The Pretence of Knowledge

The social sciences, like much of biology but unlike most fields of the physical sciences, have to deal with structures of essential complexity, i.e. with structures whose characteristic properties can be exhibited only by models made up of relatively large numbers of variables.

…This corresponds to what I have called earlier the mere pattern predictions to which we are increasingly confined as we penetrate from the realm in which relatively simple laws prevail into the range of phenomena where organized complexity rules. As we advance we find more and more frequently that we can in fact ascertain only some but not all the particular circumstances which determine the outcome of a given process; and in consequence we are able to predict only some but not all the properties of the result we have to expect. Often all that we shall be able to predict will be some abstract characteristic of the pattern that will appear – relations between kinds of elements about which individually we know very little. Yet, as I am anxious to repeat, we will still achieve predictions which can be falsified and which therefore are of empirical significance.

Of course, compared with the precise predictions we have learnt to expect in the physical sciences, this sort of mere pattern predictions is a second best with which one does not like to have to be content. Yet the danger of which I want to warn is precisely the belief that in order to have a claim to be accepted as scientific it is necessary to achieve more. This way lies charlatanism and worse. To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. We are only beginning to understand on how subtle a communication system the functioning of an advanced industrial society is based – a communications system which we call the market and which turns out to be a more efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information than any that man has deliberately designed.

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

— Friedrich August von Hayek in his 1974 Nobel Prize Lecture: The Pretence of Knowledge

Spatial Design Literacy

The world is trying to figure out urbanism for the urban era: green-, new-, crowd-, smart-, adaptive-, etc. The most fundamental problem to address is physiological deprivation — water, food, shelter, clothing, heat, sleep, security, etc. — not only for the people currently on Earth, but for all future people as well.

In South Africa, for example, the basic food and non-food necessities of life are not being adequately met for 63% of the population1The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit — South African poverty lines: a review and two new money-metric thresholds. Here, as in other places, most of the government’s top-down approaches to problematic urban form have aggravated the situation. “Subsidised housing has neither reduced the backlog nor integrated cities2Western Cape Infrastructure Framework 2013; “The overall effect of public housing is a worsening of the apartheid space-economy of segregation, division and fragmentation3Edgar Pieterse, African Centre for Cities; “Malnutrition is high and contributes to 64% of all deaths in children under the age of five4Unicef South Africa; Food security is deteriorating52016 Provincial Economic Review and Outlook; We have a carbon-intensive dirty economy, as does everyone else; etc.

User-centered, everyone-driven creation of the built environment is required. “It is essential only that the people of a society, together, all the millions of them, not just professional architects, design all the millions of places6Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way Of Building. There is consequently a worldwide move towards bottom-up, community-driven urban (re)design initiatives. These are aimed especially at the informal urban sphere as the world’s population is increasingly urban and “the poor are the major producers of houses7SA SDI: South African Shack/Slum Dwellers International Alliance meaning “informal is the new normal8Alfredo Brillembourg, Informal is the new normal.

However, it will not profit to focus on crowd-sourced urban planning solutions if the crowd is illiterate — in the sense that we, as individuals and society, evidently lack a placemaking ‘language’ with which to reason about, ‘read’ and ‘write’ wholesome urban form.

A bottom-up approach must also take place in a design for — so as to move towards — a built environment that is wholesome in its entirety: not just wholesome parts (lexicon), but wholesome relating of the parts (grammar), and wholesome expressions in a given context (semantics). What we need is a holistic, top-down design of a language that then enables guided bottom-up expressions in that language — we need to design wholesome urban organisms, as well as their DNA, to guide the processes and relationships of the individual cells toward the intended wholes.

Yet now it has become clear that the organism is formed purely by the interaction of its cells, guided by the genetic code.

… The growing cells alone, communicating with each other, and guided only by the instructions programmed into them by the genetic code, act correctly, with respect to one another, in such a way that they create an entirely individual whole, not predictable in detail, but recognizable in species.

And this is true for a town too.

At one time people believed that a town had to be planned by a planner who made a plan or blueprint. It was said that if the order of the town is not created from above, there will just not be an order in the town. And so, even in spite of the most obvious evidence of all the beautiful towns and villages built in traditional societies without master plans, this belief has taken hold, and people have allowed themselves to give up their freedom.

