Current 05/2009

The Pursuit Of Happiness

As a result maybe, no other society has ever produced so many publications about how to reach this goal. Apparently, a right given under a constitution doesn't necessarily means that the likeliness of it to occur is any higher. A lot of additional instructions are needed. The Americans take the pursuit of happiness very seriously not only in legislation but also as a topic of scientific research. A Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1937 in the hope to learn the secrets of a good life by following well-adjusted, healthy, male Harvard sophomores through their lives and their careers. The idea was to learn from what the happiest amongst them had done to reach that stage, consequently reduce these findings to a set of rules and apply the rules systematically. The Americans hold the world's highest scores on the level of some of their scientific research as well as on the level of their naiveté.

The study is probably one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. The results are an interesting read because it reveals that human life is often an intriguing unpredictable event and that there are hardly any rules to reach happiness (or professional success) other than the pretty obvious ones, like having a strong love relationship and living in a caring environment.

Scientific research is done on practically every possible topic these days - never mind how silly - so there are surveys available about which country scores the highest in the self-assessment of their own level of happiness. (Happiness cannot be measured other than by self-assessment for the time being). Well, the Americans do not seem to be the happiest lot around despite all their efforts. The inhabitants of the affluent Northern European countries score much higher (I can't possibly believe why this should be a surprise to anyone).

One of the aspects of the study I thought was interesting is the way people communicate the level of their well being in an everyday casual way. When you ask an American about how he or she is doing the answer is always: great ! (Anything less seems inappropriate). Although they may well be on their way to visit their shrink and/or popping pills to assist bringing their assessment somewhat closer to reality. By contrast, Europeans would say: 'pas mal', 'not too bad' or 'it could be worse'. Expressing a much lower expectation about what life will probably deliver in the way of well-being. This less ambitious attitude seems to bring the feeling of happiness closer.

So, it appears that a society that combines a high interest in the scientific and procedural aspects of happiness with a high level of emotional window dressing is not very successful in what it aims to achieve. However, it seems to produce a nation with great writers, storytellers, filmmakers and an impressive tradition in humor. Apparently this is how a lack of happiness is compensated for in an ambitious and showy society.

The Harvard Study


Information And Health III

Many publications have been issued that warn for the medicalisation of society which is doing more harm than good. As we all know, some countries are way better at balancing the advantages of medical progress against its disadvantages than others. But the development of the last 15 years have made things in some ways even more urgent, I think:



