Small, Mobile, Self Contained

4 December, 2019

There are times when something we read has a profound impact and influence on us. For me, that came with a magazine article I read in 1979. That article was an interview with guitarist Robert Fripp, best known as a founder and the long-time leader of the band King Crimson. The magazine, a long-defunct publication called Future Life.

Even if you’re of my generation, chances are you haven’t heard of Future Life — it was overshadowed by other, similar magazine from that time including its sister publication Starlog and Omni. The best way to describe Future Life is as speculative or futurist. It looked at current trends in science and futurism, and pondered what could be. The magazine also included interviews with forward-thinking individuals from a variety of areas and disciplines.

The interview with Fripp was in issue 14, cover dated November, 1979. In that interview, Fripp used the metaphor of the dinosaur versus the gazelle to contrast traditional, monolithic systems and smaller, more agile and self sufficient ones. The latter, Fripp dubbed small, mobile, self-contained units. Fripp contrasted traditional systems and hierarchies that move slowly and take too long to react with smaller, more compact systems that can easily adapt to sudden changes.

As you can tell, that idea of small, mobile, and self contained struck a chord in my 12-year-old brain. Thirty-six years on, that phrase and the concept behind it still does.

If you’re in software development, you’ll probably recognize small, mobile, and self contained is similar to the idea behind Agile (at least before that became something of a cult). But it goes beyond merely writing and releasing code. It’s a way of organizing communities, governments, and societies. It’s a way of leaving a small footprint, of reducing your use of resources, of building something sustainable. In case you’re wondering, Fripp did put this philosophy into practice, with some degree of success, with his band The League of Gentlemen and with the 1981-1984 incarnation of King Crimson.

Even as a pre teen I recognized, though I didn’t quite understand, the problems with existing political and social and corporate systems. The idea of breaking society down into small, mobile, self contained units appealed to me. Maybe it’s a utopian idea. We need more ideas like that, and the cynics be damned.

Try to imagine a world made up of small, mobile, self-contained units. Units which quickly adapt to change, which can quickly find solutions to problems, which can temporarily (or longer) come together to form a larger, stronger, more adaptive community.

That world would be an interesting place, indeed. A better place? I’d hope so.

Scott Nesbitt