Monday, September 17, 2007

The Importance of Infrastructure

The architect Christopher Alexander is well-known for having developed the idea of patterns, each of which "describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice." The idea was enthusiastically adopted by software engineers and is now found in various forms throughout the digital realm. One very interesting manifestation is the recent report by Thorsten Haas, Lars Weiler and Jens Ohlig on design patterns for "Building a Hacker Space."

This report is required reading for anyone who is interested in the transformative or disruptive potential of new technologies in academia. It describes ways of creating and sustaining spaces for people to hack in, by providing a series of problems and solutions. For example, "You have a chicken-and-egg problem: What should come first? Infrastructure or projects?" They suggest that you "Make everything infrastructure-driven. Rooms, power, servers, connectivity, and other facilities come first. Once you have that, people will come up with the most amazing projects you didn't think about in the first place."

This pattern fits in well with work in cognitive science that suggests that human reasoning and memory crucially depend on richly structured environments that are full of tools (e.g., Hutchins, Clark). In my own research, I've found that modest environmental changes can have significant effects that I couldn't have anticipated. When I was working in linguistic theory, for example, I had a chance to move into a new office where I installed a wall of whiteboards. Being able to see a lot of diagrams spread out in front of me changed my understanding of the material, making it much more visual, and suggested different research questions. When I was studying for my comprehensive exams, I splurged and bought an expensive ergonomic chair. Up to that point, I had always thought I was a fidgety person (too much coffee and Coca Cola), but now I could sit still and read for 8 or 9 hours at a time. I've recently had a chance to set up a study with my workbench directly behind my desk. Now I can rotate my chair 180 degrees and there is the soldering station, Dremel, multi-meter, audio equipment, Phidgets, bins of components, and so on. Having tools and supplies ready-to-hand makes it easier for me to imagine hacks that involve a hardware component.

Tools cost money, however, and most grants are resolutely project-driven and fenced in by disciplinary boundaries. In retrospect it is clear to me how whiteboards might make someone a better linguist, or a good chair a better student. I'm finding that a modest electronics lab is giving me a better understanding of the role of acoustics in history. It's hard to imagine convincing a granting agency of these things. Grants tend to be short-term and result-oriented. If you don't know what the benefit will be, or can't relate a particular piece of equipment to a particular result it is hard to make a convincing case for spending the money.

But some people get it. A few months ago I heard a poignant story from a Canadian researcher. He requested a lab that was tailored to his work, and ended up with an unsuitable boxy linoleum-floored room with computers facing four walls around the outside perimeter. He doesn't like the space and neither do his students. To make matters worse, a visiting researcher from Sweden showed them pictures of his lab, which looked like something from a design magazine. "That looks like a wonderful space," my friend said wistfully, "I wouldn't mind just hanging out there." "Yes," the visitor replied, "people come to hang out and end up working." Many of my colleagues treat Starbucks or other cafes as workplaces, finding them much more salubrious than their alloted space.

In Electric Sound, Joel Chadabe describes the London digs of an early 1980s synthesizer company. "Opening a single large wooden door ... one entered a large foyer, bare except for beautiful paintings, Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture, and a wooden table off to one side behind which sat a receptionist. There were demonstration areas upstairs ('by appointment only, of course'), and there was a large cafe downstairs, with resident cook and waiter, for staff and customers. In an adjacent building, there was a garage to which selected customers were given automatic door openers so they could privately park their cars." 'We didn't always make corporately sensible decisions,' one of the owners told Chadabe, 'but had we been accountants we wouldn't have done it at all. You could buy innovative cutting edge technology in a private, comfortable environment. It was the sort of environment that we wanted to work in, so the natural assumption was that if we wanted to work there customers would want to come there. And they did. It was immensely successful.'

It's a pattern you can see over and over in the histories of science, technology, and the arts: the right infrastructure attracts the right people and then something really cool happens. But it isn't possible to predict in more detail than that.

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