- Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, 1918
Something seemed deadly about the »sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance«.(1) In 1938, when Lewis Mumford was looking for the possibilities of creating form under the conditions of his time, what concerned him was the »fatal lack of connection between architecture and the dominant social sources of order«.(2) How could this deadliness be countered with living forms? Looking at the works of the famous »trinity of American architecture«(3) – Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright –Mumford saw the articulation »in social terms … [of] the rule laid down by the American sculptor, Horatio Greenough – form follows function«.(4) This mantra that form follows function obliged to conceive of houses, dwellings and cities that went »against the very grain of capitalist finance«.(5)
Mumford was struck by what his technocratic optimism saw as an emerging possibility; a »society whose productive system and consumptive demands will be directed toward the maximum possible nurture, under ever more adequate material conditions, of the human group, and the maximum possible culture of the human personality«.(6) For him, there was little doubt that in »the process of urban development, social values and financial values are in decisive conflict«.(7) Not only were financial motives ›destructive to life‹, Mumford even went as far as to stress that modern forms should be actively destructive to finance. That form could, and indeed often did, follow finance was precisely what the famous principle of 20th-century modernist architecture and industrial design seemed to counter. Form following finance was inscribed in form following function as its constitutive other.
In opposing living forms to financial deadliness, Mumford was not trying to draw »false biological analogies between societies and organisms« akin to Herbert Spencer, but rather attempted to paint »related pictures of the natural and the cultural environments, considered as wholes«.(8) Within these interrelated environments, everything, including economic value, (9) should be directed towards the »cultivation of the best life possible.«(10) He even traced this ›utopian‹ ideal back to Plato’s conception of a good community. The »secret« of which, Mumford found when translating »Plato’s language into modern political slang, is the principle of function«.(11) By thinking about the functions of the organism-in-its-environment, »the importance of the environment as a co-operative factor,« and »every living creature [as] part of the general web of life … in all its processes and realities,«(12) Mumford was deeply embedded in the organicism and process philosophy of the early 20th century.
However, in Mumford’s conception of industry and finance we can also hear an echo of his intellectual hero, Thorstein Veblen. Mumford, who rated Veblen as the »foremost sociological economist«(13) after Marx, even took a course taught by Veblen at the New School for Social Research in New York after his time in the Navy. And though he found him to be, as his biographer notes, an »unimpressive classroom teacher« he still »devoured his ideas« and even got to work with him during his time at the famous The Dial magazine, where Veblen »occasionally showed up for editorial meetings«.(14)
For Veblen, writing in 1923, a »free run of production« could quite easily produce all that is needed, but this would be disastrous for corporate finance, since prices would drop, which is why the business enterprise is engaged in »what is conveniently called capitalistic sabotage or businesslike [sic] sabotage on industry«.(15) He imagined an industrial population that would produce all that is needed, develop, and ›move forward‹ if it were not sabotaged through ownership claims obtained through investment. »Ownership confers a legal right of sabotage« and this »is the Natural Right of Investment«.(16) By strategically sabotaging industry, profits can be increased and future revenue controlled. Form following function, it seems with Mumford, affirms the biotechnic process of life and industry against financial sabotage.
But something happened in the course of the 20th century. The idea of industry, and ultimately of the whole social order, as distinct, separate, and transparently opposed to capitalist finance was becoming less and less plausible and could no longer ground the contrast on which Mumford’s argument relied. Thinking about those changes, nobody seems less apropos then Fredric Jameson. Instead of seeing a fatal lack of connection between an architecture dominated by finance and social sources of order, he saw a »whole new type of emotional ground tone – what [he would] call ›intensities‹«(17) – that conformed all-too well to the »whole new economic world system«. This was a key argument in his ground-breaking Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Far from seeing a deadly disconnect, the new formal features in culture expressed »the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism«.(18) Referring to Ernest Mandel’s designation(19) of the economic stage as late capitalism, the theme of finance capital remained somewhat latent in his »stubbornly influential text«.(20) Yet, it became fully explicit at least with his reading of Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. (21) By understanding late capitalism as finance capitalism in Culture and Finance Capital, Jameson effectively provided us with a 400-page elaboration of the shifts in forms following finance. ›Late capitalism‹ is the time when form follows finance.
- Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, Capital as Power, 200
Rather than revisiting these discussions of new intensities and of the Gesamtzusammenhang of cultural forms, how did they instead influence design and the practice of creating form? If form now follows finance, it is to »financialisation« that we must turn. While definitions of what exactly financialisation entails vary from author to author and decade to decade, the broadest description of the phenomena sees financialisation simply as »the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies«.(22) But what are these financial motives that form should follow?
Keeping with our genealogy of Veblen and Mumford, we can turn to contemporary economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who – drawing heavily on Veblen and Mumford – make the process of capitalisation the centrepiece of their explanation, that is »the algorithm that generates and organizes prices. It is the central institution and key logic of the capitalist nomos«.(23) Capitalisation, put simply, is the discounting into present value of future earnings.
The money value of any capital good – that is, the amount investors are willing to pay for it – is the present value of its expected future profit (computed by discounting this profit by the prevailing rate of interest, so value = expected profit / rate of interest).« (24)
Nitzan and Bichler offer a simple example: what would it mean for something to have the present value of $952.38 in the eyes of finance capital? Or, to rephrase the same question: under what conditions would somebody be prepared to pay the price of $952.38 for something? If we assume a 5% rate of interest, the commodity in question would have to generate $1000 in future earnings for it to be worth $952.38 in present value. This is, of course, a basic formula of finance, but its efficacy is such that it precisely »turns every commodity into finance«,(25) and conversely, if its future can be controlled so that it can generate future earnings, it is a commodity. It does not matter if we are dealing with intellectual property, financial derivatives, land rights, factories or even ›human capital‹. If we can expect future income, we can discount this income to a present value. Without going more in-depth into the economic theory and the associated cosmology of power Nitzan and Bichler develop, for now we can simply note that the aim of all activity is therefore to be able to promise to secure future profit. This profit may never materialize and the promise could always turn out to be false. Nevertheless, the promise is what determines the money value in the eyes of finance capital.
We can best conceptualize it as what I call the generalisation of the debt-form as the promise of repayment. For the logic of capitalisation comes quite naturally to us when we think about debt, but – as the influential economist Irving Fisher once noted – it goes against the »common view, which makes the rate of interest depend merely on the scarcity or abundance of capital,« that we think about »capital-value [as] discounted income«.(26)
If the present value of any capital good is the amount investors are willing to pay for it – and this seems especially pertinent during the design process – it is the desire of investors that is the key to the business of design, for they determine the present value. The fact that those financial desires of maximizing expected future profit and controlling the revenue-stream often find their expression in the desire to have a consumer product should not fool us into thinking that are done for consumers. Having a product that consumers actually need or want is one way to satisfy the highest demand of securing expected future profit (or even just securing investment). But it is just one way. Otherwise, it would be hard, for example, to account for the never-ending supply of idiotic yet overvalued start-ups mocked on the weekly technopessimist comedy podcast Trashfuture. (27) Would consumers really desire to pay for a subscription to an app which allows you access to water fountains via RFID, instead of… simply having a water-fountain?
It is not just the central presence of revenue-controlling mechanisms that this shift in perspective from consumer to investor unlocks. Often, what seems like sheer incompetence becomes understandable when seen as designed not with user-consumers, but with an owner-investor in mind. Take for example, the recent voting debacle at the Iowa Caucus where a reporter app was used that had been envisioned only two months prior.(28) Are we confronted with a farcical misapprehension, an absurd literalisation of Veblen's conception of the ›Natural Right of Investment‹ as the ›legal right of sabotage‹ quoted above? How did an app, with a mind-bendingly simple task, come to be so terribly designed that it ended up shaking peoples trust in the democratic process? Numerous articles were quick to point out a possible explanation: because it seemed to have been a minimum viable product.(29)
- Erich Ries, The Lean Startup, 2011
Prototyping(30) practices like the cult of the »minimum viable product« are one particularly striking symptom of form following finance. A minimum viable product is a product that is just about good enough to be released. In doing so, it is not only possible to get market feedback for very little investment, but also to already acquire a userbase and generate buzz. Those products must be minimal enough for failure not to be too costly, and for pivots to always be on the table. The purpose of a minimum viable product, as one of the popularisers of the term, Eric Ries, makes unmistakable clear is not primarily aimed at »product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses«.(31)
Instead of focussing on individual nouns – Ideas, Products, Features – we pick up once again on Mumford’s organic thinking and treat the whole as a feedback loop. A minimum viable product, cheaply built and quickly released, is seen as the cheapest and fastest way to go through the »Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop«, with its particular strength being that it »minimiz[es] TOTAL time through the loop«.(32) As such, we can see it as particularly characteristic of the demands of financial investors; it is a design answer to the laws of finance.
