Pattern language is not for wicked problems, said Max Jacobson, coauthor with Christopher Alexander of the 1977 A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction. In addition, the conventional definition of an Alexandrian pattern as “a solution to a problem in context” when applied to social change might better use the term “intervention”, rather than “solution”.
These are two of the major ideas that emerged at Purplsoc 2017 conference last October. A 90-minute workshop was run in parallel with other breakouts.
For about the first hour, vocal participants included Max Jacobson (who had given a plenary talk on “A Building is not a Turkish Carpet“), Christian Kohls (who gave a plenary talk on “Patterns for Creative Space“) and Peter Baumgarnter (one of the Purlpsoc chairs).
As an impetus to discussion, we stepped through slides that had been posted on the Coevolving Commons.
For people who would like the next-best experience to being there, the slides have now been matched up with the digital audio recording, for viewing as a web video.
For devices decoupled from the Internet, downloadable video files are portable.
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The length of the conversation may encourage listeners to download an audio recording.
|[20171021_0930_Purplsoc_Ing ExploringTheContext mp3] (76MB)|
In producing the multimedia, a digest of timecodes highlights some interesting conversation points.
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[01:12 DI] Max Jacobson is here. This is actually a lot of history of science, and then extending beyond that. […]
[01:52 DI] This mornings talk was interesting, by Yodan [Rofe]. He’s focused very much on physical places. But, if you look in the mid-1990s, the software development community came in, and started working on pattern language. Then, you have a question: do things done in physical spaces apply, when you are in software development? And this conference, Purplsoc, that has social change in its title …. Does that means that what Alexander was doing is relevant to social change, or do we need to change things, and looking at things a little bit differently? […]
[08:00 Question, on slide “If they can get you asking ….] I appreciate Alexander and his colleagues’ work. One thing I’ve noticed, and even here, …. Well, we can take Takashi Iba‘s work, I spoke with him. It’s important to collect all kinds of activities and examples. He talks to people. What’s working for them? You could have a very functional solution, but it may be a dysfunctional world. So, all of these things may be working in a dysfunctional world. But then, you’re supporting a dysfunctional world. There are many good patterns for cars. Then, does the world need cars? [….]
[18:00 DI, on slide “At Berkeley …”] Max, when exactly where you at Berkeley?
[18:08 MJ] It was so long ago …. I took courses from Horst. He had just got there. So it must have been 1964. But I didn’t get out for many years later. He was wonderful, Horst. [….]
[18:20 DI, on Thor Mann’s statement] These guys [i.e. Churchman, Rittel, Alexander] are actually all together for how many years? They’re all on campus together. Of course, they all have their separate research agendas. However, for me — I’m still a grad student, I haven’t finished my Ph.D., I’m actually more interested …. Max, I find you incredibly interesting, because you were a grad student under all of these people. And so, the history of science, here, I’m interested in, is not necessarily in each of the individuals, but is there synthesis across them, so that different people that have different orientations that might approach a problem in a different way. [….]
[21:50 DI, on “Systems Generating Systems“] The book Design Patterns came out at the time that [pattern languages in] software were being developed. I spoke with Ralph Johnson in 2014, who is one of the authors, and he says it was actually a coincidence that the Hillside Group started at the same time as the Design Patterns book. The Design Patterns book was started before they [the Hillside group] started doing all of their work. The person that was actually central to starting the Hillside Group was, in fact, Richard Gabriel. The history is that Gabriel was working with Sun Microsystems. Bill Joy was interested in Christopher Alexander’s work, and, firstly, hired Gabriel to come into contact with Chris Alexander, and then afterwards, was funding Alexander in the research on The Nature of Order. So, you actually see, if you read closely, that the funding by Sun Microsystems and Bill Joy was behind The Nature of Order, otherwise, maybe he might not have had the money to complete it.
[22:50 CK]: At that time — I wasn’t there, but I from what I hear — there had been a lot of discussion about Christopher Alexander in the software community already. So even if — I think Ralph Johnson was a coauthor — didn’t read Alexander when he was writing his patterns — Ward Cunningham had read pattern language. And other people had read pattern language. And Notes on the Synthesis of Form was very important in the ideas we see now in computer science.
[23:30 DI]: I was working at IBM with John Vlissides, who was one of the Gang of Four. I was working with Ian Simmonds, and John was on Ian’s team. Ian was talking about the issues about, in effect, the issue of whether the Design Patterns book was generative or non-generative. On the c2 wiki, there is discussion by Jim Coplien. Coplien says — he actually calls [them] Gamma Patterns, which means the Design Patterns book. And he is saying that the Gamma Patterns are not generative. I can see the frustration. When you read through Richard Gabriel’s books, that’s his frustration, that he wants the pattern language to be generative, but he’s not getting the message across, in the same way that Alexander was not getting the message across.
[24:30 DI] And this is part of the issue, that “generative”, when you go into the systems theory, and you start talking biology …. There’s recent book by Schumacher that talks about autopoesis and architecture, he makes the distinction between autopoiesis and allopoiesis. [….]
[31:40 DI, on “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning…”] What do we mean by a problem. Is it a wicked problem? If it is a wicked problem, can you use pattern language or not? So, if you start off saying it’s a wicked problem …. I see Max shaking his head.
