Looking smart, being goodby Brian Eno / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
I like those strangely boxy little electric cars. I like the message of their looks. They defy the traditional sleekness of car design and instead make a point of their functionalism. They say “OK—we may look a bit funny but we use a third of the energy your car is using.” They advertise their owners’ rethought priorities. They’re nearly as cool as bikes. On the same spectrum are two small items of recent domestic technology.The first is a little box with a screen which shows, in watts, how much electricity you’re using. Switch on a light, and the figure goes up by 60 watts. Turn on the kettle and it goes up by another 3,000. Within hours of installing this box—which takes a couple of minutes—your energy usage changes. I discovered I’d been drawing a constant 140 watts for the last 15 years—for nothing (a defunct alarm system hidden in a cupboard, a fax machine on standby for faxes that nobody sends). I now use about 30 per cent less electricity. The second invention is an eco-kettle. It’s simple—it has a water-holding chamber and a heating chamber, so you transfer from the first to the second the amount you need to heat, rather than being left with a lot of uselessly hot water. It comes with three settings: boiling, 90°C (for coffee) and 80°C (for herbal teas)—so you heat the water to the right temperature rather than boil it and then wait for it to cool. There are about 300m cups of hot liquid drunk per day in England, but most people heat much more water than they need. As with the watt-monitor, it’s a simple way of reducing wastage—which benefits everyone. It’s also a simple way of sending out a message. Instead of saying “I’m rich” or “I’m chic,” these designs say “I’m smart.” And “I’m smart” translates to “I’m paying attention to the effect I have on things.” Isn’t it good when the display of social intelligence becomes a key design criterion?