Patterns, Prophets & Priests

I’ve been working on communication and community online for a couple of decades, but the past few years have shaken up my understanding of what we’re really doing here. So I’m trying to think in a focused way about how we work and hang out together online and because I’m me, I’ve collected a working library of about 300 articles and papers and 30ish books to get through, most of them fairly technical. Here at the start, though, I’m circling around a set of books that I’m thinking of as framework-level—not all theory, but abstracted out a couple steps from the down-in-it reading about experiments in community and sociability.

One of the clusters of framework texts I’m working with is the series of books by Christopher Alexander and his rotating crew of collaborators in and around the Center for Environmental Structure. These books have been touchstones for me for the past nearly twenty years, and giving myself a little time to loop back through them with my time-altered brain has felt both restorative and important. Right now I’m wrapping up a proper reread of Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and finding a bunch of connections to another framework text I’m working through, Octavia Butler scholar, facilitator, and doula adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy.

I’m going to post a short(??) series here on those connections, but there’s some stuff I need to get out of my brain first, so this is that.

prophets and priests

I like reading Alexander and brown together in part because they’re so divergent in tone and form. I wrote around this contrast for days, but I think Henry Farrell’s essay this morning on tech-company founders as prophets in the Weberian sense of prophet vs. priest handed me exactly the distinction I’d been flailing around for. (Do read the Crooked Timber post, it’s great—and this, too, for a 15-second orientation.)

Reading Emergent Strategy is a dramatically different experience from working through the Alexander books: brown’s book is brief and delivered on the wing and frequently incantatory, intermingling leadership notes, theory, and poetry; its central dynamic is one of skimming over open water, dipping occasionally down and coming up with an illustrative anecdote. And, full confession, the book has been tricky for me to work with because it operates at a level of abstraction that sometimes reminds me of a very particular kind of learned, citation-heavy, often religious, ultimately charismatic leadership style. The approach itself isn’t objectively good or bad, but I mistrust it in the exact way that ever since I came off a rock face free-climbing at 17, my body locks up at a very specific distance from the ground.

And of course I do, I realized belatedly, reading Henry’s post. The ideas at the core of brown’s Octavia Butler scholarship are themslves a new scripture that Butler’s extremely compelling prophet character, Lauren Oya Olamina, codifies at the founding of her Earthseed religion. It’s prophets all the way down! Not in precisely the Weber sense, because brown is pretty hardcore about proposing rulesets and she’s definitely concerned with everyday life, but the vibe is present—she even talks about her own charismatic qualities in a really self-aware way. I might situate her as a prophet who is committed enough to do priestly things, which: respect.

But I’ve been wrangling a little with why Alexander doesn’t get to me in the same way. I think it’s mostly that in orientation, Alexander was a fundamentally priestly person who had to do some prophet things…which resulted in a huge number of pages of highly detailed explanations, case studies, and process discussions. The man trained as a contractor so he could spend much of his life on building sites, moving stakes and flags and cinderblocks around with his clients and colleagues—and a chunk of the rest of it doing things like coming up with alternative construction management contracts that would allow bureaucratic processes to flow around building projects based on the principles he outlined. And it turns out that reluctant prophets who just want to do priest things are close to my heart.

ANYWAY, now that I’ve done more of the reading around brown’s work—and been dragged backward through the events of the past few years—my sense of Emergent Strategy now is less that it’s a reference work I can’t quite click with and more that it’s a floating world of perceptive field notes and marginalia hovering across and between other things I’m reading and rereading by Octavia Butler (the focus of much of brown’s scholarship), Grace Lee Boggs, and many others. I think this reading is in tune with what brown writes about her own intentions:

I am offering […] a cluster of thoughts in development, observations of existing patterns, and questions of how we apply the brilliance of the world around us to our efforts to coexist in and with this world as humans, particularly for those of us seeking to transform the crises of our time, to turn our legacy towards harmony.

Her work coheres hypertextually and relationally, around and through community, and is as at least as embedded in collective forward movement as the work Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure got up to. And it’s been a joy to realize that many of the ideas at the heart of both Alexander and his colleagues’ work and that of brown and her shimmering cloud of references are not just compatible, but very closely linked.

the big questions

Alexander grappled—as a teacher, in his books, in his buildings—with an elusive but unifying theory of how to make buildings and other built spaces good, whole, and alive in ways that nourish the people inside them, sustain themselves, and improve the environments around them. I am, naturally, permanently fascinated with this work.

