Category Archives: Cognitive Toolkit

A Pattern Language

I’ve been seeing people recommend A Pattern Language (amazon, very large pdf) here and there for a few years now and finally picked it up. I’ve only begun to read it, but it is a truly remarkable work. In particular it draws a thick and complex connection between design and ethics.

(Skimming the wikipedia page of the first listed author makes me want to read much more of his work.)

This book simultaneously defines what a pattern language is, makes a case for how they should be used in design, and provides an example.

Designers of any sort (industrial designers, graphic designers software, urban planners, etc) work explicitly or implicitly based on patterns that they have learned about, developed, or identified. If I own land and want to sleep indoors, I might think about the pattern “Single Family Home” and create a design based on that pattern. And we need patterns for the whole spectrum of human existence that emerges through design, from the way our highest political entities are arranged (“Independent Regions”) through cities (“Subculture Boundaries”, “Night Life”), and so on (“Looped Local Roads”, “Compost”)

How do different patterns, though, connect to each other? There’s the concept of a Pattern Library which I’ve often seen in the tech space (example). The Library metaphor asserts that patterns should be listed and categorized. But metaphor of a Pattern Language goes much farther in exploring the rich connections between patterns, the syntax by which they can be juxtaposed, and the layers of meaning that they bring to bear when they are used together in different ways. A library can only be constructed and maintained, usually by a single entity. A library, unlike a language, does not usually develop and evolve organically.

Every society which is alive and whole, will have its own unique and distinct pattern language; and further, that every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people — even though these languages are shared and similar…

The language described in this book, though, is more like Esperanto than like English. It is not the dictionary of any observed pattern language, it is a call for a new language that will lead to a new and better lived existence for humanity. Languages differ in the fluency with which they can express certain concepts, and so each language comes with a value system and creating a language is an ethical acts. What kind of patterns should feel natural to express? What is clunky?

The language that has emerged in our society is a stunted, depraved language without humanity. We have a pattern for billboards, for surveillance cameras, for strip malls, for old age homes.

[W]e have written this book as a first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them. We believe…that the languages which people have today are so brutal, and so fragmented, that most people no longer have any language to speak of at all — and what they do have is not based on human, or natural considerations. [emphasis added]

The language in this book contains, on the contrary, patterns like the following:

  • Magic of the City
  • Old People Everywhere
  • Children in the City
  • Holy Ground
  • Connected Play
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Garden Growing Wild
  • Communal Sleeping
  • Window Overlooking Life
  • Secret Place

These are only a few with particularly obvious ethical ramifications, but every pattern and every connection expresses an ethics, and creating such a language is a lasting way to codify your ethics.

Any such set of design principles contains within it an ethics and ethics are sometimes best expressed as design principles. In particular, I’m familiar with the conversation around dat a ethics. Usually when we talk about data ethics we are saying “here are the set of tools we’ve designed and built, and over there is our thinking about ethical ways to use them.” But those tools were also designed within a value system that is embedded not just in the design of the specific tool but the whole web of existence.

In the book’s domain (the built environment), we might think about the design of a single house. What ethics are embedded in the way a house is designed? How many people is built for, and what kinds of living arrangements? But the design of the house broadly speaking must also connect to the design of the broader society and its ethics: what materials are used, and what sorts of labor arrangements are assumed to be available? What is nearby, and what can we assume about the ways that neighborhood will change over time? What is the anticipated lifespan of this building and how might its uses change in the future?

Similarly, maybe talking sensibly about data ethics requires connecting it more deeply to the patterns we use as designers, and thinking more broadly about what those patterns are that we use and the timescales and means by which they change.

We have spent years trying to formulate this language, in the hope then when a person uses it, he will be so impressed by its power, and so joyful in its use, that he will understand again, what it means to have a living language of this kind. If we only succeed in that, it is possible that each person may once again embark on the construction and development of his own language — perhaps taking the language printed in this book, as a point of departure.

My Dictum and Your Blind Spots

In Thinking Fast and Slow (one of my 5 behavioral economics must-reads), Kahneman lays out the memorable idea that “What You See Is All There Is.” He explains it nicely in a brief interview:

WYSIATI means that we use the information we have as if it is the only information. We don’t spend much time saying, “Well, there is much we don’t know.”

These are the famous unknown unknowns that I’ve written about— the gaps or blind spots you wouldn’t think to look for. These are so important that I think it’s worth updating Asimov’s Dictum: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “eureka!” but “that’s interesting…” “Similarly, Potok’s Dictum is that whenever you’re planning, evaluating, or decision-making:

The most exciting phrase that heralds good decision-making is not “here’s the answer” but “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

Whenever a new idea, perspective, or fact appears, treat it carefully and feed your inner pigeon so that you learn to keep generating them! A useful addition to your cognitive toolkit would be a set of ways to find those blindspots you would otherwise totally ignore. Here are a few I’ve thought of or seen elsewhere:

  1. Explain it to a child
  2. Ask a third party with “middle-level” knowledge of the issue: not an expert, but not a child.
  3. Find a new taxonomy to organize everything you know about the issue — the “worse” it seems, the better. For example, if you’re planning a project chronologically, try to list all the aspects of the project by department or division instead.
  4. Perform a premortem: ask yourself “If this project fails spectacularly, what will have caused it?”
  5. Twiddle the knobs a la Daniel Dennett’s must-read advice about Intuition Pumps, or Polya’s guidelines for understanding mathematics. Change each part of what you know — sometimes the extreme cases — to see what happens. “What if we had 10 years to do this? What if we only had three days?” “What if only 5 people show up to our event? What about 50, or 500, or 5,000?” Most of these questions will be a waste of time but a few might completely change the way you’ve been thinking.

Readers: how do you find blind spots? What tools should I add to this list? Have you ever completely overlooked something that was obvious in retrospect?

Mathematical Decision-Making

Whenever you make a decision you have to consider a universe of facts. Suppose you’re trying to decide where to go on vacation.

First you might make a list of all the cities you would consider as a vacation spot and all the facts you know about them. These are the integers, and you can get pretty far with a few simple operations. You know that Paris has great museums and London has bad food and Berlin has great nightlife.

But there are also huge gaps in the facts you know. If I teach you division, you can turn the facts you know into a much larger set of facts you don’t know — the rational numbers. What are the museums like in London? How’s the food in Berlin and the nightlife in Paris? You can spend your whole life wandering around in the rational numbers, making pretty good decisions and really honing your long division skills.

But there’s a much larger infinity of things you’ve never thought of. Can you take a staycation, or take a cruise? Is that hand gesture you always make considered rude in any of these cities? These unknown unknowns are like irrational numbers. You need new, exotic operations to find them but once you learn how to look for them they’re everywhere you look — and there are so so many of them.

We spend so much time practicing our long division for 3, 4 and 5 digit numbers — staying in the known unknowns of the rational numbers — and not nearly enough time developing and using the new tools that will bring the unknown unknowns to our attention. This is one of the most important ideas you can have in your cognitive toolkit.