When you think back to your childhood, no matter how luxurious, dilapidated, or war-torn that childhood might have been, I’m guessing that like me, you had some particular places that you loved. Perhaps they stayed secret to you; perhaps you shared only with one or two chums. Somehow, those specific places held a kind of magic for you as they did for me. I will just point out a few examples from my own childhood.
Grandpa’s basement, for instance, though dark and dank, held a printing press made of cast iron. Although he cautioned me not to play with it because, he insisted, it was not a plaything but an important tool, I nonetheless found opportunity to move the gigantic heavy four handled wheel, having first carefully noted the exact position in order to return it just as I had found it. In some way beyond my comprehension as a child, I knew this press was something magical. It was, after all, involved in printing. I recall years later seeing a picture of Benjamin Franklin with just such a printing press. And, even as a very young child, I knew that printing held great power. Beyond that, the object itself loomed and commandeered that entire corner of the basement. I knew it was heavy beyond imagining, and not just in the epistemological sense. I could judge the weight of the entire machine from how hard it was to turn the wheel which, though heavy, comprised only a small fraction of the entire press. Cast iron also has this magical texture which seems to inhale light out of the surrounding region like a giant beast. Perhaps best of all, and what appealed to the engineer in me, the machine’s form and function flowed beautifully together. Compare that with a modern automobile, for instance. What it actually does is largely hidden in the design. This goes along with branding, and advertising, and customer loyalty and so on. A modern car does not typically marry form and function nearly so nicely as did that printing press.
On the “side yard” of our house on North Firestone Boulevard, three tulips shot up every spring, so colorful and perfect, not to mention mysterious. Where did they come from every year? How could this rounded plant of petals have a three pointed star inside!? On more than one occasion, I caught sight of a butterfly feasting on the pollen within. This place was cool patly just because adults always seemed hell-bent on the next task or chore. So, while this tiny patch of ground technically belonged to the whole family, in fact, I’m the only one who enjoyed it for more than a casual glance. I smelled and touched and explored every vein in that tulip. I watched butterflies do their drunken dance and tried (and largely failed) to predict when and where they would next alight.
At David Hill Elementary School, the sandstone retaining wall provided another special place. With a lot of work, kids like me could turn sandstone into sand. And we did. With work, we even made tunnels. At one point, we stuffed a grasshopper into a tunnel, covered the entrance, and watched for him until he eventually hopped out ten feet away! For a long time, none of the adults seemed to pay much attention to the fact that we were slowly but quite assuredly destroying the retaining wall which kept our school and its landscaping from falling into the playground below. Sadly, at some point, the gravely voice of the principal, which always seemed to be enveloped in the black death robes of a priest at a funeral, informed us that we were now forbidden to play in or on the wall.
When we moved to Ellet, these special places disappeared from consideration but were immediately replaced by a much grander array of them. Right behind our house lay a forest! That forest sported a spring of fresh water coming right out of the ground, two gigantic elm trees wrapped in thick hair cables of poison ivy vines, an oak with a swinging grape vine and a creek. Eventually, I came to know the special places of the creek where you could put in bark “boats” and have the longest races ad the places where you could cross with the least chance slipping on a loose stepping stone and dousing your entire body. Depending on the temperature, that might or might not be all that uncomfortable, but it would inevitably be followed by something that was definitely uncomfortable — being punished by your parents for getting your clothes all wet. Now, it must be said, that when I had done this terrible deed of getting my clothes all wet, the first thing they did with those clothes was to put them in the washer where, yes, they would get wet. Hmm. Part of what makes these some of these special places special is that they radiate event streams outward into your lives. And, the feeling or inspiration or information or decisions that come from these special places need not be confined there. We draw comfort from them, even if we know we will never visit them again.
We all know that some places “feel right” – there is something about them that seems mysterious, beautiful, awe-insipring, calming, or exotic. But what makes a place “good” or “special”? Partly it is individual experience, no doubt, but partly it is the environment itself. So what is it about form and texture and organization that makes a place special? That is an interesting question that seems to have intrigued Christopher Alexander as well. Alexander and a team of collaborators looked at places that “worked” from around the world. The result was a book called “A Pattern Language.” They formalized, to a large extent, intuitions of what makes a place “special”; what makes it “work.”
Each actual pattern is pretty elaborate, but I can give a few examples to illustrate the point. One of the Patterns is called “European Pub” which has activity around the edges and large tables. This helps people socialize. The activity around the edges gives people an excuse to circumnavigate the room. The large tables mean that there is room for “legitimate peripheral participation.” If I’m new in town, I can sit somewhat away from everyone but still within earshot. When someone says something I can relate to, I jump into the conversation. This arrangement is much more conducive to socialization than many American bars which feature stools all facing a TV. This does not encourage interaction.
