Phenomenal Software: The Internal Dimension: Part 2b: Patterns & Livingness

In this post I am going to review Alexander’s three aspects of patterns mentioned before, namely:

  • The Moral Component
  • Coherent Designs
  • Generative Process

I will show how they link to the following ideas:

  • Freedom
  • Cognitive Feeling
  • Livingness

The Moral Component & Freedom

20110916_1352_BuzzardThe moral aspect of patterns can be approached from any of a number of ‘paths up the mountain’. Certainly Alexander was concerned about whether buildings were ‘nurturing’ for us to live in, and so was thinking about more than utility. With computer systems and applications it is easier to think that this utilitarian aspect is all that exists. But there is an environmental part – an inner environment of thought, or ‘theory’ as Naur would say, whether we be users or developers.

If we think about how tools extend our own faculties, indeed our own being, the importance of the quality of this inner environment takes on a new meaning. The nature of the tool will affect how we form our ideas, which in turn will influence the form of our externally made world. Thus Alexander’s use of the word ‘nurturing’ and its applicability to software is not so out of place as it initially seems.

We can relate the ideas of utility, environment and hence morality by considering the concept of freedom – but defined in terms relevant to computer use. A computer system or application is a tool to get a particular task done. Good tools are ‘transparent’, meaning that you do not notice them when performing a particular task – they ‘disappear’ from your consciousness and leave you ‘free’ to focus upon the task in hand. It is in these terms that we can speak about freedom when using computers.

If you experience this ‘transparency’ when using a computer, I would consider that the software you are using contains this moral component that Alexander has defined. To paraphrase his words from the ‘Mirror of Self’ question:

“‘Moral’ Software gives you the freedom to develop a better picture of the whole of yourself, with all your hopes, fears, weaknesses, glory, absurdity, and which – as far as possible – includes everything that you could ever hope to be.”

What higher statement of purpose could we have for the programs we write? The current prevalent economic vision of the software industry pales into insignificance against such a statement.

We should not forget that this freedom to develop a ‘better picture of the whole of ourselves’ can be experienced by both users and developers. Indeed it is a central tenet of my whole ‘Phenomenal Software’ series that good software developers are implicitly on a path of self development, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Coherent Design & Cognitive Feeling

PetrelWingIn talking about coherent design we need to remember that Alexander is dealing with the external world of objects and a software designer/developer is dealing with non-physical artefacts – the building architect works in an external world, the software architect works in an internal world – though no less real in its effects.

If we consider programming as an ‘internal art’ we can see how it can be difficult to communicate effectively about the ideas that underpin our design and coding. Peter Naur wrote about the need to maintain a theory alive in the minds of the programmers if a system was to be properly extended or maintained. He also noted that the theoretical element could not be communicated accurately via written documentation or even the code itself – it needed human interaction with people holding the living theory of the software.

Reflecting on my own career I have come to realize that it is difficult to identify an abstract form of coherence or goodness for software separate from the context in which it is to be used. For instance some code that I had found to be elegant in the early days of computing, say using little memory and having few instructions, would not be a good solution to the same problem in a modern context. So here we can see the integration required between form and function; solution and problem context. They need to be in harmony: coherent form in design will have the moral component in its function and will mean that the theories and meaning formed by the developer or user will make sense and meet the ‘Mirror of the Self’ needs.

Most novices will work from a set of rules, one such example being to ‘Make it Work, Make it Right, Make it Fast’ in that order. This is a valid heuristic useful to stop programmers optimizing the code too early. However a rule-based approach has the danger of separating the stages into individual parts – which is not the best way to proceed in one’s thinking. This is the same tension as that between the TDD (Test Driven Development) folks and the design-up-front folks – a classic example of the need to work from an integrated view of the whole and the parts – i.e. respectively: making it right and making it work; design-driven and test-driven. In practice being done together.

So over my career I have developed a feeling for good design in the crucible of solving real-world problems. In actuality I cannot make it ‘Work’ until I have a sense of what is ‘Right’, even to a small degree. You can perhaps see that I have a personal preference towards the design view, though during my work I can easily fall into the trap of hitting the keyboard too early, something I have worked vigorously at controlling! As I gained experience I started to get this sense of the best way to structure the software, and in some cases – such as perhaps designing a media player – I might have a feeling for what is ‘Fast’ at an early stage, but this needs to be kept strongly in check against reality. Optimisation should be based upon measurement and human beings can be worse than random at predicting what needs optimising.

