Shared understanding is needed to have meaningful debate

In The Nature of Order, Book 1, The Phenomenon of Life, chapter 9, Beyond Descartes: A new form of scientific observation Alexander describes a turning point in architecture — a significant change in values that feels eerily familiar (highlights mine):

But is must be remembered that in the late 20th century, judgement of architectural matters had been turned on its head by then-prevailing dogma. Many architects were intentionally designing things like the art museum plaza, and were intentionally avoiding simple nice places (like the small benches and trees) (for example, by sneering at students in architecture school, especially women students, who did projects of this kind).

The same architects, in order to protect the then-prevailing view of architecture, had gone to a great deal of trouble to erect a false system of values in which living and not-living no longer had any meaning. This had been accomplished by an architectural culture in which some architects openly sneered at the idea of deeper meaning, and did their best to pervert commonsense understanding of these issues in order to shore up the artificial values then current.

To me this presents two strong parallels to the software industry:

  1. We have a similar culture in which demonstrating cleverness is more prestigious than doing the simple thing that gets the job done and can be easily understood.
  2. We also dismay people who are not trying to be clever and default to the simple and comprehensible, which I also believe is a huge part of why our industry is so toxic to certain minorities.

Depending on which bubble you identify with, it’s apparent to you that either the clever hack or the simple fix is obviously better. Or perhaps you are woke enough to claim that “it depends on the context”. But that doesn’t really matter unless we work on a shared understanding of what is good and what is bad.

Alexander (emphasis mine):

The whole problem of architecture, especially the problem in our time, has as its underpinning the fundamental question of architectural judgement. What is good and what is bad? What is better and what is worse?

For us as a society, these questions are paramount, since if we can attain a shared basis for deciding these questions, and it is reliable, well-founded, and indeed shared, so that everyone agrees on it, then gradually, our cities and our environment will get better, simply because the human judgement will gradually push them and nudge them, to get better. But of course, that has not been happening much in recent decades, because there is so much ambiguity about these questions. Anything goes. Everyone has a different opinion. Almost everyone has a different philosophy.

This exact issue has metastasized in the software industry[^and beyond, for that matter] and given us a plethora of different ways to solve problems in software, which are all full of opinion and personal philosophy, and almost void of any shared sense for what is good or right.

If we have a sound, and clear basis for making decisions about what is good and what is bad, what is better and what is worse, we can then move through the days of decision making successfully, and we shall have good results. But at present, we have no such tool. We have opinions, certainly. But no reliable source of judgement, that we can truly stand upon. And as a result, each architect, each designer, is a little lost, mentally flailing around trying to do a good job without being sure what that means — all because we have a foundation of quicksand for the judgements he/she/we are called upon to make every moment of the working day.

Well, of course it is like that! What’s good and what’s bad is completely subjective. Right?

Why the answer to that question is, “Wrong!”, is a topic for [[ another note yet to be written ]]. It took Alexander ~2000 pages across four books to explain that.

The point here is that we at least need to attempt to find shared understanding across the boundaries of our bubbles. Which means that we need to take a step back from stating our convictions as facts. We need to start listening to our opponents. Stop focusing on the differences between us. Start focusing on what we have in common. Stop looking for what we disagree with and start searching for what we can agree on.

That’s not going to solve all the problems. But perhaps we will find just one small thing we can agree on, and which nudges our environment into the direction of slightly better.

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