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George Nelson discusses industrial design and the effects on people; part 3

BROADCAST: Jan. 16, 1962 | DURATION: 00:30:31


George Nelson discusses what this generation will leave behind, the role of the individual in society, and the belief in things.


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George Nelson There was a period when when people when a society was not materialistic. This was the Middle Ages and it wasn't any better or worse than our period it was just different. And by materialistic I don't mean anything terrible like a guy is greedy and all he thinks about is money. I mean I mean something quite precise and rather neutral. Materialism, as I get it, means that what you believe in is the evidence of your senses: if you can prove it, if you can demonstrate it, if you can repeat an experiment, then it's believable. Well, the Middle Ages didn't believe in any of these provable things. They believed in God who, you know, no matter how burning your faith, cannot be demonstrated in a classroom. They believed in angels, they believed in hell as a specific piece of real estate operating at a specific temperature. They believed in heaven, which nobody ever dared to describe very precisely because heaven always comes out the most boring place imaginable. But they believed in all of these things and guys used to get into tremendous arguments.

Studs Terkel You know Mark Twain's crack about that, you know, was he thought of all the boring people he knew who were gonna go to heaven all the exciting people going to hell. He said it was heaven for climate, hell for society.

George Nelson Marvelous.

Studs Terkel Go ahead I'm sorry,

George Nelson Well, you know the smart religious leaders have always promised these boring things like the Mohammed in heaven. What was it? Fountains full of wine and a fresh virgin every night. Can you imagine how you would feel [Studs Terkel laughing] after two weeks, you know, of nothing but wine and fresh virgins? You'd, you know, you'd go drown yourself in one of these

Studs Terkel But this was the this was the belief, then, of people in the, this period you're talking about, the Middle Ages.

George Nelson Well, in the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages were non-materialistic as far as the reigning philosophy went. When the Middle Ages cracked up, which they did, and they cracked up because of things that began to grow up during that period. Just as we're cracking up because new things are growing up in our period that will change it into something else. A new breed of guy began to emerge and he was a materialist. He went to church and he said he believed in God like Galileo because he would have gotten into real trouble if he'd said anything else. But they didn't really. What they believed in was science and technology and all of the rest of it and that belief has never changed. Leonardo, for instance, we greatly admire Leonardo because he not only could draw pretty pictures and make a best-selling portrait called the Mona Lisa, but he also was an inventor. And he was a real engineer and, you know, you could see him coming to Detroit and being welcomed with great affection and understanding because this guy knew the difference between a ball bearing and a roller bearing or something. And all of these men during this period I'm talking about the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth-century were fascinated by science. And philosophers were fascinated by mathematics. And this was this was really the most, you know, this was the most exciting thing that anybody knew about. And the artists all shifted. Instead of painting imaginary things like Jacob and the angels which, and nobody had ever seen Jacob, and they didn't know really what he looked like and nobody had seen an angel. You know they painted portraits of the big shots and their girlfriends or their horses or their country houses and art reflected all of this. Well, what happens, I think, is that when the human animal gets too large a dose of anything he gets sick. I think in a way the Middle Ages got sick of too much God. You know, there were other needs of the human spirit besides a preoccupation with the afterlife and so on. And after they'd made their beautiful statements with their cathedrals and their illuminated manuscripts the thing finely ground to a halt and they got knocked off by a new crew of business and manufacturing people. And more and more the viewpoint of the middle ages, you know, receded into a kind of back seat. It never disappeared but it receded. So the new period came up and everybody said, you know, this materialism is great. Show me I'm from Missouri. You mean light really bends if it goes around the sun or or the universe is really curved. And then new superstitions are set up. Because I might say 'yes I believe that the universe is curved' but I wouldn't have the faintest idea what I meant any more than a medieval guy knew what he meant when he was talking about the Holy Ghost, which was another, you know, extraordinarily complicated abstraction. So that we've now set up these things we believe in without understanding either. And we either do or do not believe that relativity is a workable theory or that the universe is curved, although, we're in no position to prove it anymore. So we're getting pushed back in a funny way towards faith and things we don't understand. And we believe in atomic fission because the bomb does blow up. That's the more old-fashioned kind of thing. And at some point, I think what happens is that things and processes and power like control power, communications power, transportation power, or killing power. These things get to be so absorbing that we completely forget that man is a two-sided animal. He needs all this material stuff in order to better his lot in life. But if he doesn't get some of the other thing, which is the mystical outlook and this belief in irrational things, he tends to get sick. Most materialistic societies have gotten destroyed or destroyed themselves because they went insane. And all you have to read is the daily papers to find plenty of evidence that we're way-

Studs Terkel Current insanity.

