The conversation: How “living architecture” could help the world avoid a soul-crushing digital future


THE TALK – My first Apple laptop felt like a piece of magic made just for me – almost a part of me. The rounded corners, the vivid shading, the adorable animations. I’ve used Windows my whole life, starting with my family’s IBM 386, and I never thought that using a computer could be so much fun.

In fact, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said that computers are like bicycles for the mind, expanding your possibilities and helping you do things not only more efficiently, but more beautifully. Some technologies seem to unleash your humanity and make you feel inspired and alive.

But not all technologies are like that. Sometimes devices do not work reliably or as expected. Often you have to adapt to the limitations of a system, e.g. B. if you need to speak differently so that a digital voice assistant can understand you. And some platforms bring out the worst in people. Think anonymous flame wars.

As a researcher studying technology, design and ethics, I believe that a hopeful way forward comes from the world of architecture. It all started decades ago with an architect’s observation that newer buildings, even when constructed with increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques, tended to appear lifeless and depressing.

The wear and tear of technology for mankind

The problems with the technology are numerous and diffuse, and are widely studied and reported: from short attention spans and technical necks, to clickbait and AI bias, to trolling and shame, to conspiracy theories and misinformation.

As people increasingly live online, these problems can only get worse. For example, some recent visions of the metaverse suggest that humans will live primarily in virtual spaces in the future. Already today, people around the world spend an average of seven hours a day in front of digital screens – almost half of the waking time.

As public awareness of these issues increases, it’s not clear if or how tech companies will be able to address them. Is there a way to ensure that future tech will be more like my first Apple laptop and less like a bunch of Twitter?

Architectural theorist Christopher Alexander has been pursuing similar questions in his own field for the past 60 years. Alexander, who died in March 2022 at the age of 85, developed a design theory that has found its way into architecture. Applied to the technology field, this theory can provide the principles and process for creating technologies that liberate people’s humanity rather than suppress it.

How good design is defined

Technology design is beginning to mature. Technology companies and product managers have realized that a well-designed user interface is essential to a product’s success, not just nice to have.

As professions mature, they tend to organize their knowledge into concepts. Design patterns are a good example of this. A design pattern is a reusable solution to a problem that designers often need to solve.

In user experience design, such issues include helping users enter their shipping information or returning to the home page. Instead of reinventing the wheel every time, designers can apply a design pattern: a click on the logo at the top left always takes you home. With design patterns, life is easier for designers and end products are better for users.

Design patterns facilitate good design in one sense: they are efficient and productive. However, they do not necessarily result in designs that are good for humans. They can be sterile and generic. Exactly how to avoid this is a major challenge.

A glimmer of hope lies exactly where design patterns emerged: in the work of Christopher Alexander. Alexander dedicated his life to understanding what makes an environment good for people – good in a deep, moral sense – and how designers can create structures that are also good.

His work on design patterns from the 1960s was his first attempt at finding an answer. The patterns he developed with his colleagues included details such as how many stories a good building should have and how many light sources a good space should have.

But Alexander ultimately found design patterns unsatisfactory. He continued this work and eventually published his theory in his four-volume magnum opus, The Nature of Order.

While Alexander’s work on design patterns is well known – his 1977 book A Pattern Language remains a bestseller – his later work, which he believed to be much more important, has been largely overlooked. No wonder, then, that his deepest insights have yet to seep into technology design. But when they do, good design could mean something much richer.

About creating structures that promote life

The architecture got worse, not better. That was Christopher Alexander’s conclusion in the middle of the 20th century.

Much of modern architecture is inert and makes people feel dead inside. It may be sleek and intellectual – it may even win awards – but it doesn’t do much to evoke a sense of life in its occupants. What went wrong and how could architecture correct its course?

Motivated by this question, Alexander conducted numerous experiments throughout his career that went deeper and deeper. Beginning with his design patterns, he discovered that the designs that evoked the most feelings in people, what he called living structures, shared certain characteristics. This was not just a guess, but a testable empirical theory that he validated and refined from the late 1970s through the turn of the century. He identified 15 qualities, each with a technical definition and many examples.

