The Ecology of Failure


Medium Design disrupts some dominant cultural habits of mind—among these the search for singular evils and singular solutions. It surveys a world with a spectrum of evils—capitalism, fascism, racism, whiteness, xenophobia, religious intolerance, psychotic leadership and countless other ways of hoarding power or abusing the planet. And it suggests that singular solutions or right answers are weak positions in the face political superbugs—whether they are political strongmen like Trump, Putin, Kim, or Bolsonaro or the bullet proof powers that circulate in the free zone economies of the world. Medium design considers a repertoire for political activism and dissensus that is sufficiently broad to disorient and outwit these powers. It foregrounds underexploited spatial forms of direct action to fortify this repertoire.


Physical, spatial exchanges are the heavy information in culture that can sometimes avoid the automatic harm that comes from abstract financial or technical variable written in the anointed legal, econometric or digital languages. Space is a mixing chamber for the languages of many disciplines—a medium, medius, middle, or milieu. Forms for registering this design imagination are forms directing interplay—form not only for making things but also for making the way things go together. On the flip side of a modern Enlightenment mind that looks for the one and only solution or the binary fight, beyond “knowing that” or knowing the right answer, the designer “knows how” or is able to respond to an unfolding interplay over time. The modern mind that would regard new technologies as redemptive and successive instead finds greater sophistication in the quality of the mixtures between emergent and incumbent technologies. A medium designer is aware of the temperament of organizations, the capacity for violence embedded in arrangement, as well as other undeclared dispositions that may run counter to stated positions. Also, while problems are typically treated as something to be hidden, discarded, or redeemed with a solution, medium designconsiders the productivity of multiplying and combining them.


While the modern mind is deflated by failure, medium design exploits the potency of problems rather than trying to tame or solve them. Problems carry with them the potentials associated with needs and experiences. A positive value and a negative value are both the same distance from zero. It is not even the content of problems but rather their interplay that is most important.
The interplays [between problems] arrange urban castoffs in new ecologies. They even leverage climate risks to gain relief from those very dangers. The cultural narratives that attend these interplays are about ratcheting changes that can quickly gain scale. And they envision a planetary network of failures and remainders—a terra incognita that is constantly renewed and explored.


Without diminishing the damage and misery of climate dilemmas that leave behind pollutants, scarred landscapes, disease, and ongoing conflict, might there be resourceful approaches that address these failures in different ways?

Rather than searching for solutions to eliminate problems, medium design can treat problems as potent resources. Problems carry with them needs and experiences that offer valuable, heavy information and prompt productive interplay.
Parrondo’s Paradox is a counterintuitive game theory positing that if you play a game with a low probability of winning, you will lose, but if you alternate between two games, each with a probability of losing, you can begin to generate wins. The resulting graph of wins resembles a shallow sawtooth of incremental increases in numbers of winning games. And the process may actually behave like a ratchet—as if the losses create a kind of traction against which to make many small gains.1
Just as the newness of technologies may be less important than the interplay between them, the elimination of problems may be less important than the interplay between them. Problems may only remain too segregated. Problems from any quarter can leaven or catalyze each other.

Needs, problems, and even catastrophes can become resources. Like a valence electron in a reactive element, need presents a potential to combine. As Gregory Bateson noted, “zero is different from one,” and its difference holds potential.2 Going further, positive one and negative one are the same distance from zero. They both possess the same potential for making a difference. Setbacks like those in the stories of Jane Eyre and Rosa Parks offered affordances that could be converted to assets. One need can be a resource to another need. The failure that might create a negative value or absence of value in some registers still has the potential to productively interact with other potentials.
After Frederick Law Olmsted visited the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, he wrote about it in a short text for The Nation. He measured the space of the damage, the ways that locations previously separated by dense buildings were now available to one another, and the distance from which dangerous heat could be felt, as well as the distance from the epicenter to which people and objects were scattered in the aftermath. Studying fire presented the possibility of a new landscape with new separations, vantage points, and visual corridors that would even help to prevent subsequent fires.3
Soon after the successful expeditions to the North and South poles in 1909 and 1911, the forester and polymath Benton MacKaye identified an entirely different terra incognita. MacKaye, largely remembered as the regional planner who conceived of the Appalachian Trail, was a truly eccentric thinker and visionary. In an article in 1925 and a book in 1928 entitled The New Exploration, he argued that man had used his technologies to chart and conquer the territorial limits of the planet, but now that entire apparatus had itself become a wilderness—an “industrial wilderness.” Man, “in dispelling one wilderness . . . has created another,” MacKaye wrote. “For the intricate equipment of civilization is in itself a wilderness. He has unraveled the labyrinth of river and coast line but has spun the labyrinth of industry.”4
MacKaye’s terra incognita was made of grids for electricity and automobiles, as well as a collection of other lines of flow for goods and population migration. It was a “surface web,” “a working thing; a rough-hewn organism—a system.”5 For MacKaye, this “wilderness of civilization” was a kind of geological formation, read not for its shape but for its recording of change and movement. Throughout his career, he treated this network like a fluvial or geological force with its own potentials and activities.6
Capital has long been indexing various conditions in the world that serve its needs, and controlling that territory irrespective of political boundaries. Tourism territorializes the planet according to water temperatures and the color of sand. Manufacturing industries colonize the world with free zones located in countries with the cheapest possible labor and the most lenient labor and environmental laws. The global agricultural industry indexes hours of sunshine and available water. The oil and gas industry indexes a resource under the earth’s crust.
Consider an alternative indexing of the world that, like Olmsted and MacKaye, takes stock of the remainders and remnants—even the perceived failures of heavy industries as fresh resources in another ecology. While not new, these interplays continually generate emergent or underexploited relationships to mitigate against climate damage and violence. Working with the leavings and detritus of destructive capital would seem to be a capitulation—a submissive position that backs down from the fight for justice just at the moment when only the most sweeping changes to the economy have a chance of countering climate change. Here, it would seem, is just another example of incrementalism.
But if it is crucial to begin a transformative process immediately, and in advance of overcoming a very durable political impasse between left- and right-wing ideologies, there may even be an expeditious political advantage to designing an interplay of problems. … Design, usually seen as having to wait on either the defeat or the indulgence of capital, may have material that is not only immediately available but also in abundant supply. And with the same resourcefulness of the superbug, design can work on many fronts.