George Nelson Well, we're way past the neurotic point, we're very close to psychotic. The funniest thing that's happened in years was that big argument about the fallout shelters, which even the church got sucked in on, you know, and they should know better, they've been around for a long time. But how do you describe people a nation that will spend a week arguing about whether papa should shoot the neighbor if he tries to break into the fallout shelter? When you think about why papa would maybe shoot the neighbor. Papa would only have this shooting contest with his neighbor if one of these great big blockbusters had fallen. Otherwise, he wouldn't be in the shelter anyway or the neighbor wouldn't be trying to break his way in. Well, if one of these bigs jobs falls you're gonna have 10 million or 20 million or 30 million bodies cluttering up the landscape and these bodies will either be all burned and charred or they will be starting to rot. You know, this is the land, this is the scenery that surrounds this little TV drama of papa with his shotgun defending his family. Well, whether papa shoots this guy or not under these circumstances really gets to be sort of academic. And the morality of the thing, you know, becomes utterly meaningless considering the morality of the of the larger act that has just occurred. And I would say that a nation that could really seriously argue this thing and it getting into the church councils and into the newspapers and into Congress and so on is very very close to off its rocker. And a society that is off its rocker, no doubt we're very sensible in a number of areas, but this was a rather interesting one. A society that is off its rocker or moving in this general direction is not very dependable because societies have always had neighbors who are only too willing to take over. You know, when the old man becomes incompetent you commit him and you run you run the hardware business and buy a new wagon and, you know, generally live it up. This is what the Goths did to the Romans when the Romans had pushed their little racket too far. And the feeling I get from observing, you know, I'm a better looker than I am a reader.

Studs Terkel Before I I ask you what you think a way out is and again we'll come to this matter. The word science the word technology and perhaps the keyword in your book the individual. For that there's something I was going to ask you, you mentioned about the end of a culture. Apparently, you said something in one of your writings that each culture leaves something considers most important. The Egyptians left the pyramids, the Romans the aqueducts, and the roads. What will we leave?

George Nelson Well, I think large piles of junk. Rusty junk. This is my best guess.

Studs Terkel Why do you say that?

George Nelson Well, it seems to be the most, to me the most meaningful symbol of what we're doing. [coughs] If you're making things really to have them become obsolete so you can get people to buy more things, you're not serving any human purpose directly. You're just making things which you pray will go out of out of function as rapidly as possible. Well, this is a description of junk. And this is very different from making, say, heirlooms the way Mr. Duncan Phyfe used to do in Philadelphia. He wasn't making junk. He was making things he hoped would last for many many generations. I'm not saying what he was doing was better, I'm just saying he had a different outlook, or his period had a different outlook. And you look around our cities and they certainly don't give you any feeling that you would like to leave these to posterity. In fact, the thing that always frightens me when I read about this neutron bomb is that it will knock off the people and leave all this hideous real estate standing. You know, the the straight jobs that bust-

Studs Terkel Well, the neutron bomb, then, will not injure property, merely injure people. It'll kill people but not prop-not hurt Well,

George Nelson property- Well, speaking as-

Studs Terkel That's

George Nelson -speaking as, yeah, as as a designer I find this really deplorable. It would be much better if they could get a bomb to blow up all of these hideous builder houses, all of the main streets in the entire country. Most of the fancy suburbs which are no damn good anyway. And all of the industrial slums and all of the roadsides and leave the people, you know, with the opportunity of going and doing the same silly thing all over again. Or maybe something better.