The qualities are:

– Scale levels

– Strong centers

– limits

– Alternating repetition

– Positive space

– Good figure

– Local symmetries

– Deep dovetailing and ambiguity

– Contrast gradients

– roughness

– echoes

– The emptiness

– Simplicity and inner peace

– non-separation

As Alexander writes, dwelling is not only pleasant and stimulating, but also that. The living structure reaches people on a transcendent level – it connects people to themselves and to each other – to all people across centuries and cultures and climates.

But modern architecture, as Alexander has shown, has very few qualities that make a living structure. In other words, throughout the 20th century, architects have taught each other to do everything wrong. Worse, these failures crystallized in building codes, zoning laws, eligibility criteria, and education. He decided it was time to turn things around.

Alexander’s ideas have had an enormous impact on architectural theory and criticism. But the world has not yet experienced the hoped-for paradigm shift.

In the mid-1990s, Alexander realized that to achieve his goals, many more people would need to be on board – and not just architects, but all sorts of planners, infrastructure developers and everyday people. And maybe other areas besides architecture. The digital revolution was nearing its peak.

Alexander’s invitation to technology designers

As Alexander persevered in his research, he began to see the potential of digital technology as a positive force. Digital technology became more and more part of the human environment – it became architectural.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s ideas on design patterns had entered the world of technology design to organize and communicate design knowledge. Surely this older work of Alexander has proved to be very valuable, especially for software development.

Because of his fame for design patterns, in 1996 Alexander was invited to give a keynote address at a major software development conference sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery.

In his presentation, Alexander noted that the tech industry is making great strides in efficiency and capability, but perhaps hasn’t stopped to ask, “What are we supposed to do with all these programs?” How are they supposed to help the earth?”

“Right now you guys are like hit men,” Alexander said. He invited audiences to create technology for good, not just for pay.

Relaxation of the design process

In The Nature of Order, Alexander not only defined his theory of living structure, but also a process for creating such a structure.

In short, this process involves democratic participation and emerges in a bottom-up evolving progression that includes the 15 qualities of a living structure. The end result is not known in advance – it will be adjusted over time. The term “organic” comes to mind, and that’s appropriate, because nature almost always creates living structures.

But typical architecture – and design in many areas – in contrast, is top-down and strictly defined from the outset. In this machine-like process, rigorous precision takes precedence over local adaptability, project roles are separated, and the emphasis is on commercial value and investment above all else. This is a recipe for lifeless structures.

Alexander’s work suggests that when living structures are the goal, the design process is where one needs to focus. And there are also signs of change in the technology sector.

In project management, for example, the traditional waterfall approach followed a rigid, step-by-step schedule that was defined in advance. Around the turn of the century, a more dynamic approach emerged, referred to as agile, which allows for more adaptability through frequent check-in and prioritization, and progressing in “sprints” of one to two weeks instead of longer phases.

And in design, the human-centered design paradigm is gaining traction as well. Human-centered design emphasizes, among other elements, continuous testing and refinement of small changes relative to design goals.

A design process that promotes life

However, Alexander would say that these two trajectories lack some of his deeper insights into living structures. They can trigger more buying and raise stock prices, but these approaches won’t necessarily produce technologies that are good for everyone and good for the world.

Still, there are some emerging efforts toward that deeper end. For example, design pioneer Don Norman, who coined the term “user experience,” developed his ideas into what he calls humanity-centered design. This goes beyond a human-centric design to focus on ecosystems, taking a long-term perspective, embracing human values ​​and engaging the communities of interest along the way.

The vision of human-centered design requires far-reaching changes in technology. This is exactly the kind of reorientation that Alexander called for in his 1996 keynote speech. As design patterns initially suggested, technology doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Technologists and people of all stripes can build on the vast, painstaking work that Alexander left behind.

The Conversation is an independent and not-for-profit source for news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.


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