MetropolisMag.com has a piece on the Architect and Technologist, Christopher Alexander. I’ve never heard of Alexander before but I certainly know about the iPod and the iPhone which are apparently tied to some implications of his work for computer programming. Something struck a chord for me in the review about the way we tend to create models and then build things based on those models, it amounts to a technological critique of our world and I think we need to take it very seriously:
… we’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making — one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships — in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially. Ours is a much more limited, fragmentary form of this larger kind of transformation. The result of this problem is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster. We know it as the sustainability crisis … What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key.
The most graphic example of this I can think of is the way we treat markets. By forgetting or modelling economies as though they exist as entities indepent from – and in many ways prior to – human societies have we allowed systems we do not fully understand to control our lives? I suspect the answer is yes. Many of my colleagues will doubtlessly answer: duh. But what then do we do? How do we undo the mess we’re in. My distaste for violent revolution stems not from a fear of consequences – I am not disuaded by arguments that violence is never an answer – but rather by the fact that the ends/means question does not seem sufficiently answered by notions of proletarian revolution. Soviet style communism was really just state capitalism. It failed to produce a humane model of governance and it failed to meet the aspirations of millions. So my question is what next? How do we theorize it without making this mistake of theorizing overly simplistic crises. How do we keep context at front of mind while developing political and social tools?