Sunday, July 6, 2008

When usefulness has passed

I always come away from Steven's pages feeling simultaneously held to a higher standard and frustrated by something unnamed. This morning glancing through it, I got thinking about "usefulness" and how Steven would think about it. Thinking back to an earlier post about eugenics, and how a big part of where it went wrong was in thinking of people's "usefulness."

I ran Google on "usefulness has passed," and came up with an archive article from the NY Times, 1917. Mayor Mitchel of New York, speaking at the cornerstone laying for a new institution for the feeble-minded on Randall Island in NY City:
"True, eleven of the buildings on this island dated back to before the year 1869, so the institution, by the life of in the City of New York, was old. Those buildings, Commissioner Kingsbury said, had not been built as the buildings of the cities bf old, to endue a hundred or a thousand years, but it looked from the way they were used, from the tenacity with which the city clung to their use after they had become useless, that the city regarded them as built to last a thousand years, no matter what their condition. That was the trouble with the institutions on Randall's Island; though the buildings were constructed to last but a few years and had outlived. their usefulness, they were treated as if they were there to remain forever.

"In an institution such as this the buildings should last no longer than their usefulness, and these buildings which are being erected today, under this appropriation of $1,600,000, ought to endure no longer than their usefulness, and when the day of that usefulness has passed, because better methods have been found for the treatment of the who may occupy them, because better methods of construction have been devised and more scientific of treatment, then these buildings must come down and new buildings take their places that will meet the higher standards of a later date. That is progress, and nothing short of it is progress.
Not sure why I find this such an interesting piece of random retrieval, but I do. The backside of usefulness is uselessness and disposal. When a thing or a person is valued for function, than when the function ceases, it needs to be gotten rid of. Like the "feeble-minded" in the eugenics way of thinking.

Like outdated maps.

I have a bunch of outdated maps in my library. I like how many of them look (I have a particular predilection for John Bartholomew's mapping from the first part of the twentieth century, and for oil-company maps of the immediate post-WWII period), and so I find them useful as a reference, and I hang on to them. But they are not useful in the same sense that I rely on an up-to-date map of the world; the old maps tell me about ways of communication that have been passed over, and ways people thought the world could be looked at "usefully" 100 years ago.

Big American cities have a history of tearing down old buildings that are no longer deemed "useful." Minneapolis tore down large parts of its downtown fringe in the post-WWII era (notably the Gateway District). More recently, we've seen a movement to gut the buildings and refit them for modern use (like the building my office is in, a former seed company headquarters and warehouse).

But can you do that for information that has gone stale? What use is a bus schedule from 1954? A TV schedule from 1970? A street map from 1890? They have become relics, clues to help us figure things out about the past. They themselves are not renovated for present use, but preserved like house museums.

What about weeds, plants we do not deem useful?

When we have a task at hand, having useful tools for the task makes sense. When we have tools at hand, do those then make tasks? At what point do those tools them impose themselves back on us?

Thanks, Steven.

No comments: