Monday, October 25, 2010

The Quality Without a Name

My last post was entitled "Bad Writing." The biggest reason for my bad writing is that while I'm online my mind is always following one link after another. Tonight I was thinking of doing a post here, on a subject dear to my heart, when I noticed that Keith Richards has a new book out. In reading some of the press about it there was an expression, "tiny todger" I was unfamiliar with. The meaning was clear from the context,I'd just never heard the term.

Google is your friend in cases like these; except that the search for "tiny todger" has occupied me for the last hour or so with one entertaining Web page after another. I was particularly taken by a piece about Oliver Reed in The Sabotage Times. I hadn't stumbled upon the publication before. Right on the masthead it says:
We Can't Concentrate So Why Should You?
Sounds like a publication for me.

Over the weekend I saw a friend who'd happened upon my recent rantings about computers. He pointed out sensibly that Apple really isn't a luxuary brand like Cadillac, rather more like Volkswagen. He's fond of both Apple and Volkswagen and he's right that if the central point is design then Volkswagen is the better comparison. I disagreed with him in person, but figure he won't see me say he's right here; alas, because I drone on and on about subjects tangential to what I intend to write about.

Ah, but one more link before I get around to the intended subject. David Schlesinger (aka "Lefty") weighed in on the Linux desktop debate from the perspective of being actively engaged in the mobile open source community. A more extended version of Schlesinger's thinking on the matter is here. From that second link:
Organizations like GNOME continue to attempt to “market” free software on the basis of its inherent freedom-enhancing qualities, which is something like trying to sell electric drills based on the color of the extension cord. Just as people don’t really care about electric drills but rather about holes, people don’t care about computer operating systems, particularly: they care about creating documents and spreadsheets, using the web, and reading their email.
Schlesinger makes some really important points well, and because I don't know how to code or program, he's in sense making my case for me. But I have to weigh his points against Douglass Rushkoff's warning:
Program or be programmed!
Here's the buy-page for the text-inclined and here's a short video. Either way you might look, Rushkoff points out:
The real question is, do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? Choose the former and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.
I'm pretty sure that "tiny todger" is completely off the topic I want to talk about, but I've got a hunch that the points Schlesinger and Rushkoff are on about are connected. I'm wondering if I can get down to making a connection?

In 1975 I was struggling in college. I was living in a house with a bunch of others and someone ripped off a book club membership that shipped four books for free as a hook. These books got passed around the house and one of the books that generated a good deal of discussion was Christopher Alexander's The Oregon Experiment. That book had a great impact on me. I was still in school so it was great that I had the opportunity to sit in the library and discover some of Alexander's earlier work. The Oregon Experiment is a book on architecture and architectural theory. In the library I discovered that Alexander had spent some time in Jerome Bruner's Learning Lab doing research.

At the time I was interested in studying Child Development and so was taking psychology courses. I suspect that every generation of young people is concerned about "relevance," and especially true of kids in the Seventies. My sense about what I was learning at university, especially in psychology, wasn't right, or at least wasn't connecting. The 27th Comrade somewhat recently pointed to a religious discussion he was participating in at another person's blog. In it he said that he was "wearing his Kierkegaard hat." The mere mention of Kierkegaard sent me reminiscing about the torment over the notions of subjectivity and objectivity I felt back in the day when I read Kierkegaard in college.

The American military withdrew finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. I was certainly not alone among other young people in hoping for ways to create a more participatory democracy. And Alexander's The Oregon Experiment filled me with a sense of possibility.

The Oregon Experiment is part of a series of books by Alexander. On the book spine are stars noting the sequence. There are three stars on The Oregon Experiment spine, two on Alexander's most well-known book A Pattern Language, which was published in 1977. There is a single star on the book spine of A Timeless Way of Building published in 1979. The quality without a name comes from A Timeless Way of Building. It's odd that the introductory book was published after the other two.
The Quality Without A Name

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
When I was in school, even before reading The Oregon Experiment, I had been introduced to Gregory Bateson's book Steps to an Ecology of Mind. That book was absolutely essential to me in thinking about an approach to psychology and academics. When I read The Oregon Experiment I was mostly thinking in terms of political possibilities.

Anyhow, I flamed out at school. I then tried to rehab a house in a very derelict area along the lines of The Integral Urban House--that book remarkably in a new edition. I was ambitious but not prepared. In any case when Alexander's book A Pattern Language came out I was working on a property and devoured the book. Also in that year Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity came out and I tried to wrap my head around its contents.

My experiment in rehabbing the house turned into a fiasco that wouldn't go away, but by late 1979 it had failed, if wasn't completely over. I started working as a delivery driver for a wholesale grocer. It was in a context of feeling an utter failure that I read The Timeless Way of Building. The quality without a name is hard to talk about because there is no name. And so seems insubstantial. Nevertheless Alexander pointing out that there was a quality that was necessary to take seriously drew together threads of ideas I'd been wrestling with towards understanding.

On one level my difficulty understanding Kierkegaard at least so far as writing college papers had to do with my religious crisis of faith. But on another level I was struggling with subjectivity and objectivity in studying psychology. The classes within the Department of Psychology were very much in the experimental psychology tradition of operant conditioning and the like. Not that I continued into the Child Development program, but was well aware of a different fork in psychology. Well, aware of other approaches across disciplines at the university too.

I flunked out of my Introductory Sociology course, and didn't take a course in Anthropology. I did however read Bronisław Malinowski for a Philosophy of Language course of all things. So I had some idea about ethnography. Even though I failed Sociology the course at least presented Emile Durkheim's positivism and contrasted Max Weber's anti-positivism.

What Gregory Bateson had given me was a way to be careful to make distinctions between problems of material creation and problems of order and differentiation. In other words I knew that qualities were important. Bateson's book Mind and Nature includes a chapter which attempts a list of criteria of mental processes. They are listed here in summary form if you scroll down about 2/3rds. I thought I had a way to think about thinking by way of Bateson.

It's almost a cliche to say of certain professions that they are both an art and a science. In one way Alexander's approach to architecture can be read as integrating separate disciplines of art and science.
In talking about A Pattern Language Alexander notes: So in this case, art is concerned with the making of it and science with the explanation of it--but there is a continuous interplay between these two because obviously to the extent that you understand more about the phenomenon--the kinds of processes which create it, and so forth, which are scientific questions--the more you are able to make of it.
I got that quote out of Stephen Grabow's book Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Grabow comments on Alexander's quote:
To him, the importance of the phenomenon of the unity of space is that it exists in a realm that is fundamental and basic to both--and that what we call art is part of it and what we call science is part of it. They are not two distinct activitites but, rather, two different ways of looking at the same thing.
Right, when I read Alexander's chapter in A Timeless Way of Building, "The Quality Without a Name" that strange idea that art and science are not "two distinct activities" dawned upon me as a Eureka moment.

In Bateson's book Mind and Nature there's a chapter "From Classification to Process." The model is elaborated on in his unfinished final work Angels Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The second book came out in the mid-1980's so I didn't have Bateson's more elaborate model when I first read A Timeless Way of Building. But I did have a way of thinking about two different ways of looking at the same thing, that is, from Bateson I had got a formal model for the unity Alexander maintains.

I realize that I've not fleshed out "the quality without a name." I have an idea in mind to do so sometime soon. For now I want to go back to the Schlesinger and Rushkoff. I think that Schlesinger is right that most people really don't care about operating systems, but I think Rushkoff is right to point out that we ought to.


The 27th Comrade said...

On marketing Open Source, I think the quote you mentioned is correct.
In fact, I find myself in the funny position where I will link to a TED Talk on this matter. That is one Simon Sinek, who inadvertently points out that what the Open Source people are doing is the wrong way to sell. It is an interesting situation, because the Open Source people are in fact powered by their beliefs, and they lead in with them (“Free software! Free as in freedom!”) but these do not resonate with the people who want (first of all) “Free as in free beer!” and also things like “This software will make you sexier!” Here is JWZ on that.

Hahaha. My CAPTCHA is “dousinge”.

John Powers said...

Yes, I want to write something a little more about Rushkoff soon. but I always get off track. Sort of responding to one of your posts at your blog in my post today.

Lefty said...

This is a very interesting and thoughtful posting. Thanks for the mention. Rushkoff is not incorrect, quite, or completely, but I'd suggest that maybe his partial correctness is an artifact of how far along that particular technological curve we've come. (Let's recall: computers only became "personal" in the mid-80s, and no matter how fast technology moves, people are still people...)

Here's the thing: back when automobiles were new, being a motorist meant being an auto mechanic, too. Automobiles were twitchy, prone to breakdowns, and anyone who was tempted to use one without knowing what he was up to was potentially taking his life in his hands. (You could break your arm with the kickback from a crank starter...)

You can plot the same course with photography. At the outset, you needed to be a chemist to do it, but it wasn't until the introduction of a simple, easy-to-use camera and a way around the complexities of developing and printing that photography had a major impact on average people.

That's sort of where we are with "computers"—I knew a Harvard professor who pointed out that if the folks who named personal computers had been doing "toasters", we'd all be calling them "energy converters".

A cell phone, for better or worse, is an appliance, and people shouldn't need to be experts in the intricacies of how their appliances work. It's a nice sort of a hobby, if you're inclined, but it should be possible to use such things, while relying on the expertise of those who do know the "innards".

This is more or less what we do with things like cars, electric drills, cameras, and the like, isn't it?

John Powers said...

Hi Lefty, I'm flattered you took time to leave such a thoughtful comment, even when it's obviously clear I'm pretty confused when it comes to most things.

And I really have to thank you for what you do. Clearly you've recognized the importance of mobile for a long time and have contributed very much to the discussion about open source software. Thanks.

I am a person who wants a drill to make holes not to fiddle with how the machine works.

But I also see great potential for devices for stuff like textbooks. I want to see the development of more open source text books and learning materials. And part of stuff like this is the need to negotiate issues like copyright and patent law. Not programming per se still a reason to care about an operating system.

I haven't followed your vocal opinions enough, and I'm not in "the club." I think you make some nuanced arguments where your nuanced stances aren't recognized, even worse the idea that nuance is important isn't acknowledged.

There are all sorts of things that aren't programming but touch on programming people think about with the Internet, like privacy, which are both technical algorithms and social norms.

I know you know that! If I understand you correctly you want a space for people like me--using an open source operating system and open source software--to be able to talk about how we use the software without being programmers or part of "the club." But it's a tough argument to make both to no-nothings like me and to those committed to the discipline of programming.

Botched this comment. Even from the outside it's plain you're pro-freedom (as in speech) and pragmatic about it. Cheers!