  - It is disastrous to leave healthcare issues to the market alone. Government has to play an important regulating and organising role (without dominating everything). - Seemingly sensible strategies as annual medical check ups or disseminating information about self diagnoses may be sensible in individual cases, but are senseless on a general level, since it leads to unnecessary medical interventions. - Advise for self-medication or vitamins popping is in almost all cases a rather morbid view on delivering health information. Pharmacies and drugstores look increasingly like a rather devilish concept of health providing. - The release of pharmaceutical products is far more regulated than food products while food can influence our health as strongly as drugs. (The Japanese get Western diseases when living outside their country). - The dissemination of almost all information about health or wellcare issues are sensible for some but are leading to bizarre behaviour by most. Maybe hitting a basic contradiction in our age of information. - Regrettably, the same is also true for the result of most medical research, it can lead to wonderful results on an individual level, but the misuse of an invention tend to make things worse on a general level. The problems increase with the advancement of science. Using a bar of soap had no disadvantages whatsoever, but starting from the invention of antibiotics we have created ever more hostile pathogens. (Especially the ones living in hospitals are notoriously dangerous). - Progressing science/knowledge may make us more powerful, but at the same time we will become more vulnerable to the same degree or even to a higher level by the forces we have unleashed and that have turned against us. This counts for all fields of knowledge, nuclear power is the example for physics, but also Nobel prize winning economists almost brought our financial system to its knees by implementing their knowledge (to seek their own benefit) in society. Also the recent impressive economic collapse is in essence caused by innovative financing techniques. It is the irony of all human progress, if we are unable to contain the risks that comes with progress we could one day be sent back to the Stone Age or beyond by an extremely efficient delivery service of our own creation. - Human progress is a bit like mountaineering: the views are getting increasingly impressive and so are the risks of a fatal downfall. - Information exchange between users groups turns out to be the most effective information channel about health issues. That is maybe easy to understand since it brings all the highly technical and procedural world of medicine back to what it means for its subjects. The life of patients is not about survival rates or rates of remission or level of conformity to other medical normative data; our life is about the quality of experiences and that is the topic of users exchange. - Statistics have become a very important issue in health care and statistics are by definition extremely tricky and very easy to manipulate. A lot of statistics relating to medicine are contradictory or downright unreliable. Survival rates of unnecessary medical interventions are pointless, for instance, but are counted statistically by the professionals who seek justification for their work. - The medical profession (as so many other professions) cannot avoid dealing publicly with very delicate and very difficult to answer questions about the quality of life and the costs related to the duration of it. (What is a fair price of one day of prolonged life? Obviously, this is an impossible question to answer, but we cannot strive to gain more and more of the power that was always in the hands of the Almighty without accepting the responsibilities that come with this power). But there is something else. Something that have started to define all professions in our increasingly complex society of plenty. Certainly also including the profession of (graphic) design. It concerns a shift from emphasising on intrinsic issues towards how (professional) issues are perceived by users or commissioners, or even peers. (The last has become important since peers were given substantial economic power within their own profession). This shift can be compared with the commercial proverb: 'Sell the sizzle; not the steak'. We tend to base our purchase decision (also professionals) on the quality of the sizzle, but we will not end up consuming the sizzle, but instead eating the steak, which quality is the only functional one that is important to us. However, our appetite will respond more easily to the quality of the sizzle; not the steak. The sizzle by which the steak is sold can be anything these days: bio-steaks, green-steaks, sustainable steaks, whatever type of sizzle that works.  The selling and buying of products or services that are solely based on the creation of a 'lifestyle image' is hardly new. This will happen every time a product or service becomes a commodity. Distinction between separate suppliers of commodities can only be done by 'branding' each of them differently. The brand - although intangible and only functional in a commercial sense- becomes the product we buy. And in our world of plenty literally everything has become a commodity. Science and sophisticated professions - even 'ground-breaking' inventions - are now sold as if they were commodities, simply because there are so many around. The amount of publicised 'breakthrough' developments in cancer research for example has had little to do with what was really achieved. Breakthroughs are short-lived these days. This shift of intrinsic qualities has become essential in everyone's career; all counselors or coaches will agree that the three most important ingredients for progressing any career are networking, networking and networking. (Although all this networking makes human behaviour more like that of a flock of birds). In our societies of plenty we are forced to make almost every day more and more complex decisions. Seduction is the most efficient way to assist us in making all these decisions  - to the benefit of most graphic designers - we hardly ever make 'informed' decisions, although we strongly believe we do. That makes weighing the functional quality of (health) information so extremely difficult.



I was born in the Low Lands where - soon after the second world war - the state developed itself over time into the most important 'Pater Familias'. The state took over many of the traditional family duties. Family solidarity became a legal right for all and that right is funded by taxes. That was an improvement because to rely entirely on the solidarity of family members brought many in serious problems and created a lot of tension within families. And what if you didn't have a family ? Civic rights are based on laws and laws can be changed if a majority of the electorate so decides. So in the end, the solidarity between young and old remains just as important as it ever was.