As in biology, though, it is becoming clear now that the structure of a town can be woven much more deeply, more intricately, from the interaction of its individual acts of building within a common language, than it can from a blueprint or a master plan9Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way Of Building.

We need universal literacy in a ‘creation-language’ with which we can all reason about and ‘write’ wholesome urban form — a language that facilitates a culture of self- and community-reliance; that leads to an environment that meets the basic needs of every single person; that results in not only circular design that simply sustains, but first an upward spiral of regeneration reaching mutualistic symbiosis, where the built environment itself actually benefits the natural environment.

Footnotes   [ + ]

The Nature of Learning

Most of what goes under the name “edutainment” reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s response to a famous beauty who speculated on the marvelous child they could have together: “With your brains and my looks…” He retorted, “But what if the child had my looks and your brains?”

Shavian reversals—offspring that keep the bad features of each parent and lose the good ones—are visible in most software products that claim to come from a mating of education and entertainment…

The kind of product I shall pick on here has the form of a game: the player gets into situations that require an appropriate action in order to get on to the next situation along the road to the final goal. So far, this sounds like “tainment.” The “edu” part comes from the fact that the actions are schoolish exercises such as those little addition or multiplication sums that schools are so fond of boring kids with. It is clear enough why people do this. Many who want to control children (for example, the less imaginative members of the teaching profession or parents obsessed with kids’ grades) become green with envy when they see the energy children pour into computer games. So they say to themselves, “The kids like to play games, we want them to learn multiplication tables, so everyone will be happy if we make games that teach multiplication.” The result is shown in a rash of ads that go like this: “Our Software Is So Much Fun That The Kids Don’t Even Know That They Are Learning” or “Our Games Make Math Easy.”

The language of these ads betrays the way in which this software throws away what is best about the contribution of game designers to the learning environment and replaces it with what is worst about the contribution of school curriculum designers. What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.

— Seymour Papert continues in Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning

The Music is Not in the Piano

You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won’t give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people. … the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.

Virtually all learning difficulties that children face are caused by adults’ inability to set up reasonable environments for them. The biggest barrier to improving education for children, with or without computers, is the completely impoverished imaginations of most adults.”

— Alan Kay explains why the computing revolution hasn’t happened yet.

Knowledge Machines

Isaac Asimov on Information Age education, 1988:

Or Seymour Papert, 1993:

The facetious old turn of phrase that identifies schooling with the three Rs — reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — may express the most obstinate block to change in education. The central role of these ‘basics’ is never discussed; it is considered obvious. Thus the most important consequences of new technologies are not recognized by education policy-makers.

The role of the Rs in elementary education used to be beyond question. How effectively could one teach geography, history, and science to students who could not read? Looking back, we cannot seriously fault these arguments — within their historical context.

But looking forward, we can formulate new arguments beyond the imagination of 19th century thinkers, who could hardly have conjured images of media that would provide modes of accessing and manipulating knowledge radically different than those offered by the Rs. Nor could they have formulated what I see as the deep difference between education past and future: In the past, education adapted the mind to a very restricted set of available media; in the future, it will adapt media to serve the needs and tastes of each individual mind.”

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The Whole

“Good,” she said, resting her hands on her knees. “It seems like you’ve considered everything, Atrus. You’ve tried to see the Whole.” Atrus had looked down, gazing at the sleeping kitten. Now he looked up again. “The Whole?” She laughed softly. “It’s something my father used to say to me. What I mean by it, is that you’ve looked at the problem from many angles and considered how the pieces fit together. You’ve asked all the questions that needed to be asked and come up with the answers. And now you have an understanding of it.” She smiled and reached out again, letting her hand rest lightly on his shoulder. “It may seem a small thing, Atrus – after all, a dune is but a dune – but the principle’s a sound one and will stand you in good stead whatever you do, and however complex the system is you’re looking at. Always consider the Whole, Atrus. Always look at the interrelatedness of things, and remember that the ‘whole’ of one thing is always just a part of something else, something larger.”

Anna and Atrus — Myst: The Book of Atrus