On balance we are resource users rather than resource producers. We are consuming, apparently, greater and greater amounts. Many people have argued for decades our consumption levels are too high, well beyond the limits the earth can sustain. They also point out resource depletion and harmful by-product creation, are both seriously problematic. Depletion of non-renewable and essential natural resources jeopardizes our very existence at the worst extreme and generally increases costs at the least. Excessive by-product creation and disposal in the environment saturates and overloads the environment’s ability to absorb, clean and reuse those by-products. The environment cannot keep up in replacing depleted resources and the by-product sinks in many instances are reaching capacity resulting in environmental degradation. Our environmental footprint, to use a popular term, is out of balance with what the environment can support.
In our race to consume and grow we have become more remote and have been losing track of our actions and the consequences. Remember as individuals we cannot do everything and so as we do more collectively we become, by default, more specialized individually. As we grow collectively and specialize individually our base of personal knowledge and understanding relative to the totality of our actions is diminishing. At the same time as we consume more we rely more on others resulting in, it seems, more buffering. There is just more and more of everything and it is becoming more difficult to see and understand it all let alone keep track of consequences. All of this is happening at a global scale.
So, what are buffers? The way I am using the word here, a buffer, in effect, is something between, an obstruction diminishing the ability of our senses to explore, know and understand. Buffers are both designed and consequential and exist somewhere on the proximate to remote continuum. As the strength, extent and resilience of buffers increase the result is more remoteness. It is an observed idea, at first glance simple in concept, but with huge implications affecting and influencing every sector of society and our global environments.
Now let me say up front, buffers and remoteness are not always bad. Certainly where privacy and security are concerned buffering can be a good thing. In assessing something to be good or bad, perspective is all-important. For example, with electronic information capture and sharing I would be naive to think not much of my private information is out there in various data bases. Just a few weeks ago we experienced that awful feeling of having our bank accounts hacked. Not good let me tell you. So today we have a very real conflict in interests. On the one hand we want to have access to information and because we have come to expect it, we want the information to be largely free. On the other hand, we do not want reciprocal access to our information without approval by ourselves. As far as the internet is concerned we want our cake and to eat it. However, the whole notion of buffering extends well beyond the internet as you will see below.
Remoteness is a function of the degree of separation between ourselves and our surroundings or to what we want access. The degree of separation is determined by the characteristics and layering of buffers and by the degree our senses are muffled. Further, we need to ask whether the buffering is good or bad. Part of the good/bad assessment must involve the identification of consequences. We need to explore the impact for societies and cultures. We also need to determine if the buffers and remoteness enhance or not and where problems exist, establish remedies.
As we look at buffer characteristics for any situation, it is important to consider both their quantity and robustness. This is important especially when trying to determine remedies if they are required. In this context we need to establish any difficulties facing us in the acquisition of information and the performance of some actions.
Now, I want to take a look, very briefly, at some of the characteristics of buffers employed. In later installments I intend to look at each in more detail. As you read about each, ask yourself how and when your senses are impeded and whether it really matters to you. Also, try to look beyond at possible consequences both the known and the unknown unknown. From the other side of the coin, try to identify where there are benefits. Now, you the reader are only one person, so also think about your response and beliefs as if they were held by your society and culture as a whole. Finally reconsider the potential consequences and decide whether you need to change or advocate for change in some way to make improvements. Whatever the change advocated, you will find buffers are affected, as they are ubiquitous.
A good place to start this discussion about buffer characteristics is with our senses: hearing, seeing, touch/feel, smelling and tasting. We also think, explore, learn and respond to situations with emotion. We are creative and have developed to quite sophisticated levels the fields of linguistics, mathematics, science and technologies. We have developed cultures and societies including within them religions, politics, legal systems, economics, philosophy, art and transportation and communication networks.
I believe we are connected and proximate to others and circumstances when our senses, our abilities to learn, create and communicate are able to be employed to their full extent enabling intimacy, understanding, maybe empathy and hopefully at least sympathy. With buffers connectedness is jeopardized. The degree of remoteness occurring is determined by the type, extent and layering of buffers.
Buffers can be spatial with shape and depth. Physical elements are employed including structure and distance. They are complex, organized at different scales and are time related. Psychological buffers also occur where we are encouraged and/or persuaded to remain unconnected. Buffers can form as unintended coincidence and can arise as consequence from decisions and actions. Buffers form from social and cultural differences and misunderstanding. Institutional, organizational, political, environmental, technological, and economic buffers arise with complexity and difficulty with access to information and understanding. The robust nature of a buffer then depends upon its scale, complexity, purpose, if there is one and the controlling entity. Essentially, a buffer hides by blocking opportunities to perceive, to learn, to gain knowledge and ultimately to understand. A gardener will know his or her garden with “the dirt in my hands and the seasons past”. Someone remote from the garden is buffered from understanding, although given an opportunity they could learn much more about it.
Following are very brief descriptions of some types of buffers:
- Physical buffers involve distance and separation, structure and enclosure, shrouds and containers, time and space.
- Psychological buffers involve suggestion, manipulation, denial, spin, deception, group dynamics, games, principles, beliefs, hang-ups, expectations, meaningful dialogue and so on.
- Organizational buffers arise with identification, access to information and responsible persons, its scale, complexity and organizational chart about who does what, its location, its public profile, its willingness to engage with the public, its own personnel and its mission. Essentially these buffers are directed both externally and internally and are designed to exclude.
- Technological buffers arise where and when there are difficulties in understanding the purpose and function of the technology and where the technology is positioned as a bridge between people and the work and results intended. Technology is a tool designed to do something for us, however its application, costs and the consequences of its use are not always clearly understood because of scale, complexity and obscurity.
- Cognitive buffers involve our abilities to learn and understand from accumulated knowledge and experience held in context. If we have not learned how to learn or we do not exercise our learning skills a cognitive numbness sets in, a veritable brick wall.
- Political buffers involve power control and dialogue or the lack of it in societal policy, programme and regulation determination. This involves the inclusive/exclusive continuum and the degree of opportunity to be involved in the political dialogue at all levels.
- Social and Economic buffers involve the degree of familiarity and involvement with norms, attitudes, values, culture and customs.
- Privacy and Security buffers exist throughout our societies and cultures from government levels through to our own personal concerns. We employ different techniques to protect privacy and security, in effect blocking access by uninvited others. This buffer is really about information control.
- Scale buffers deserve special mention, as they are such a significant part of the buffer phenomenon. No longer are we organized in simple villages where everyone knows everyone else. Size, extent, complexity, clarity, layers, pathways, interest groups, information overload, in effect the daunting humongous nature of our societies, cannot be fully understood.
- Surrogate buffers arise when we employ or expect others to do work for us. There is both trust in the ethics, values and morality of the surrogate as well as an expectation in their capability to do the work required and then to report to us.
I will write more on these topics another time. Next I want to turn my attention to our urban environments.
I am Steve Tubb.