This is an excerpt from my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." In this section I pose the question of design flaws in "perfectly designed" systems like the great ancient tank irrigation network of Sri Lanka. What are the impulses that lead to design, what is design, and what are the unintended consequences of design?
I also take a look at pre- and post-literate message making and start to tie this into the question of design and history.
Was it a design flaw?
Was it a design flaw? This was a question he asked himself, maybe hundreds of times, considering this problem. Considering the unintended consequences of a problem vast x vast = vast squared. Appropriate because this was in part a problem of geography, area, space. But the ramifications and side issues and qualities and dimensions and wonderment of this problem (and the project he had chosen) went way beyond the two dimensions of a perch or hectare or acre or even a country the size of West Virginia. Some say "teardrop" and some say "pearl." He thought, design. Maybe it was the way his own brain was designed. To look so closely but to miss so much. To respond to the vast by looking at its cracks. To turn nice things not so nice? And to tweet them.
Design seemed to be in the precincts most high, shared across disciplines from furniture to software. Design could be bundled. It could bundle. It was remote and it was intimate. Design inhabited a cloud of ideal and ideals. Maybe that shoulda been a red flag. Ideal and ideals. But. Looking as in a scale or a fulcrum think of the failed disciplines, practices so narrow they painted themselves in a corner. Refused to collaborate or, talking some abstruse talk, insisted upon their own so-called collaborative, interdisciplinary nature (lies) while digging themselves deeper into a tunnel of self-referential, self-reverential nowhereness, fighting for their plot, dividing and subdividing and flying high and taking to the bank so to speak specialization, canalization of thought, growing irrelevance, burgeoning irrelevance, tidiness and tradition or ambiguity and post-modernism. Fantasy studies were supposed to predict the future. And their brand of logic performed a self-fulfilling role for them that proved wildly successful. Almost a religion. Its priestesses cloaked in fabulous, fantasist raiment that blinded oncomers and intoxicated newcomers.
All the while Academia, self in-feeding on its own bellybutton of self-proffered information and communal infighting. Some of the topics? Archeology. Art history. Botany. Chicano Studies. Developmental Analysis. Ecology. Economics. English. Environment. French. Geography. History. Yes. All the way to and through Zoology. Is that enough? Do you have some to add? Do you disagree?
But the design was ancient. Very ancient. And that's what he was here to study. Here to study with Sri Lankan colleagues. Here to discover with eager students and their devoted profs, instructors whose main wish was to expand their students' horizons. Naïveté being the coin-of-his-realm or was it a design flaw in his personality wait! We're not talking about human design here we're talking about design of the curriculum, design of the landscape, design of man-made lakes in rural Sri Lanka! Task. Stay on task!
Naiveté. He never suspected his colleagues would be preoccupied with batches of students who had to get through so much curriculum. Like so many biscuits in the oven or loaves rising, doughy. Like fungal mycelia making their way through a substratum or worms working their way through a matrix or water buffalo in Hambantota wading their way through a swamp, munching on greens, their gut bacteria processing the whole mess. Or is it batch? Them (the gut bacteria) giving off methane and carbon dioxide, the buffalo excreting milk, the milk fermenting (so many bacteria!), and people eating the curd. Such a balm for their abused gut bacteria.
Don't forget the clay pots the curd sets in. These are made from the finest clay of the earth dug from silt deposits in the tanks, one of the finest if not the finest irrigative design man had ever known. And it was this irrigation system he had come to look at.
As it unraveled, as he visited a handful, tens, dozens, maybe 100 maybe 200 of these "tanks," (such a tiny sliver, such an unreliable "x" of the 30,000 lanes there were to see). The landscape of puzzle of seens and unseens, sensed and insensible and scents and ascents and he saw them now and as he went along, gawd! never in a straight line, always as curved at least as the trunk of a coconut palm, but didn't that curve add strength? in new and different perspectives. Each tank had its own perspective. Its own curves and aromas and directions and spillways and dikess and forest and aspect and sluices and mud. Tank was such a military term. But the Portuguese cartographers labeled them this way, on maps with elephants and wild trees. The interior, unknown to them with its thousands of magnificent lakes, was painted as a fantasy. They designed their maps to show a fantasy. The fantasy was a truism for the future but the military sounding word "tanks" had a past that was unsuspected and undetected.
Fast past to the Kelaniya temple and its gorgeous frescoes of Solias Mendis. Those Yakas running in fear of The Lord Buddha serene and untouched. Scattering them obliterating their dastardly practices taking a home in the forest among them claiming a home in the forest among them. What story did this tell? Blessedly blissfully free of knowledge he could, like any illiterate peasant, bring to the present the Life of the Buddha by walking through the image rooms of the island. Awesome. Like cathedrals of Europe these told stories of faith to the preliterate. Could have been designed for the postliterate because their message crossed boundaries of language and even culture. A thousand words and all that.