The Plenitude

Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff

Rich Gold

The MIT Press: 144 pp., $22


THIS little book, with its simple logic and language and unforgettable, whimsical drawings, will change the way its readers look at the world around them. Rich Gold -- artist, composer, designer, inventor and lecturer -- died in 2003 at 52. “The Plenitude,” which is described in its preface as “a graphic textbook, a cartoon treatise, a speculative autobiography [and] a very practical essay in moral philosophy,” was written in the last year of his life. In it, he presents his concept of the Plenitude, the multitude of stuff we members of the Junk Tribe live with and feel compelled to create:

“How many things are there in an average room. . . say my kitchen? I can easily count a thousand, but the actual answer is fractal. Every appliance, every tool, even every food (certainly if you count pesticide residue) is compound and is composed of tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of other things. And every day new shopping bags arrive filled with yet more things. The bags were filled at malls and supermarkets, themselves filled with millions of things. It’s a lot of stuff.”

Gold seemed proud to be an extremely productive member of the Junk Tribe, a term he considered “both too pejorative and not scary enough.” As a designer, he contributed everything from arcade and video games to museum exhibits, pulp fiction (under the name Ned Sarti) and musical compositions. Inspired by the work of avant-garde artists like John Cage and Fluxus, and by the writing of Philip K. Dick, Gold admits: “There is no activity I can think of that I enjoy more than making stuff for the Stuff Culture. . . . I enjoy going to Borders, or to the mall, or to the craft fair. . . . I enjoy being overwhelmed by the vast diversity and the breadth of our culture’s creative energies. This is what we do and we are damn good at it.”

Gold describes the four hats he’s worn in his lifetime: artist, scientist, engineer and designer, “the four professions that collectively have created about 95 percent of the Plenitude.” Scientists believe that nature has laws; they create equations that soon become “indistinguishable from the belief in the real world.” Artists “are supported by the most powerful, elitist, influential forces in our culture. Oddly, [they] often see themselves as outsiders.” The designer, unlike those artists, doesn’t mind being asked to add “a little more green in the painting to match, say, the couch”; in other words, the designer is someone who cares about the audience, the users of his work. Engineers solve problems; they are to science what designers are to artists. “Design without art, or engineering without science, both quickly asymptote to commodity, and in the globalized world, if you are merely producing commodity, you’re dead.”

The Plenitude is not without drawbacks: It “creates a world somewhere between the bland and the ugly”; it “blurs the distinction between the real and the faux”; it sustains us while “half the world lives on less than two dollars per day”; and it “may very well destroy the world” by using up the world’s resources. “How many genetically modified organisms gone wrong,” Gold wonders, “will it take to bring our life support system down?”

He offers a few antidotes to the Plenitude, some of them tongue-in-cheek: “Make only five things in your lifetime”; “reject the Plenitude”; insist on “quality over quantity”; aim for “zero-growth economies”; “just make good stuff”; and, finally, “Just love it. We are invisible at the scale of the universe.”

This self-proclaimed “reformed artist” isn’t much of a moralist, but toward the end of the book he does produce one piece of advice, quoting a colleague at Xerox PARC: “We should be careful to make the world we actually want to live in.”