Alexander’s most widely read book is, by a wide margin, A Pattern Language—and it’s a great book that I always enjoy returning to. But I find the work he and his colleagues did around it to be the most valuable for what I’m doing now—especially the theory and reasoning and process laid out in A Timeless Way of Building and his later, intensely philosophical work, The Nature of Order. But throughout all his books, I would paraphrase the central question as: How can we make [buildings, systems, communities, towns] which make the people within them more whole and healthy and alive, which sustain themselves without draining or brutalizing anyone or anything else, and which support and improve the world around them?

Which is, or should be, one of the all-time big questions for anyone who builds anything ever.

Alexander, to his credit, never tried to dodge the weight of his beliefs. When pressed in an awkward but interesting short documentary to explain his goal for a particular building project, he glanced at the speaker with an expression of mild frustration and offered only, To make God appear in a field.”

adrienne maree brown is also investigating big mysteries, but from a different angle; she takes it as table stakes that her readers are dedicated to social justice and communal survival. But she’s also done that kind of justice work long enough to recognize that it’s difficult and often heartbreakingly ineffective—and frequently needlessly destructive to the people inside it. (My friends who’ve worked in human rights organizations have testified at length about this phenomenon.) I think the central question for brown is: how can we behave with one another in ways that make those goals achieveable—and our achievements enduring—at every scale, beginning with the way we treat one another as individual souls working toward a common good?

Reading Alexander and brown together, it seems to me that right in the center of the Venn diagram of bungled deadened spaces that make us and the world worse,” and, perverse behavioral patterns and incentives that warp even well-intentioned interactions” is…

the internet

Much of the online work we’ve done in the past couple of decades has failed to achieve any of brown’s or Alexander’s goals.

Instead, we’ve built or accepted…

  • the sprawling social platforms that greased the slide into increasingly dehumanizing politics and summoned the worst imaginable Biblically accurate angels of our nature
  • the rat-king of tech companies, news orgs, and entertainment conglomerates competing against each other to extract our attention and data for onward sale
  • the sacrifices of some human minds to the labor of protecting wealthier people from seeing atrocities in their feeds and some human bodies to the crushing and sometimes deadly labor of making frictionless online orders bloom into take-out and socks and perfect glass phones in our hands

…with, at its center, capital’s unqunchable rapacity and the high-value tech-world scammers feeding it increasingly hollow and absurd confidence games—Theranos one-offs, crypto, the legless metaverse—until nearly every tech corp is joyfully announcing that human interactions and bodies of knowledge can be replaced 1:1 with the hollowest and most absurd of confidence games, large language models pretending to be tools that can be trusted with anything at all.

We did some great things, too, almost all of them related directly to to the starry scatter of individual and small-group (and briefly, movement-sized) human connections that are heartening, strengthening, and good for the whole system. Also Wikipedia and whatever your equivalent of appliance-repair YouTube is, without which I personally would be back to breaking things with screwdrivers and swearing.

For a good chunk of the past 10 or 12 years, it’s felt to me like we were stuck in an age that shoved genuine attention to human-ness and care to the margins. (Margins as in sheltered places, as in idealistic founders who get pushed out after acquisitions, as in think tanks that absorb huge grants without exerting visible influence over the internet as it’s lived, as in the teams who get fired first when the Lay Off Your Smart People Challenge spreads like norovirus though the tech sector, again.)

But now? I’m not sure we’re as stuck as we were even a year ago, though not because of any of the certainties the fully financialized humans trying to make Web 3 happen are selling.

I think things feel wiggly and interesting right now because we really just do not know how things are going to shake out. Which means that maybe people who make things online but don’t have billions of dollars or a seat at the VC table can have more influence over the next generations of online sociability and communal life. But experience suggests that the window of opportunity will slam closed on our fingers as soon as the Duplo blocks of technocapital sort themselves into a sturdier new configuration, so we gotta try to get everyone out while we can.

Which, I suppose, is why I’m here right now. And tomorrow I’ll get on with the reading notes.

alongside this

5 May 2023