9. a big group for a single person

Coca Cola bottle evolution, 1899-1994

We reached now a moment where the student is able to understand that the class is not only about the various “hows”, but also covering the various working conditions within different contexts.

The goal is to force us to think about who we are (or who we would like to be), if there are others who share our ideas about the world and to understand what we can learn from people who have made similar journeys before (assuming that the only way to learn is to make mistakes while looking at others who do similar  activities).

This class deals with the so-called “big group.”

Every civilization has a fair amount of entities that operate according to this principle of organization of work. Depending on our interests we can analyze the Communist Party in Mao’s (or Deng Xiaoping’s) China, the big corporations in the United States, rather than the huge and byzantine bureaucracy of continental Europe.

To be active in a large group, it means to make a 180 degrees shift from everything we’ve seen so far. The large group (it can be schools, armies, corporations, religions) have rules as well as founding principles that are supposed to be valid always and under all conditions.

A defined and clear chain of power, responsabilities, discipline and sense of belonging are core values. Generally, the role and the relevance of the individual is always minimal compared to the coercive force and power expressed by the group.

For example, if we compare two countries with radically different social and cultural structures such as Japan and Italy, every possible difference can be summarized in the abused aphorism: “Italy is a poor country filled with rich people, Japan is a rich country filled with poor people. ” This trivial truth (from time to time stereotypes are actually true) is a linear function of the different relationship existing in the two countries between the individual and the larger social group.

It is quite obvious that the world as we know it (for good and for bad), is largely due to a concatenation of large groups spreading over the centuries. The Knights Templar conquering the Holy Sepulchre, the great Florentine banking families in the Renaissance, the Conquistadores, the Commonwealth, Ford, Toyota, Microsoft, Coca Cola and NASA. All examples of “big groups” in action.

The sword stuck from San Galgano (Galgano Guidotti) in a rock. Montesiepi hermitage (near Siena), 1180 (according to local tradition)

The student could have some doubts with our categories: basically we place a Coca-Cola bottle next to Neil Armstrong greeting us from the Moon. Although the final output is radically different, In terms of “how”, the process is quite similar. In terms of final result, while we are definitive certain about the existence of this Coca-Cola bottle, several people do question the actua landing on the Moon. Also to be mentioned (in terms of output) that the Coke bottle is produced by the millions, while we had only few Moon landings.

Space Shuttle Challenger Astronaut McCandles, first checkout of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), 1984.

Apart from this, Coca-Cola and NASA do operate in a quite similar way. From our point of view, it is the same to work at NASA or to work at Nike or General Electric. The industrial organization works generally upon similar principles.

What may be interesting to go see (and this we will do in these four classes), is to think about what it means to work in these universes.

The theme of the relationship of the large group and the individual had an almost ‘final’ render in “1984” by George Orwell, generating later “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam (a rare example where the movie is more interesting than the original book films and the book).

Still, if we consider only the negative elements of the whole “industrial recipe” it would be not only partial but also fairly silly. Sam Lowry (the main character of “Brazil”) is a possible output, but not the only possible destiny.

Terry Gilliam, “Brazil”, 1985

However much we love you “Brazil” and “1984” is no doubt that Aldous Huxley was the Nostradamus of the twentieth century who had been right. Stuart McMillen shown in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (2009) the differences between “1984” and “The Brave New World”  (many and substantial).

Orwell predicted that there would be someone who would have forbidden to read books. Huxley predicted that there would be no need because no one had no interest in books. Orwell feared those who would deny us the information. Huxley noted that there would have given so much to make us sleep in a state of total passivity and egotism. Orwell feared we would have concealed the truth. Huxley noted that the truth would disappear in a sea of irrelevance.

The rest of the comparisons can be found in: http://www.recombinantrecords.net/docs/2009-05-Amusing-Ourselves-to-Death.html

Fritz Hend, three-wheel car “KR200 Kabinerroller” (scooters covered), Messerschmitt (built in Germany in the late ’50s and 1964). This is the car driven by Sam Lowry in “Brazil” (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

Working in “big group” carries a number of quite wide (and obvious) benefits. Furthermore, it is obvious that in the short term you have more satisfaction build an oven in your garden to bake pizza for friends when showing up for dinner. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate the great satisfaction of having contributed (even in a micro-scale) to the development of the Boeing 747 or other similar “big” project.