  That solidarity is changing - at least in the Low Lands. Old people are seen more and more as a costly problem the way it was in many cases when everything depended on the family. Although the general level of wealth is immensely higher than when the solidarity laws were installed. Solidarity is not always naturally present, maybe it is because kids are often in the centre of parent's lives while parents are in the periphery of the lives of their kids. And wealth is an article that curiously seems to become more important to its beholders when there is more of it around; the bizarre rich people syndrome. In many ways these are remarkable times: we've never been so rich, so happy (the Dutch seem to be the happiest lot around) and yet so scared at the same time. We are used for many generations that each successive generation had it better than the previous one. That is an excellent booster for trust and solidarity. Now the train of material growth is likely to slow down, halt, or even go in reverse. That scares people. It is hard to give up wealth even where it has reached exuberant levels here and there. Reasonableness is not a typical human trait. There is likely also another reason for the retreat of civic solidarity which has always been very high in the Low Lands, the Dutch society is becoming less and less of a family of which most members are native Dutch for generations. Most societies in Europe are becoming more 'international'. The Dutch are struggling with the 'Dutchness' of their society fearing that not everyone will contribute to the community in a fair (Dutch) way and that is putting serious pressure on their traditional high level of solidarity. Globalisation will inevitably erase all local cultures, some will be 'saved' and transformed into cultural theme parks.


The Japanese fail to have any appreciation for the 'bon chic bon genre' that can make a lot of fashion in Milan, Paris or New York so depressing. The Japanese in that market segment are serviced with traditional garment, although 'chi-chi' is internationally much in demand.


Left to right: Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.


What is interesting is that the top range of Japanese fashion has been dominated for such a long time by effectively three fashion designers: Issey Miyake (71), Yohji Yamamoto (66) and Rei Kawakubo (67) (Comme des Garçon). Issye is educated as a graphic designer and became fashion designer after training in both New York and Paris. The body of his design work is immense in size. He has an industrial designer's approach to fashion. His 'pleats' (a method to thermally modify the shape of synthetic tissue) are world famous. A few years ago he tried to find a successor for his business. That did not work out too well. Judging the quality of his current collection, I think he's back to work on his own collections. Yohji holds a law degree. For some years he was partner with Rei, but they split up their relationship and their business. Yohji received a formal training in fashion design in Japan but his fame started after a debut show in Paris. Yohji has the typical 'couturier' approach to fashion design, like Yves Saint-Laurent or Jean-Paul Gaultier. Rei Kawakubo studied fine arts and literature and became a fashion designer by her own training. She is the most 'trendy' designer of the three and has found a successor/collaborator in her former apprentice Junya Watanabe. What is remarkable is that all three of them still hold a prominent position in the fast changing world of fashion. They did this by basically creating their own fashion style, often hardly linked to the changing fashion design styles of the times and by having their own sales outlets and paying close attention to every aspect of the visual presentation of their business. Design careers can still be very long, even in fashion.


Portraits of Computer Creeps

If we had such a poor working relationship with a group made of flesh and blood we would be sent straight to have some serious counselling, but our closest allies these days are machines. So it's ok.

Real (top) and not so real (bottom)


Humanity never had the kind of tools - even remotely comparable, let alone as universally used - as the many electronic appliances we can no longer live without. What is also new to us is the vulnerability of our tools. Brutal forces were needed to break down the tools we used to do our work with. That is no longer the case. Our new tools can be best seen as sophisticated molecule shufflers. An activity that doesn't need much heavy lifting. We spend our days creating something that's practically weightless and the result can be transmitted everywhere instantly because it lacks mass. It's a miracle that we can buy food, a house and a car while producing weightless stuff that people are willing to pay for.

Our tools are vulnerable, someone with bad intentions can infect them with worms, viruses, Trojan horses or spyware. Very much like the tiny organisms that can be a threat to our health. Digital viruses are man made, intentionally created to harm our devices. The viruses attacking our health can be shown when using appropriate magnifying gear. Digital software does not (really) exist in the material world, but computer geeks always find ways around that. I remember seeing once a beautiful visual overview of a complete computer in action, functioning like a big plant. Alex Dragulescu working at MIT has made portraits of the digital creeps that can make our lives miserable because they can seriously infect our digital buddies.

Digital creep portraits



Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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