It is no coincidence that this investment-led approach has found its home in the start-up scene. It is here in particular that ›entrepreneurs‹ – or »debtor-producers«(33) – are most straightforwardly reliant on investment to determine their money-value. Following this thought, we have to return to the generalization of the debt-form. The basic formula of finance given above was of course highly oversimplified. A slightly more detailed formula would describe capitalisation as ›(future earnings x hype) / (risk x discount rate)‹, whereas hype describes the »extent to which capitalists are overly optimistic or pessimistic«.(34) By replacing what seems like an ex ante category of expected future profit with the ex post assessment of the actual earnings modified by what must have been hype, we have expanded upon the simple formula through the addition of the crucial dimension of the future as uncertain. We will never know what the future earnings are, but at least in retrospect, we can see that the expectations were wrong by some factor.
Given the demands of investment under the condition of an uncertain future, the uncertainty does not simply need to be minimized – which would, we could perhaps claim, be the job of extensive market research - but it needs to be dealt with. We cannot get rid of risk or avoid hype, but we can mitigate their effects. By minimizing both the money invested in development and the total time of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, we have effectively reduced our commitment to any future, while, at the same time, increased our chances to bring about those futures to which we are committed. A minimum viable product is a design for an uncertain future, since it simultaneously tries to collapse the future into the present by minimizing the total time through the loop while also retaining the uncertainty, recast as flexibility to ›pivot‹ at any point and to respond to failures.
- Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964
How can we think about form if we are following finance? We have thus far focused on a particular kind(35) of prototype, the minimum viable product. One of the key features of prototyping, the anthropologist Alberto Corsín Jiménez reminds us, »is the incorporation of failure as a legitimate and very often empirical realisation«.(36) We have taken failure as a necessary part of operating under the condition of an uncertain future – things could always go wrong! – and so we must incorporate failure as a design solution to dealing with this uncertainty. To gloss from Henry Petroski, we could say that form follows failure. While Petroski employs this witticism to express that »the form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failures to function properly«, his discussion brings him to Christopher Alexander’s classic Notes on the Synthesis of Form.
Closing this essay with Alexander’s example of a simple hut also returns us to Mumford’s concern with architecture and the organism-in-its-environment. Alexander notes that it »has often been claimed in architectural circles that the houses of simpler civilizations than our own are in some sense better than our own houses«.(37) The house is a particularly demonstrative example, because it brings to the fore the key issue of ›good fit‹. The aim is to find a form that best fits its context, that is, following Alexander by drawing on the organic thinking of the relation between organism and environment, a form that is best adapted and adaptable to its context. The context is pictured as a complex set of varying and often contradictory conditions to which the form must fit. In many contexts, a simple hut is better adapted – it has better fit – than, say, a skyscraper or even a complex geodesic dome. The »form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem«(38). The aim for the designer becomes »to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence«.(39)
This is precisely where Mumford once saw insurmountable friction – a fatal lack of adaption of the form of architecture to the context of the living social order. Mumford was not treating finance as part of the problem to which design had to adapt, but rather saw an adaption of form to the context of the social order as destructive to finance. Forms that follow function were misfits if the context of finance was taken into account. But once finance had permeated the living social order to such a degree that it brought about altogether new intensities, once we cannot neatly separate out the financial context or dismiss it, finance itself is a part the context to which form has to adapt.