Studs Terkel Now then, we come to the question the the constructive, well throughout as as you are pointing out truths you are you are constructive. But is there, I know you're not a Cassandra. You're merely pointing out truths. But you yourself speak of technology and the good that will come from it. You have done it your your own your, could could I describe them as tool houses? The prefabs you've been working on? You speak of all-

George Nelson Well, this was like the Grass on Main Street. We tried for the better part of a year to persuade one industry or another to pick up this this idea and run with it because it looked like a way to do something halfway decent, you know, for people or something. And we didn't get anywhere because the house didn't look like the latest best-seller subdivision house. So naturally, these guys were nervous about trying something different on this scale. So it's sitting now as a roll of drawings and maybe again in 10 or 15 years this thing will get off the ground and do something, I don't know.

Studs Terkel Assume the age of materialism, as you described it, comes to an end. This, technology itself, science itself and what it has done is not evil per se. I mean you yourself have been the work that you've been doing, the work of your colleagues, the work of scientists generally has been designed at least outwardly for the betterment of mankind. What do you see as what do you see?

George Nelson Well, I don't, I'm not sure about this betterment of mankind. I don't think creative people work for the betterment of mankind, I really don't. I always get uneasy when that's said. It it it it seems loaded with very good intentions sort

Studs Terkel Too much phony morality.

George Nelson Yeah, I think I I've become very uneasy. I've never done a lick of work in my life for the betterment of mankind and I would be horrified at the thought that I ever believed that I was. Because, it seems to me, that that mankind if it wants to better itself had damn well better better itself. And that you don't need, you should not need a bunch of wet nurses looking down their superior noses to tell these poor devils how they should better themselves. In other words, you might say that a guy will work all his life for his own betterment. That he would like to understand more or know more or speak an extra language or develop another skill. And this is really his privilege and his responsibility. But the notion of doing it for anybody else appalls me. If by accident what a man does happens to be useful to other people that's fine. But this is really a byproduct because look at your atomic scientists. They were directly responsible for murdering what was it 150,000 people in two Japanese cities. Without these guys that couldn't have happened. If they were working for the betterment of mankind, God help them. The point was, I think, that these were great guys who were all terribly excited about what happened when pieces of an atom got divorced, you know. And they began chasing down all of these clues and then somewhere in Chicago they put something together and all of a sudden something was happening. This, I think, was what they were doing. Then if the society chose to pick it up and blow up a lot of people with this marvelous game that they'd been playing for their own self-betterment or their own entertainment that's just too bad. But I don't think any artist, any really creative person, ever will work for anybody

Studs Terkel He does something. The artist then does something for himself for his sense of being alive.

George Nelson I think every responsible human being, you know, has a great big chore cut out for him, which is: you've been given this apparatus. Whether God gave it to you or some indescribable biological process I don't care. The point is he is there and he's a baby, he's a young man, and so on. And his apparatus consists of the social facilities around them and his genes and the way his parents brought him up and whatever skills he's he's born with. And and the only problem that is even faintly interesting to me is what you do with this apparatus. And if it turns out that you're a quote-unquote great man, you know, like Hitler or Billy Rose or something. That's all very interesting, but, you know, this is pure accident. This is a complete byproduct so that, you know, and I get terribly suspicious of people who talk

Studs Terkel This this raises a question then George Nelson raises a question: the individual today decries his fate generally. There's, what can I do? Here's man who has mastered, as you point out in one of the point, one of the essays here. Man has mastered so well it seems the physical the physical part of the world. Yet, today he finds him wholly wholly the slave to it. Wholly im-he's so potent yet he's so impotent.

