I enjoyed reading this article by Greg Bryant abou...
# linking-together
I enjoyed reading this article by Greg Bryant about Christopher Alexander’s connection to the software industry. Don’t read this for the application “Gatemaker”. Read this for a fascinating outsider’s view on the software industry, systems design, and end-user programming. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite (and/or get you upset enough) to embrace the rather long read (highlights mine):
The focus of the subsequent Software Patterns movement remained within the formal sciences, and so could not interpret CA’s work in the natural and human sciences: the application of human judgment using feeling, the smooth unfolding of natural geometry, and the task of helping people (programmers or users) to become more whole and alive. The criteria for ‘good’ were so different, that everything was misconstrued, from ‘pattern’ to ‘incremental’. Again, they aren’t to blame: this focus on abstraction, and the dismissal of feeling, and the reality beyond constructed formal systems, is endemic in the computer industry. Today, Software Patterns proponents, like most successful computer people, are not even interested in this cavernous disparity.
Interchangeable parts make an adaptive natural structure impossible. Programming environments, including those inspired by patterns, push this ‘parts’ view, which hampers sensitivity and true novelty. It’s the worldview of the factory-builder, and these tools for mass-production logistics have little regard for people.
_*When underlying code is considered different, and more important, the tendency is simply to trash hard-won efforts to improve the user’s experience.* This happens all the time in the industry, and Google is among those pushing the lunatic idea that we may not need people to create user interfaces.
This is a complete divergence from CA’s work, where the underlying structure is in harmony with human interaction. Computing is not ‘somehow different’. It is still a human tool recruited for human purposes, and the principles still apply._
_But it was hard to get computing folk to focus on the actual human effect of the program. In fact, they saw it, experienced it, momentarily agreed that it was surprising, but soon forgot it.
To be fair, they simply weren’t equipped to discuss what we’d accomplished. They were not natural scientists, nor activists. *They shared ‘pragmatic’ and fashionable industry viewpoints that make it nearly impossible for anyone to discover anything new or important about people & computers*_
The software patterns literature has no such research initiative. Instead, they focus on objects, properties, types, lists, titles and categories. It looks like butterfly collecting, with no drive to build a theory with explanatory adequacy. It’s Natural History instead of Natural Science.
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This is a slightly less relevant but nonetheless interesting observation from the same article:
_Fractals are such a poor idealization of the real world.
In nature, factors and interrelationships typically change at different scales. You can’t find a Mandelbrot set in nature. L-Systems cannot be considered first-order approximations of trees. They tell us more about our perception than about trees._
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And, let’s get this out of the way: I also find the UI of Gatemaker horrendous. I do appreciate the cognitive dissonance that reading about it creates in me though. And I can definitely see some of the behavior criticized in our industry, right here in this forum, and sometimes even in myself.
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Thanks for this! I hadn't heard of Greg Bryant – his work is real interesting. Relatedly: Here's a vignette from The Timeless Way of Building that's stuck with me, on the failure of interchangeable parts to create harmonious wholes.
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I'm halfway through. So far there's a strong resonance with http://akkartik.name/naur.pdf The passage that leaps out at me is:
One of the overall design principles that emerged, in complete contrast with most computing: “don't let the computer leap to conclusions” and change the screen. We grew increasingly skeptical of any automatic behavior, any perceptible ‘leap' taken by the software, because it disrupted the mood necessary for harmonious work. The screen should be super stable, comfortable, reliable and quiet. It shouldn't even seem to be there. Even word processors don't have this level of gentle stability. We didn't even let the application window change size, because this seriously changes the geometry of the work. The fact that this does effect people should give pause to designers of showy, kinetic, “entertaining”, and distracting, user interfaces.
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The pain of culture clash: not speaking remotely similar languages.
Nitpicking: the criticism of fractals is a bit superficial. People working with fractals in science are well aware that a fractal is a mathematical idealization just like the infinitely small point of geometry. They do discuss the upper and lower limits of scaling behavior. Fractals remain a useful concept in spite of their limits. For examples, see Geoffrey West's book "Scale".
@Konrad Hinsen Sounds like you didn’t come across the next paragraph in the article then. :-)
Worse, I commented your excerpt before reading the whole article...