice, mountains were mountains, and river were rivers. During many years of practice, mountains stopped being mountains and rivers stopped being rivers. Now as I understand things properly, mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers.” I’m beginning to see and it’s bringing me joy and peace. I look forward to what will be revealed to me next…


I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and ideas. -David