Anthony Judge – Laetus in Praesens

Eliciting Psychosocial Transformational Principles from Design


Christopher Alexander has produced a remarkable 4-volume synthesis (The Nature of Order: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe, 2003-4). In its focus on material design, "human nature" is subtly and curiously excluded — as with the current challenges of designing psychosocial systems and the strategies of global governance. The work is the culmination of decades of reflection on design, and the appreciation of the subtle quality which makes a good place to be — notably giving rise to A Pattern Language (1977). The new synthesis explicitly offers a powerful methodology for eliciting beauty as a driver of the emergence of increasing wholeness. This has been carefully integrated with the science of complexity theory. His work has long been appreciated in the world of programming and systems design where he is best known to computer scientists and software engineers, inspiring a classic by Eric Gamma, et al. (Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, 1994). His new methodology has recently been taken up by the military with respect to command and control systems (David P. Harvie, Knowledge Sharing Mechanism: enabling C2 to adapt to changing environments, 2007).

The following exploration arises from a degree of frustration at the apparent lack of appreciation of the relevance of his methodology to psychosocial system challenges and to "social architecture" — beyond sensitive development of community neighbourhoods and "social housing". This frustration first took the form of an experimental adaptation of the many patterns in Alexander’s 1977 study to the psychosocial realm (5-fold Pattern Language, 1984), subsequently published in the various editions of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

Given the insights he has derived from carpet design, his new methodology, and the military uptake thereof, were a focus of an earlier commentary (Magic Carpets as Psychoactive System Diagrams, 2010). This articulated the concern regarding the subtle exclusion of "human nature", concluding that: Alexander might be said to be interested in the "packaging" of humans rather than the content so beautifully "packaged". This might be caricatured as a design focus on "clothing" in the sense of the adage dating back to classical Greece: clothes maketh the man. However true this may be, it remains a fact that civilization has proven itself unable to deliver adequate "clothing" (notably in the form of shelter) to an exploding population with many other needs. Despite a degree of explicit concern with "subjectivity", notably a concern with addressing the question of human feeling in design, it remains a fact that his approach has proven of greatest relevance to "object-oriented" programming (Doug Lea, Christopher Alexander: an introduction for object-oriented designers 1994).

The following effort to elicit insights, of wider relevance than Alexander’s understanding of "the universe", arises from a concern at the inadequacy of the design insights applied to "human nature" and global governance — as is only too evident from the emerging "crisis of crises". Arguably there is an urgency to develop appropriate "new thinking" to enable civilization to navigate and embody the adaptive cycle as highlighted by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006). However there is also a concern at the propensity to formulaic thinking in the quest for singular metrics (Uncritical Strategic Dependence on Little-known Metrics: the Gaussian Copula, the Kaya Identity, and what else? 2009). Unfortunately, seemingly implied in Alexander’s current quest for a computational approach to "wholeness-extending" design is just such a singular metric (Harmony‐Seeking Computations: a science of non‐classical dynamics based on the progressive evolution of the larger whole, International Journal for Unconventional Computing (IJUC), 2009). Significantly he concludes that paper with the statement:

I hope the idea of harmony-seeking computation may then sit alongside other methods as a new tool in an armory of well-founded computational techniques to be used when appropriate. It is likely to be appropriate whenever a computational task is defined more by issues of adaptation, health, wholeness, and wellness, with reference to the position some system in some still larger whole, or perhaps even by a desire for beauty, or life, or elegance. All these might one day play a key role in very general kinds of computation. Science, architecture, biology, ecology, physics, cosmology – and computation – may all be the better for it.

The approach taken here does not presume to be definitive in any way nor to anticipate the results of Alexander’s own current development of his methodology. It is explicitly designed to "jump start" reflection on the psychosocial implications of Alexander’s remarkable synthesis by highlighting pointers to further possibilities — which are unlikely to be included in the development by his team (as indicated by the sciences identified in the above conclusion). The focus here is on Alexander’s papers commenting subsequently methodological issues of his synthesis and not on his articulation of that synthesis in The Nature of Order.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Feb 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: HARMONY-COMPREHENSION AND WHOLENESS-ENGENDERING, is included. Thank you.

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