Sunday, June 29, 2008

Making knowledge art coherent, engaging, and useful

I think the title phrase is a good summary of my current central concerns, both in research and practice. It's what I want to understand: how to do it, how to enable others to do it, what they are doing when they do it. Not at all limited to Compendium though it is my main exemplar for now.

It came to me as I was laboring up South Quaker Hill on my bike yesterday. A lot of good, or at least different, ideas come to me when biking uphill, standing in the shower, or sitting at my dining room table. Not as many come when sitting at my desk.

Slow design (part 1)

The title phrase ("slow design") occurred to me halfway through writing this piece. I was intrigued to find out that it already has a wikipedia page, a manifesto, and an organization behind it, although one that seems... slow... to get off the ground.

A perspective that occasionally surfaced in the Creativity and Rationale in Software Design workshop was the idea that time spent intentionally working through the rationale for a design could have many benefits, for creativity and otherwise. This is so even if such time is limited, if it only covers small portions of the terrain of a design, and even -- perhaps especially -- if it goes against the grain of the normal conversational flow. Sometimes it is necessary and desirable to do something different than we normally do, even if it feels difficult and unnatural.

I see this very much in the vein of what Palus and Horth call "aesthetic competencies" -- slowing down the looking, paying attention to details and nuances, careful crafting. Normally, in design conversations, we go so fast, building on each other's words and sometimes sketches, excitedly questioning and arguing. I do this myself, I love being in that mode, and there is nothing wrong with it. It will always be the dominant mode of design conversations. Pulling away from it to do something deliberate, like capturing and representing rationale, can feel almost painful. But not everything is covered, captured, or elicited in this normal manner. Like the conversation at the workshop, our normal ways of talking and doing are so much on the fly; things get missed, or too quickly forgotten. Sometimes just taking the time to ask questions, make the diversity of possible answers explicit, and ask the questions behind the questions (like the root rationale question: "Why are we doing this?") can make a difference in understanding, insight, and creativity. We see what each other is saying in ways that the normal flow doesn't allow.

So doing design rationale should be handled not as a duty, but as something special. For this limited time, we're going to set aside our normal ways of interacting and do something different, requiring a different kind of attention. If handled well, carefully creating a representation of rationale can open up different doors and different ways of seeing and talking. We get a different experience of working through and working out, especially when working through a collective visual artifact (Compendium maps can be an example of this).

For this to be generative, so much depends on the (temporary) commitment of the people involved, because there's so much variance in how it can happen, and in the patience, skill in the crafting, willingness to engage and pay attention. Creativity often means reaching down or being struck by something deeper, something out of the ordinary, and that often comes out of slow working out and working through (as much as it can also come from the usual headlong conversational rush).

(Continued in Part 2)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Last Verse

I was reading this article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 28, 2008 New Yorker, about the last remnants of original folk musicians still living, and the obsessive collectors who search them out and record them. Along with making me want to go out and get the gospel collection called "Goodbye, Babylon", it reminded me of a night in the early 1980s when I heard probably the most amazing music I've ever come across.

My late friend Dave Buell and I were walking down a street in downtown Alexandria, VA. I forget where we were coming from or going to. It was around 9 or 10 in the evening. We heard some music and stopped at the open screen door of a little storefront church, just one small room on a ground floor. We hesitated to go in (two dorky white guys) but someone inside said "all are welcome" so we walked in and sat down.

There were maybe fifteen people there, half of them playing some instrument or another, scattered around on wooden chairs. I remember a piano and an organ, a drum set, tambourine, and an electric guitar. It was loose, nothing fancy, just a weekday night where some people had gathered in their church for some music. Songs started and stopped informally, no one seemed to be leading it. And when they played there was soul and power and funk beyond anything I've ever heard. It moved and wailed and I felt it deep inside. I don't know how long we were in there, not very long, we felt kind of like we were intruding though no one in there made us feel that way, so we left, but part of me is still there. I felt that any music that I'd heard or been part of up to that point was pale next to this. What history and connection do we (my suburban white American brethren) have that can compare? The music I grew up with was just several generations received from what was in that storefront, just the roots as filtered through commercial dilutions several times over. What was in there was authentic, at least it felt that way to me, realizing I'd never really heard and felt authenticity before.

I've had similar feelings a few times since. Once in a gospel music concert in a church in East St. Louis in 1988 or so, once with a marching band in a wedding parade in the night backstreets of Calcutta in 1986 (that's another story, wild Bengali brass band funk like you wouldn't believe).

Much as I love to play music myself, I have done it less and less in the last ten years. Part of the reason is the feeling of borrowed-ness, of lack of authenticity, that there's nothing I can draw on except imitations of imitations. I know, that even all the musicians I mentioned above were also borrowing and imitating, that's the nature of the beast. But they were doing so inside a tradition and a history, a culture they were actually part of. There's no such thing in the American suburb. Not that there can't be depth and beauty there as well, but sightings and hearings are few and far between, and what shreds of authenticity there may be are difficult to find. Sometimes it does emerge all on its own, something speaks through all the received-ness, and those moments make all the rest worth it, but I guess I have less patience for all those other moments, when each strum feels copycat and nothing speaks through. Authenticity and the spark of inspiration feel more important to me and anything less feels unworthy, and you can't (at least, I can't) force or wish them into existence. I know they occur on their own schedule, and that not playing at all makes it impossible for them to happen, so any playing is better than none, but I have less patience now for the other times.