Another Pattern points out that a small town near a big city should put its “center” placed eccentrically toward the city. This makes it more convenient for a larger number of commuters to stop at local stores on their way to the city and back.
These are both gross over-simplifications of the actual patterns, but I think they convey something of what is being aimed at. There is a belief that these patterns would generally “work” in any religious, cultural, geographic, or political context. These patterns are really meant to focus on the invariants across a large number of details. In that way, they make design problem solving more effective. You will be less likely, so goes the claim, to be exploring parts of the design space that are far removed from optimal if you think about things in terms of these patterns.
A “Pattern Language” purports to take a useful middle ground. The patterns are abstract enough to be widely useful but narrow enough not to be meaningless. A “Pattern” is the named solution to a recurring problem. A “Pattern Language” is a lattice or web of Patterns that largely covers a field. Christopher Alexander coined the term after he and his colleagues went around the world to see what “worked” in terms of city planning, house design, building design, neighborhood design, the building process and so on. I think nearly everyone will find “A Pattern Language” a fascinating book.
The impact of A Pattern Language, however, extends far beyond architecture and urban planning. People have found the concept of a “Pattern Language” useful in many other domains. Perhaps the best known such domain is in Object-Oriented Programming with the so-called “Gang of Four” authoring many of the original books on the subject. Other domains which have been addressed with “A Pattern Language” include pedagogy, human-computer interaction, change management, e-business, sustainability, and how society might evolve.
I became interested in Pattern Languages at least 20 years ago and have since co-organized and co-led a number of workshops on patterns in “Computer Human Interaction” as well as “Socio-technical Patterns” including working on patterns for “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution” and chapter 19 in John Carroll’s book on design rationale, “Patterns for Emergent Global Intelligence.”
In 2017, I recounted in this blog childhood memories and how they relate to what is happening in today’s world. To summarize briefly, we have great opportunities as a species but we are also in a train wreck of trouble! We seem trapped in a nightmare of a comic farce, but one which has tragic consequences of potentially epic proportions; e.g., atomic war or having the USA walk away from the Paris accords on climate change. Is anything to be done?
What I want to accomplish in the first half of 2018 is to generate interest in the beginnings of a socio-technical “Pattern Language” that can help us get back on track again. I’ll post some of the ones I know about, but I’d be very interested to work with people on other suggestions. In most cases, even when I post patterns it will be the case that I did not “invent” the patterns from first principles or construct them myself. In the same way that Christopher Alexander and his team main observed what worked and only then attempted to codify generic best practices into a “Pattern Language,” I also found many of these from observation or reading other sources or both. For example, the patterns, “Who Speaks for Wolf?” and “The Iroquois Rule of Six” are not by any means my inventions. I learned about them from the works of Paula Underwood. She was the “designated storyteller” of her branch of the Iroquois and provided an English transcription of the oral history of that branch in The Walking People. Indeed, I have argued that the “Walking People” basically developed a kind of pattern language in their oral history.
A Pattern Language is a difficult business. For maximum utility, each pattern has considerable thought behind it and is written into a specific form. In fact, at one CHI workshop, we developed an XML specification for patterns in Human Computer Interaction called (Pattern Language Markup Language) PLML (pronounced “pell mell”). I will not be quite this formal with the form of my patterns but will adhere as closely to it as practical. I do think that the form of the Patterns within a Pattern Language is important. Each of the parts serves a purpose and it is handy to know what role each part plays. For example, each Pattern has at least these parts: A Title, (possibly subtitled), synonyms, a Version history, one or more Authors, an Abstract, a statement of the problem, a statement of the context in which the problem and solution arise and are appropriate, an analysis of the “Forces” at play, the Solution, Examples, the Resulting Context, Known Uses, Related Patterns, and References. For many people, having such a complex structure seems to be too much “baggage” but we must remember that design problems are themselves inherently complex. In addition to textual elements, the Patterns of Christopher Alexander include both photographic images to “set the mood” and, typically, at least one diagram to illustrate the general nature of the pattern.
The domain I am most interested in developing a Pattern Language for is perhaps most often labelled as a “Socio-technical Pattern Language.” These would be a collection of patterns that would help people cooperate, collaborate and solve problems together. Although the fabric and texture, perhaps even the scent, of endeavors would depend on culture, the field, current events and a host of other factors; however, the form of these solutions to recurring problems would remain roughly constant.
Next up: An Example. “Who Speaks for Wolf?”