A fundamental tenet of Humblefacture is the importance of scale. Yes, material composition of products is important. And certainly the location of production realative to use is also key. But the concept of scale implies that there are some intensities, or sizes, or durations which are simply too large to fit within the Humblefacture framework. The reason for this, it turns out, is that there is one common unit we all share - the human.

It should be fairly obvious that humans don't really vary too much in size or shape, dispite variations in culture or geographic location. Nevertheless, our technological development has done little to acknowledge the built-in optimal scales of humanity. The reality is, human experience, interaction, ability, and society is built around bodies. Bodies with fundamental limitations that should be taken, not as frontiers to be surpassed, but as helpful guidelines toward making tools and systems which work more naturally.

Let me start with an example that is close to your hearts (well, at least 500 million of your hearts). Have you ever looked at other people's facebook accounts and wondered what it means when they say they have 1,000 friends? Have you ever thought what it might be like to maintain that many friendships? Have you ever thought that it was probably impossible? Well, if you did, you would be right. In reality, humans have only a finite capacity for maintaining emotional relationships. There have been quite a few studies on this, from those looking at the average size of tribes, to those looking at networks of schoolchildren. Out of these, a value has emerged, called the Dunbar Number. Named for Robin Dunbar, a british anthropologist who investigated this number using a tribal survey technique, the Dunbar number is approximately 150 (though he points out that this statistic has a 95% confidence interval between 100 and 230). This number describes the historical tendency of human tribes to form up in groups of around 150 people. He asserts that this tendency is a reflection of some innate limitation of the emotional part of our brains -- which after all, are finite. He explains in greater detail here:

So, just as we suspected, Steve Hofstetter probably didn't really have an emotional connection with all those 1/2 million friends... But you're probably thinking "Hey, I really do have 300 friends." Well, you probably do, but you've cleverly grouped them into seperate tribes, with seperate types of emotional engagement. In fact, Facebook has recently moved to enable this down-scaling of the giant friend pie into smaller groups. By allowing people to work on a smaller, more manageable scale of interaction, they can have more targeted interactions, and hopefully maintain better emotional engagement, even though they are pushing the limits of the Dunbar number.

Bringing this back to Humblefacture, let's talk about another recent out-of-scale disaster. You probably used an aluminum object today. Heck, you probably used 5. But you almost certainly didn't know about the types of chemicals which are created during the production of that aluminum. And, you also probably had no idea of the scope of production of those chemicals. Take a look at this news report of a recent flood of toxic sludge which was let loose when a retention dam at an aluminum refinery in Hungary burst.

Granted, this is a ridiculously awful disaster, and probably due to negligence on the part of the company. However, consider the scale of the disaster. This was not due to negligence, but due to the scale of production itself. If this factory were a small cottage industry (if aluminum could be made in this way) and a leak occured, it would be unlikely that this could produce enough waste to flood a town. In fact, such a leak would most likely only impact the life of the manufacturer.

Aluminum is tremendously energy intensive to manufacture - it requires large amounts of electricity to refine. Therefore, it is most cost effective to make it near very cheap hydro-power. Additionally, only certain ore is cost effective to refine. So, locating refineries near this ore is also beneficial. Combine this with the fact that large amounts of ore produce small amounts of metal, and you have a serious incentive to build only a handfull of aluminum refineries worldwide (which is more or less what we see today). These refineries are responsible for massive amounts of aluminum production, so any waste produced is produced in massive amounts. Carting the waste away in a distributed way is logistically complex, and expensive, so it is generally held on the property in retention ponds. When a pond breaks, the scale of the disaster which ensues is massive, almost beyond belief. Similar problems occur with large scale nuclear reactors, and oil drilling rigs.

The key thing to remember here is not that manufacturing is inherently bad. Likewise, I don't mean to imply that mistakes or mismanagement can somehow be avoided completely. Rather, I'm suggesting that since manufacturing -- at least for the foreseable future -- will produce waste, and that waste will be mismanaged to a greater or lesser extent, then the only real option we have is to limit the scale of manufacturing. By doing this, we minimize the impact of each individual event. But, more importantly, we will create events which can be cleaned up by small groups of committed individuals. Any of the previously mentioned disasters required at least a government or corporate level of economic power to enable a cleanup. And even when the disaster was contained, it generally resulted in the evacuation of an entire town, or the banning of use of a waterway for economic means.

Finally, remember that scale is a design choice. Scale is important because individual humans can only do so much. When non-human-scale systems work well, it is annoying; your facebook account overflows with too many aquaintances from high school. When they work poorly, people die, communities fall apart, and there is very little that you (you, the individual) can do about it.


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