George Nelson But he's only impotent because he isn't interested really in the human purposes of the of the techniques, you see. Like, for instance, we build we build magnificent superhighways which are a joy to drive on until six hours have passed and then your get you get sort of hypnotized. But anyway, they look nice and and they're really quite pleasant to go along. And hundreds or thousands of very bright engineers have knocked themselves out to build in more and more and more safety devices. Well, you might say here are some people who are really working for people, you know, they're trying to save lives. Well, I don't believe these guys are trying to save lives at all because we knock off too many too casually in other areas when we, you know, when they get in our way. I think the reason all these safety devices are built into these marvelous highways is because one of the great horrors we have in our period is interrupted movement and we will do anything to keep things moving. Doesn't matter what the movement is for. See, if you really wanted to move people, for instance, you would think about this problem and it might be that the answers that would come up would be very very different from the answers that we're using. In New York, Chicago, and other big cities they say, you know, you can't move people on the streets anymore. Terrible, you know, the streets are so full you can't move them. So let us build a beautiful subway. New York can't say beautiful subway. But anyway, let us build a subway that runs. So you now try to alleviate this problem of moving the people around in a way that only a madman could have thought of because the people go down into these dark holes underground, and the trucks that are full of garbage and milk and gasoline and so on are riding around in the sun. Well, you know, you know, would anybody who ever thought about people, you know, make make a people subway? I mean this is this is unthinkable they would make a thing subway. But since we consider people inferior to to things, and people are very adaptable, if you tell a guy to crawl into a stinking hole in the ground and ride with a sweating angry crowd that's tired, you know, for 45 minutes to get out to the suburbs, which happens in New York, he goes. You tell a trucker to do this and he says oh no this is not economic at all. You know, I'd have to do this and that and so on and the potatoes would cost too much. But people they don't matter. You know, let them get underground and ride. Then the Russians glamorize this and they put up these hideous bar reliefs of Stalin and Lenin and the victorious proletariat. So they've got these, you know, even sillier subways that are terribly clean and all of that. But while the streets up above are half-empty because they don't happen to have a lot of passenger cars in Moscow. No, if, you know, if we as a nation addressed ourselves to the problem of how do you move people from here to there we would come up with very interesting solutions. But on the highways, for instance, we don't do this. We say 'how do you move cars with a minimum of interruption?' This is like saying how on a production line do you move this nut or that refrigerator, you know, without any breakdowns and stoppages. And somehow it's it's a real important part of the feeling of our time that movement is sacred. It must not stop. You noticed how on planes, the minute a plane touches the ground, all of us passengers are suddenly very nervous and we want to get out of there. We've got claustrophobia. Well, maybe you've been on this plane 14 hours on your way to Melbourne, Australia. You know, drinking your drinks and taking your shoes off and kidding the hostess and just having a marvelous time. Why? Because the plane is moving. So long as it's moving you feel good. Let it stop and it's a prison. Well, all these are sort of disconnected.

Studs Terkel And yet with the, and and so with the traffic jam, the horns blow and the horns honk and finally they, we can't move until we have the cross-country highway. It was nothing is seen, really, but you get from one place to another.

George Nelson Yeah, but you see, in a way, everything gets like a subway. A jet, in its way, is like a subway. It's up in the air and so on. But you never taste or smell that air. It's impossible, you know, there isn't enough of it. And I remember once I I spent a couple of hours in the airport in Denver under under with the absolute conviction that I was in Salt Lake City or maybe it was vice versa. But, you know, you don't even know where you are anymore. And this isn't such a terrible thing if you can get out and look around. But the things that mature people or entertain people or do something for them we tend to be shoving out of the way more and more. Like we even get now, it's gotten to the point where the civic authorities get terribly upset if the people do anything in New York. I don't know if your papers had anything about it. There are a bunch of kids down around Greenwich Village who developed a very pleasant habit of going into Washington Square on Sundays

Studs Terkel Oh yes the the folk song.

George Nelson -playing folk songs. Well, good heavens, you know, of all the nice ideas for anybody to have in a big-

Studs Terkel It was banned for a while.

George Nelson It it got the the mayor and the City Council and the police terribly upset and they were afraid of these gatherings. You know, maybe somebody would misbehave or something. They don't worry about this on the subways where people can really misbehave and there are no cops to supervise them. But-

Studs Terkel This was out in the sun,

George Nelson It was out in the sun and people really ought to stay underground. And if you can't have a subway where you are, you can always buy a fallout shelter and get into that nice dank womb, you know. Then you won't have to think

Studs Terkel Well George Nelson as you're talking I'm thinking too the comments you make, harsh, truthful comments, yet that mirror, in a sense, the way we are. You point out it's the objective of a society then that's important. The objective of an individual. You continually speak about the individual, I noticed that, toward the end of the individual himself. And you were speaking of-

George Nelson Do you think he has to have an objective? Do you think individuals or societies do? What is our objective as, say, the United States beyond survival? Is there one?