Can shrinking cities, flood plains, garbage gyres, or sprawling urban peripheries—with all of their alarming consequences in the form of fires, hurricanes, and thinning atmospheres—enter into new interdependencies with each other? Is it possible to identify a productive ecology between the very precipitates of political and environmental crisis?

Can shrinking cities, flood plains, garbage gyres, or sprawling urban peripheries—with all of their alarming consequences in the form of fires, hurricanes, and thinning atmospheres—enter into a new interdependencies with each other? Is it possible to identify a productive ecology between the very precipitates of political and environmental crisis? And does this interplay of problems have any chance of gaining sufficient scale to be effective?

In Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (2018), Latour continues to wrestle with modern paradoxes. Like MacKaye, he too must emerge with a “new political actor”—“the Terrestrial, with a capital T.” … Adhering to a modern habit even as he tries to dispel those habits, for Latour, the Terrestrial replaces the Moderns. Using Donna Haraway’s term “worlding” to “distinguish from the globe of globalization,” Latour writes that the Terrestrial is “bound to the earth and to land, but it is also a way of worlding, in that it aligns with no borders, transcends all identities.” He argues that culture has not inspired the Terrestrial because “ecology has not known how to mobilize on a scale adequate to the stakes.”7
While there is no need to declare a single new actor, as scout, explorer, or Terrestrial, most productive may be the narrative of exploration itself—the environmental exploration of changing conditions on the planet. As anthropologist Anna Tsing has written, “To enlarge what is possible, we need other kinds of stories—including adventures of landscapes.”8 Acknowledging an abundance of human-nonhuman relationships drowns out the perennial accounts that measure everything in terms of left-right political platforms or protagonists like homo economicus.
Imagine the heterogeneous stories of this exploration, offering metrics for economic, medical, and environmental health. Closer to a weather forecast than a stock market report they would map interdependencies like the relationships between cold front and jet stream or COVID-19 shut downs and the reduction of air pollution. Interplay within this heavy portfolio would feature a set of interdependent indexes measuring deconstruction jobs, densification, carbon scoring, emissions, sea level rise, and global warming among other indicators.
Harvesting failures of any kind mines an planetary geography of value different from the mineral values that have driven human industry and capital.A more-than-human shift in perceptions might simply perceive affordances in the interplay itself—in the activities of heavy components in this wilderness. A world brimming with problems is brimming with potential. Constantly renewed, it presents a raw and limitless field of value.

Excerpted and adapted from Keller Easterling, Medium Design. Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso, 2020).


1 Gregory P. Hamer and Derek Abbott, “Game Theory: Losing Strategies Can Win by Parrondo’s Paradox” Nature 402,December 1999.

2 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 458.

3 Frederick Law Olmsted, “Chicago in Distress,” The Nation, November 9, 1871.

4 Benton MacKaye, “The New Exploration: Charting the Industrial Wilderness,” Survey Graphic 54 (1925), 179, 153, 154; Benton MacKaye, “The New Northwest Passage,” The Nation 122 (June 2, 1926), 603; Benton MacKaye, “Industrial Exploration,” serial publication in The Nation: “I. Charting the World’s Commodity Flow,” 125 (July 20, 1927), 71. MacKaye used the word incognito in “The New Exploration”and terra incognita in “The New Northwest Passage” and “Charting the World’s Commodity Flow”.

5 Benton MacKaye, “The New Exploration: Charting the Industrial Wilderness,” 179, 153, 154.

6 Keller Easterling, Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 12-67.

7 Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (New York: Wiley, 2018), 40, 54, 55, 56.

8 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 156.


Keller Easterling is an designer, writer and the Enid Storm Dwyer Professor of Architecture at Yale. Her books include, Medium Design (Verso 2021), Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014), Subtraction (Sternberg, 2014), Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005) and Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America (MIT, 1999). Easterling is also the co-author (with Richard Prelinger) of Call it Home a laserdisc/DVD history of US suburbia from 1934-1960.Easterling lectures and exhibits internationally. Her research and writing was included in the 2014 and 2018 Venice Biennales. Easterling is a 2019 United States Artist in Architecture and Design.

24 May 2022
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15 minutes
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