First Boeing 747-8F in final body join position (2009)

In terms of final products (or families of “things” generated by the larger group for single people), the list is extensive and wide.

We can start by Neolithic tribes who have to organize quite a number of different skills to get the hunter to be equipped to hunt. And then we can travel history until we reach the twentieth century, rich with examples of extended systems that work for the individual.

Neolithic Hunting Scene, Libya, Sahara (Tadrart Acacus), 12.000 BC to 100 AD (ca).

Momofuku Ando and Nissin Foods (who in 1958 patented the recipe to make instant noodles: Asian readers will not be surprised to know that in 2008, every year are consumed about 94 billion servings). Everyone can find his preferred invention and/or product “for the single”. In this extent, the real ancestor of all the Walkmans and iPod is the personal pocket watch, which makes the time a private thing (as opposed to commune time based on the clock tower or the steeple bell as well as the family time defined by the pendulum clock).

Momofuku Andō (Nissin Foods), Instant Noodles, Japan, 1958

A long journey further extended from the Vespa through the endless customizations for your Harley Davidson all the way to the laptop and the iPad today (rather your persona email account received from Yahoo or Gmail).

Harley ‘WCC styled’ Chopper, 2000

As already mentioned, we live in a period where extreme customization seems to be a very interesting topic. A new world of possibilities whose exploration has just begun.

The multiplier of these possibilities seemes to be Internet, allowing everyone who has a fancy for any specific activity, to be able to share, chat and meet all the people sharing the same passion.

This extreme customization leads directly to the world of fan fiction (things written “in the manner of …”) as well as to these many people who love the idea of becoming writers (video makers, musicians …) To be active within a larger group supporting your activity in various ways enhance the satisfaction and the pleasure.

This phenomenon also generates a situation where large manufacturing entities focus their attention to an end-user imagined as a specific person and not being part of a mass.

We can refer the already mentioned example of the book-on-demand industry, or the thriving communities spinning around the ‘do-it-yourself ” activities.

On this issue, we should refer to the book written by Ellen Lupton: “DIY: Design it yourself“, Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Particularly interesting is the introduction where she defines a bold (but senseful) bridge between the thoughts of Antonio Gramsci (from the”Prison Notebooks”) and the contemporary “do-it-yourself” culture.

Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things“, another interesting book by ms. Lupton

Paradoxically, the more the society becomes mutually linked and interconnected, they more the powerful drives become deeply personal.

Experience and empirical observation shows us that there space both for the professional production as well for the amateurish ones. Not to forget that there is also room for fans and/or amateurs who then turn into professionals. The theory of “long tail” shows that there can be placed almost anywhere in the continuum mass-micronicchia.

This kind of thougths it applies to books, it works fine for blogs, Flickr and YouTube. Could we extend this approach to traditional services (libraries, museums, transportation)?

The carpool system is a typical example of this kind of services

If we take the principle of the blog (rather than buy a newspaper I connect to a cluster of reporters telling me in real time what happens where they live) and we apply  to architecture and town planning, what would happen?

Some interesting clues could be found in the real of ‘subsidiarity’ “(in English: “quasi-market“).

In a world divided between the dichotomy between public and private, there is a third way of doing things.

Let’s see an example. In a city like Milan there is a chronic shortage of public nursery schools. It happens then that a certain number of mothers organized their own kindergarden home (technical name: tagesmutter). These ladies do not do so for economic advantage or for entrepreneurial spirit, they do so because they need it and they like the idea to run their own kindergarden.

In a nutshell, the principle of subsidiarity says that whenever a group of people come together to meet a need or desire, the end result will always be better than the satisfaction provided by a higher being (of whatever type it is). The universe of subsidiarity calls for a world organized from the bottom (from smaller groups: clans, families, groups of individuals), with all the advantages and disadvantages of the case.

Tagesmutter in action…

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

car pooling


Harley Davidson

do it yourself (DIY)

– Terry Gilliam, “Brazil

– Aldous Huxley, “Brave new World

– George Orwell, “1984



Weimer Pursell: “When You Ride Alone You Ride With Hitler!”, 1943 (printed by the Government Printing Office for the Office of Price Administration NARA). World War II agitprop from the United States government.


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