You know what never gets old on YouTube? Elaborate, cleverly designed contraptions to accomplish useless tasks. OK Go made hay out of this meme, and now a Brooklyn artist named Joseph Herscher is using it to satirize something serious: our mistaken notion that “every little bit helps” when it comes to saving energy or living sustainably.
But I’ll get to that in a second. First, enjoy Herscher’s page-turning machine: two minutes of gloriously designed near-anarchy:
What I love about Herscher’s “kinetic art” (as the New York Times called it), at least in this instance, is how it sends up the idea of Rube Goldberg design itself. In other viral videos, like OK Go’s, the design and mechanical engineering of the machine is always teetering on the edge of catastrophe, yet it works totally smoothly. In Herscher’s version, however, the machine itself starts to break down the closer it gets to completing its own objective. In the last 30 seconds of The Page Turner, glasses are breaking sloppily and an expensive laptop computer is yanked onto the floor for no reason. It adds an unsettling edge to the otherwise delightful nonsense of it all.
And that may well be the point. Herscher tells the Times that this contraption, part of a series called Ecomachines, “will perform simple, energy-saving tasks in elaborately wasteful ways.” He continues:
“You hear that it’s good to recycle everything,” Mr. Herscher said, “and then you hear it takes more energy to recycle paper than it does to cut it down. It’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is. This is a way to express my own frustrations.”
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but as David JC Mackay writes in his book Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, “every little bit doesn’t help.” Only big, systemic changes will help. So when a giant corporation crows to high heaven about how its smaller plastic bottle caps will save the earth while still burning thousands of gallons of fuel to import spring water from another hemisphere, they’re essentially operating a system as elaborately pointless as Herscher’s. And just like Herscher’s, these systems break themselves down the more we run them. These things fall apart. Except when they do, it’s going to be a lot messier than Herscher’s apartment after he runs his page-turning machine.