This is the first in a series of reading notes I’m posting as I work through a stack of texts on community and sociability. I posted an intro to this series yesterday. You don’t need to read the intro to read this, but if you’re unfamiliar with either Christopher Alexander or adrienne maree brown, you might want to glance over it because I’m going to dive straight in. (The other most useful piece of context is probably that I’m a medium-old internet nerd with an academic background in English lit and a bunch of strong interests in other humanities zones.)
In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander laid out much of the theory behind the work he anatomized in A Pattern Language, which was published two years earlier.
In Timeless Way, Alexander writes that:
…each law or pattern is itself a pattern of relationships among still other laws, which are themselves just patterns of relationships again.
For though each pattern is itself apparently composed of smaller things which look like parts, of course, when we look closely at them, we see that these apparent “parts” are patterns too.
Consider, for example, the pattern we call a door. This pattern is a relationship among the frame, the hinges, and the door itself: and these parts in turn are made of smaller parts: the frame is made of uprights, a crosspiece, and cover mouldings over joints; the door is made of uprights, crosspieces and panels; the hinge is made of leaves and a pin. Yet any one of these things we call its “parts” are themselves in fact also patterns, each one of which may take an almost infinite variety of shapes, and color and exact size—without once losing the essential field of relationships which make it what it is.
The patterns are not just patterns of relationships, but patterns of relationships among other smaller patterns, which themselves have still other patterns hooking them together—and we see finally, that the world is entirely made of all these interhooking, interlocking nonmaterial patterns. (p. 90-91)
This is very 1970s! But also, I think, extremely right and useful: It gets us looking up and down the scale, watching for the way things interlock, or fail to interlock. This, in turn, leads us into the process-centric approach to architecture that Alexander promoted in his later career, when he judged that the pattern-based system he’d been teaching wasn’t actually producing great buildings out in the world.
The Nature of Order, Alexander’s four-volume grand unified theory, comes in at a bit more than 2,000 pages, and although I love it, I’m not going to try to summarize it. Instead, I want to glancingly look at what Alexander calls, near the end of his career, “The Fundamental Differentiating Process.” I will horrifically oversimplify this process as:
- Make a thing (or fix a thing that’s weak) by applying one of a series of 15 transformations designed to differentiate and strengthen both the part and the broader whole,
- run up and down and across the system looking for trouble,
- adjust as needed,
It’s systems design, obviously—and algorithmic, as Dorian Taylor notes—but Alexander’s mode is specifically tied to his sense of the revelation and strengthening of a latent order that unfolds, as in the natural world. Hold onto that thought for a second.
Both in his early focus on patterns and especially in his later emphasis on the 15 transformations, Alexander was working with ideas of bringing latent wholeness and aliveness and goodness into full being by working at every scale at once. I’ve loved this from the moment I first read it.
I especially love this orientation for community/sociability work because it boosts up a sense of each individual piece of the work as both a sub- and a super-pattern, vibrating with potential to help or harm. This is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, which is probably the right way to feel about community work.
unfolding, emergence, life
To carry on with ruthless oversimplifications, I think the central orientation in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy is one of opportunistic, flexible, relationship-centered, low-ego interaction that both accepts and influences the unstoppable force of change. It takes Octavia Butler’s Earthseed principles, biomimicry, and a trunkful of other interesting things as a springboard into ways of being in the world that, in brown’s view, allow us to use simple ways of interacting with each other to build toward beautiful complexity.
How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale. (Emergent Strategy, p 52)
brown calls this guiding principle fractal. She writes, “In the framework of emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. Existence is fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.” (p 13)
And here’s how she talks about the way bad patterns of work and behavior refract and replicate across even organizations trying to do good work:
So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the water we’re swimming in. But it creates patterns. Some of the patterns I’ve seen that start small and then become movement wide are:
- Burn out. Overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations.
- Organizational and movement splitting.
- Personal drama disrupting movements.
- Mission drift, specifically in the direction of money.
- Stagnation—an inability to make decisions.
[…] And this may be the most imporant element to understand—that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. (p 52-53, emphasis brown’s.)
This rings a full peal for me—on the negative-pattern side, because we’ve all seen organizations suffer from bad behavioral patterns that ripple outward. But more directly, on the positive side, because I have recent and kinda life-changing experience with the way focusing on the little squishy soft stuff changes everything.
treating the small scale as the big thing
Both at the COVID Tracking Project and before that, with the SRCCON conference series I worked on at OpenNews, we tried really hard to get the small scale right. In both cases, we did it because it seemed like the right thing to do—and for CTP, where we were trying to cobble together a national pandemic dataset using only our own hands and brains and those of several hundred remote volunteers, the only thing to do. We didn’t do it anywhere near perfectly in either organization, but we really sweated the human details—not in a luxury amenities or benefits package way, but in recognition of the shared human experiences of being embodied and tired and stressed out.
At SRCCON (a series of live conferences for technology, design, and data folks in newsrooms) that meant things like spacious schedules, genuinely good food, free or low-cost on-site childcare, live human captioning, venues with natural light, scholarships, a code of conduct backed by a safety team and plan, and a lot of other things.
At CTP, getting the small scale right meant welcoming, relationship-based training and orientation, steady encouragement to take time away from the work, and a high-fun/high-camaraderie internal community on Slack to help us all grind through months of wrenching, exacting work.
In particular, we tried to build non-punitive, structural safeguards around the human experience of making mistakes—because it let us assemble the best dataset we could, but also for the well-being of the people doing the work. And our decision to give our people explicit forgiveness and support when they screwed up turned into an essential part of the project’s macro culture; I think our insistence on individual grace, transparency, and quick, careful correction is a big part of what let us run a two-week crisis project for a full year. (There were extremely not-fun things, too, like asking even really helpful people whose working orientations went against the project’s emergent culture to step back or all the way out.)
At both CTP and SRCCON, our work on small-scale interactions seemed to help people inside the big systems work together with not just professionalism or civility but real charity and camaraderie to an extent that I found both consistently surprising and legitimately inspiring. And I’m wildly biased—I think the SRCCON folks were largely an exceptionally great subset of journalism and that our long-term volunteers at CTP were some of the best people anywhere—but I also think that handling a lot of small-scale things with unfeigned care and respect let most of them be at their best even in difficult circumstances.
where I got with these readings
Social platforms and communities and sub-community interactions online are a messy combination of pseudo-place and repeating event, and this can make them difficult to think about clearly. I’m finding it useful to spend time wrangling with the way interpersonal patterns and physical/architectural patterns self-replicate and buzz and either reinforce or dampen each other. Alexander and brown’s adjacent senses of pattern and replicating order have been simultaneously clarifying and complicating for me, in ways that feel fruitful for longer-term work.
next time: space, rituals, patterns
Next post up unless I get distracted again: patterns and events as standing waves, taking as a jumping-off point Alexander’s understanding of repetition:
Of course, the pattern of space, does not “cause” the pattern of events.
Neither does the pattern of events “cause” the pattern in the space. The total pattern, space and events together, is an element of people’s culture. It is invented by culture, transmitted by culture, and merely anchored in space.
But there is a fundamental inner connection between each pattern of events, and the pattern of space in which it happens. (Timeless Way, p. 92, emphasis Alexander’s)
And probably a lot about ghosts.
Oh and btw, if it looks like I’m poorly rehearsing a fundamental text from your particular field, it’s probably because I haven’t read it and you should send it to me so I can be smarter.