So how can we conceptualize forms adapting to finance? As we have seen in the sections above, the context of finance is characterized by the tension between the present and an uncertain future. It is the expected profit that determines the present value, which in turn shapes the future profit. A ›good fit‹, following finance, would first and foremost have to be conceived as temporal fitness in the irreducible gap between present and future. A minimum viable product is precisely such an attempt at achieving temporal fitness, at being adapted to the demands of the future in the present.
Temporal fitness is not a question of design that performs a future and thereby brings it into existence and it is neither an issue of prediction nor pre-emption. It cannot aim to remove the irreducible gap between the future and present, to flatten time, but it has to function in and with it to make the temporality of finance operative. It incorporates the uncertainty of the future into its form and imitates the future in the present. This means that forms that follow finance are not committed to any particular future, they do not aspire to be the shape of things to come. They are rather that which claims that it will have been adapted to the future conditions, that which seems to fit the future in the present. These forms must try to pull off the impossible: to be the effect which decides on its own causes.
It is here that the philosophical and the financial sense of the word speculation most clearly meet; yet those forms do not have to resolve this complex dilemma. Instead, they just have to appear capable to deal with it. Form following finance means achieving temporal fitness by translating the promise of expected future profit into present value.
(1) Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 11.
(2) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 404.
(3) James F. O’Gorman, Three American Architects: Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright, 1865 - 1915 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991).
(4) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 408. While the aphorism of »form follows function« is frequently attributed to Greenough, it seems to have originated with Louis Sullivan himself.
(5) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 402.
(6) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 415.
(7) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 391.
(8) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 303.
(9) The biotechnic economy, which following John Ruskin and Patrick Geddes, relies on a deeply organicists interpretation of economic value (see Robert Casillo, ‘Lewis Mumford and the Organicist Concept in Social Thought’, Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 1, 1992).
(10) Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944), p. 415.
(11) Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922), p. 41, my emphasis.
(12) Mumford, The Culture of Cities, p. 302.
(13) Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1934), p. 472.
(14) Donald L. Miller, Lewis Mumford, a Life, Grove Great Lives (New York: Grove Press, 2002), p. 109.
(15) Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1923), p. 96.
(16) Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America, p. 66.
(17) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Vero, 1991), p. 6.
(18) Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, Postmodern Culture 115, no. 11 (1985).
(19) Though Jameson’s chronology never quite matched up with Mandel’s (cf Mike Davis, ‘Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism’, New Left Review 151, no. 106 (1985)).
(20) Susan E. Hawkins, ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Review)’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 38, no. 4 (1992): 1003–5.
(21) Fredric Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry 24, no. 1 (1997): 246–65.
(22) Gerald A. Epstein, ‘Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy’, in Financialization and the World Economy (Cheltenham ; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2005), 3–16, p. 3.
(23) Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 153.
(24) Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder, p. 77.
(25) Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, ‘Elementary Particles of the Capitalist Mode of Power’, in Sixth International Conference of Rethinking Marxism (Sixth International Conference of Rethinking Marxism, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2006), 1–20, http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/215/, p. 13.
(26) Irving Fisher, The Rate of Interest: Its Nature, Determination and Relation to Economic Phenomena (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907), p. 109-10,
(29) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/opinion/iowa-caucus-app.html. If we can indeed attribute the Iowa Caucus debacle in part to the conception of a minimum viable product would require an enquiry into its design process and the corporate culture, but this would almost be beside the point: the fact that it offered an instantly recognizable explanation, that it could very well be true in this case, is enough for the argument developed here.
(30) There are of course more radical uses of prototyping, see Prototyping Cultures: Art, Science and Politics in Beta, 2017.
(31) Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, 1st ed (New York: Crown Business, 2011).
(32) Ries, The Lean Startup.
(33) Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger, Eigentum, Zins und Geld: ungelöste Rätsel der Wirtschaftswissenschaft, (Marburg: Metropolis, 2011).
(34) Bichler and Nitzan, ‘Elementary Particles of the Capitalist Mode of Power’, p. 12.
(35) Ries sometimes distinguishes between prototype and minimum viable product, though he does not uphold this distinction.
(36) Alberto Corsín Jiménez, ‘Introduction: The Prototype: More than Many and Less than One’, Journal of Cultural Economy 7, no. 4 (2 October 2014): 381–98, p. 381.
(37) Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 28.
(38) Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, p. 15.
(39) Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, p. 19.