[31:50 MJ] The idea is that they are NOT wicked problems.
[32:00 MJ] Horst Rittel did not agree. [….]
[32.50 CK] You have one intervention, and then leads to a different pattern. […]
[35:40 CK] I would say it can address wicked problems with pattern language. There is a thing with having different forces that have to be balanced. There is this complexity that you have to address. Eventually. You’re not done, there are more things to do.
[36:00 DI] Forces is one of things that, when people first write patterns, they don’t do very well.
[37:50 PB] We started to show that there is a big community of people are coming from different kinds of disciplines. [….] There is some common understanding now. In the next step, we have to come more together, not to be separated by different disciplines. We’re thinking 2 years from now, what type of conference we’ll have. […..]
[47:00 MJ, on “Wicked problems led ….”] The basic understanding of patterns was that these are not wicked problems. So, you walk into a room where there’s only a window on one side of the room. It causes a problem for everybody in the same way. It doesn’t make any difference where you’re from, how old you are. Now, that could clearly be wrong. It’s important to re-emphasize that solid concept. It’s helpful. If that’s a real problem, then we’re confident that we came up with a real solution. It may have been approximate, and we asked for people to improve on that solution. Maybe we only had 50% of the solution, but we thought that we were headed towards solidity. And I think that’s helpful, because Churchman and Horst, it was always against these guys. I asked Horst to be on my [Ph.D.] committee, he said “Max, you do not want me on your committee”. He did me a great favor, by saying, you’re just asking for trouble.
[48:50 DI] Purplsoc has social change in its title. So, we’re now tweaking something that was not intended, and explicit, saying we want to solve it, and we have an entirely different view on this.
[49:00 MJ] That’s right.
[49:10 CK] When I write patterns, the core problem — like when we have sunlight on one side — is one statement, and then you have the problem of how to solve this. That may be the wicked problem.
[49:30 MJ] As a practicising architect, you have to come up with other ways. You can’t put another window here, because I’ve got rooms on both sides. So I’m going to put a skylight up here, and it will light that wall. We’re coming up with partial solutions, because we can’t do the simple one.
[50:00 Question] … not only about generative systems, but generative living systems. [….] Generating interventions that make sure the living system will generate more wholeness, or more enlightenment. And for me, that’s not a contradiction of what you are saying, in a world of architecture, and an object, and what we are doing in the world of social change.
[51:40 MJ] I agree. But I’m an architect. I deal with objects. One of the other conferences had another session. There was a discussion about how wholeness in life depended on your emotions. And I disagreed. I said no, no, no. The life in the object, is in the object. And we have to approach it, as we are. Sometimes I come, and I’m not in a pleasant mood. And I look at the object, and I say, yeah. I’m not open to it. Or other times I’m kind of over-excited, yeah, this is the most fantastic thing. But I think this thing about the life in objects, the chi in objects, stands by itself. And if I’m clear, free, open. I can see it and experience it. But it doesn’t change. So, in that sense, again, it’s not a wicked problem. It’s real. It’s reality. And we are either more or less able to see it. Now, I make this point, and I escape, very safely. I tossed in in there, and that’s what I did in The Nature of Order.
[53:30 PB] We’re thinking about society and change.
[53:35 MJ] That’s a wicked problem.
[53:40 PB] There is a possibility to improve, and find solutions.
[54:45 MJ] Of course not. It’s a completely different paradigm.
[54:50 PB] There is no answer to wicked problems. [….]
[54:20 CK] The problem here can be a simple one. [e.g. a water bottle] Keep the water here, and take it somewhere else. [….] Then, how do I shape the bottle? There are different ways. This is where the forces come in. This is where the wickedness comes in. I can identify the problem. The water gets bad. […]
[55:10 MJ] Then I did a bad job. An object can have more or less of this quality. THIS has less. But I say that, every once and a while, we find objects which are beautiful. And they have reached a certain level of wholeness. And that level is independent of my hard moods, and even our culture. Crazy idea, but that’s where we have it.
[55:50 CK] …. This one is not beautiful. You can argue why it’s not beautiful
[Lost a big part of the audience, going to another session]
[1:04:00 DI, on “Systems approach …”] Hajo Neis … actually took courses from Churchman. He’s had some of [the Design of Inquiring Systems] exposed to him, but he’s not teaching it. It’s not his focus right now. So again, you have the knowledge between the professors and the graduate students.
[1:18:20 DI, on “Ecological epistemology …”] [This] idea of interactive is new. The pattern language community — and this is where we start getting into debates — is the quality in the thing, or is the quality in the interaction? There’s a big, big difference. If you’re working in a social sense, where there’s perception, all of a sudden now you have this big issue and you’re back to assessing it. The way I handle this — and what’s in the PUARL paper from last year — is I’m all moving towards interaction, but then, when I write my patterns, my patterns are all verbs, not nouns.
— end digest —
The opportunity to get a group of deep thinkers together in a room for a conversation is rare. We didn’t conclude on a singular direction, but all gained a deeper appreciation of the personal experiences on perspectives on contexts around pattern language.