Studs Terkel Isn't that objective to live? I mean to live, to be alive in the sense, say, like a Frank Lloyd Wright was alive.

George Nelson I don't think so at all. I don't see any evidence of this. Wright had to had to fight-

Studs Terkel No, I say shouldn't this be? I wouldn't say is it?

George Nelson Oh, shouldn't it. If this is the objective you'd like the society to have, by all means, defend it. I happen to agree with you, it seems to me, but I don't think a society can have this kind of objective, really. I think individuals can and I think a society at moments can can reflect. But, you know, a society is really a disciplining instrument. It's a thing that has to exist to whip people into line. And I don't mean necessarily in a bad way, but, you know, a society has a police force and we all know what you have a police force for. And individuals can't do this except in those marvelous TV Westerns where every citizen, you know, shoots all the bad men and they don't need cops so much. But I I would be very surprised if societies really had objectives.

Studs Terkel What would you say ours is?

George Nelson I don't believe we have any at all. I think we hope that business will not get worse next year. You know, it's colossal now, we hope it'll get better. And I think the little people like you and me and our friends would sort of like to live out our lives and and, you know, have a nice time. And we don't want to be blown up or thrown in jail for speaking our minds. You know, a whole series of little things like this. Or maybe we'd like to move out of one of those one of those sewers of togetherness they call housing tracts. You know, something. And, but I doubt if you scratch the average citizen and you ask him what the U.S. objective ought to be, about the only thing he could give you would be either a power play, you know, keep the Russians out of and then you fill it in, you know, Cuba, Laos or whatever. Or let's keep from having another recession or depression or something of that sort. But I think it may be a little romantic to think of a whole society having objectives.

Studs Terkel So it comes down, then, to the key, doesn't it? It comes down to the individual.

George Nelson Yeah, but for me, it comes down to the individual. Not because it's right, but because we have exhausted the potency of the organization. Because every time we form a new organization these days, you know, to combat wild dogs or cockroaches or Martians or whatever we set up all these clubs and institutes for. All we do is seem to get in a more and more of a mess with electric typewriters and computers and tapes and stuff, and nobody knows what the hell is going on. And [coughs] you see, we've we've believed in the organized thing. Our country began with an organized effort that was darned effective, you know, and it was actually possible to set up the joints so that you could have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And this couldn't have been done on an individual basis. It was done in an organized way. The organizations that Washington and those people had were sort of piddling, you know, in terms of, say, a General Electric task force to learn how to make a steam iron go 20 miles an hour instead of 30. But I think that we've run this organization thing into the ground so that that the human being always operates like a two-sided coin. Societies operate like a coin with two faces. And I think that as we get poisoned by this overdose of belief in things and abstractions we're gonna swing very hard to a kind of medieval outlook, you know, which will place a different kind of value on people. And I think in the same way I keep emphasizing the individual because I think these organizations have become so utterly futile and self-defeating. But again it doesn't mean that it, in other words, if what I'm saying is true then it's only true for now. It wouldn't have been true for 150 years ago and-

Studs Terkel It's a dynamic way of looking

George Nelson Well, it's dynamic or relative or whatever. I think that there are going to be all sorts of reactions and rebellions to the decline in morality, which is a fairly general kind of thing. There are more timid floozie types in business government industry than there were 15 years ago, for instance. There are more guys who are scared, there are more people who are fit-afraid to do something constructive to make decisions and so on. At least, just the experience in our own little design office has indicated that within 10 years there's been a notable increase of people who are afraid to say yes to anything. And then, of course, you get into this business of consumer surveys. You go back, you know, to these faceless masses and ask them what they think about something, which is a marvelous way of evading the responsibility of making a decision. And I think that this thing will take on all the aspects of a crackup from where we sit. It could be political, it could be war, it could be economic, or it could be the kind of thing that is shown in that Italian film "La Dolce Vita" where you just have the people who've, who, you know who've become really so pitiful-

Studs Terkel Dehumanized.

George Nelson Yeah yeah and quite desperate and so on. I think as this happens there are gonna be more and more reactions and rebellions. You can even pick something as unattractive as The Beats, who have deliberately react reacted against the values that are supposed to govern our society and they say 'we don't want any part of this.'