Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Trouble with Modernity

When I first started designing with LEGO Technic in the mid-1980s, I went out and bought a number of fancy tackle boxes to hold all of the different pieces. I would make something, use it for a while, and then break it down into its ABS atoms, putting each beam, brick, axle, gear, wheel, pin and plate into its own little compartment. It's a very modern impulse, to see things in terms of abstract, discrete, separable units which can be arrayed into a grid.

Later, when I was working on my PhD, Deborah Fitzgerald suggested that I read Douglas Harper's ethnography of technology Working Knowledge. It's really a great book, a study of a craftsman named Willie who runs a small shop in northern New York. When I came across this passage I had a moment of enlightenment:

For Willie "junk" cars are a storehouse of parts. It is not only the major components, such as engines and transmissions, that are valuable when a car is junked. The small parts, even brackets or fasteners, also have value far beyond their simple monetary worth. This is especially true for a mechanic like Willie who works almost exclusively on a single make of car. Twenty or thirty miscellaneous junked cars sitting outside a general mechanic's shop would be hard to use efficiently. Twenty to thirty old Saabs, however, constitute a cache of parts for a rather esoteric automobile. Saab parts are hard to find and expensive. Because the cars Willie fixes are often seven to fifteen years old, the parts needed may be obsolete or unavailable -- even just a bolt with a specific length and thread. But the part is "catalogued" on a car sitting outside, ready to be used. (pp.152,154)

Up until that moment, I had always seen car junkyards as I imagine most people see them: messy, anti-modern even. The idea that every piece of a (partially) assembled car serves as a context for understanding and finding the rest of the pieces had never occurred to me.

Twenty years on, there are more and cooler LEGO parts to hack than ever before. Now, however, I tend to keep my previous creations as long as possible, disassembling them only as necessary. Knowing what I did before helps me to remember good idioms and prevents me from reusing bad ones. Having multiple prototypes in draft also lets me combine the best ideas of the bunch, or can provide a tangible signal when it is time to try a fresh approach. It's possible that this kind of messiness even helps us to be more creative. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark describes studies that suggest that our ability to imagine or visualize things is constrained in ways that our perceptual abilities may not be. Describing our ability to understand visual forms with multiple interpretations he writes

Given the evident constraints on our ability to find new interpretations using mental imagery alone, it is not surprising that the discovery of such multiple interpretable forms turns out to depend heavily on a kind of looping process. In this looping process the artist first sketches and then perceptually, not merely imaginatively, re-encounters visual forms, which she can then inspect, tweak, and re-sketch so as to create a final product that supports a densely multilayered set of structural interpretations. The fossil trail of this process remains visible in the sequence of sketches themselves. (pp.76-77)

Fossil trail, indeed. Designing from scratch is like trying to start every evolutionary process with atoms. You get a lot more variety if you can mix and match at successive levels of complexity (for more on this, see John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary, The Major Transitions in Evolution.) The modern impulse toward analysis and organization is a powerful tool, but we can't let the aesthetic get in our way.

In Web 2.0 applications, there has been a trend toward microcontent. On the plus side, this has led to easy remixing and the wonderful variety of mashups. We have to be careful, however, to maintain and index the context in which these chunks are used and reused. One of the fundamental principles of archival practice is respect for the original order of records. In a sense, this is akin to the practice of keeping mostly whole cars in junkyards. It may not appear to be the most "logical" way of preserving information, but in the long run it may turn out to be the must useful way.

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