This sense for a good or coherent design is what I have called a ‘cognitive feeling’ in an earlier post, which is a very fine and delicate sensation indeed – it is not strong emotion. Over the years of my career I liken its development to the creation of a new sense organ, cognitive in its nature. It can be difficult to explain to less experienced practitioners due to the fact that the sense is likely to have been implicitly developed over the years. However it matches closely to the feelings that are evinced by Alexander’s ‘Mirror of the Self’ test so that frequently when talking to more experienced developers it will not be hard to get to a commonality in judgement.

This means that in order to create coherent designs we will need to develop this extra sense of a fine cognitive feeling. A quote from Alexander serves to give an idea of this feeling sense, and though dealing with external geometric entities, the same comments relate to software design when imagining how the structures will function:

“A pulsating, fluid, but nonetheless definite entity swims in your mind’s eye. It is a geometrical image, it is far more than the knowledge of the problem; it is the knowledge of the problem, coupled with the knowledge of the kinds of geometrics which will solve the problem, and coupled with the feeling which is created by that kind of geometry solving that problem.” A Timeless Way of Building, Chapter 9.

Generative Process & Living Structure

CloudTrailIn Alexander’s talk at the OOPSLA’96 conference in San Jose, he seemed somewhat bemused by the software domain’s use of patterns. On reading Alexander’s Nature of Order series we can perhaps see why. Some of the central ideas are those of ‘living structure’ and ‘structure preserving transformations’ which result in a ‘generative process’. How could these relate to software?

It is easier to understand the concept of structure preserving transformations when looking at how living things grow. As they grow and develop they need to continue living – we cannot just take them apart, do some modifications, and then re-assemble them! Every step of growth cannot disturb their livingness – thus EVERY change must preserve their living structure. The world of living things has no choice but to use a generative process if it is to stay alive.

At first glance this does not relate at all to the built world. When fixing my car in my younger days, there were times when bits of gearbox and engine were all over the floor! If the car had been a living being it would have been dead, but since it was not I of course was able to re-assemble it and make it work. Small software systems are similar. However, if you have ever worked on a sizable legacy system you will know that you need to spend a LOT of effort on NOT breaking the system. Any changes you make need to be closer to structure preserving, and any bad structures will need major surgery to improve. In reality you will not even try if it is not economically viable. Once you have bad structure, or use a ‘structure destroying transformation’ it is extremely difficult if not impossible to remedy:

“Good transformations do not cause any upheaval. So to get a good project, we merely have to make a sequence of structure-preserving transformations. When we do so, a good design evolves smoothly, almost automatically.
However, even a single bad transformation can upset the smooth unfolding. If we make one transformation which destroys structure, in the middle of a sequence of good ones, things become ugly very quickly;”
Nature of Order Book 2 p61. See also chapter 4.
I am not sure about the use of the word ‘merely’ in the above, since it understates the difficulty of identifying good transformations.

Also if we accept Naur’s Theory Building view and the idea of human mental schemas, this idea of a generative process makes more sense, since there is the living theory held by the programmers. If we then go further and connect to the phenomenological ideas of how we create meaning when we develop theories we can see that there is a justification for finding a livingness within the programming activity. Bortoft talks about the link between understanding and meaning which relates well to Naur’s ideas of theory building when understanding software. It also gives another dimension to the idea of livingness:

“understanding is the ‘concretion of meaning itself’, so that meaning comes into being in understanding.” Henri Bortoft in Taking Appearance Seriously p108

Just one final thought about the idea of livingness. Some might think that a running program would have a livingness, especially if it was a big system. I am not so sure and consider that it is WE who provide the livingness in the software domain. It is WE who create; experience design pain; judge. The computers are running a network of finalized thought constructs which is a different process to the thinking we do when defining those thought constructs. For me this perception of livingness in Alexander’s work and its relation to software is an ongoing work-in-progress.

I want to thank Jim Coplien for his help in pointing me at various ideas of Alexander that mesh with my work for this post.

In the next post I shall conclude this series of ‘Phenomenal Software’ by returning to the way philosophy has progressed forward from the Cartesian Subject/Object view. This will mean dealing with the thorny subject of subjectivity and of course you will have to decide if you can trust my judgements!

Thanks for reading.

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