My first Apple laptop felt like a chunk of magic made only for me – almost an element of myself. The rounded corners, the vigorous shading, the delightful animations. I had been using Windows my whole life, starting on my family’s IBM 386, and I never thought using a pc may very well be so fun.

Indeed, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said that computers were like bicycles for the mind, extending your possibilities and helping you do things not only more efficiently but in addition more beautifully. Some technologies appear to unlock your humanity and make you are feeling inspired and alive.

But not all technologies are like this. Sometimes devices don’t work reliably or as expected. Often you’ve got to vary to adapt to the constraints of a system, as when you must speak in a different way so a digital voice assistant can understand you. And some platforms bring out the worst in people. Think of anonymous flame wars.

As a researcher who studies technology, design and ethics, I imagine that a hopeful way forward comes from the world of architecture. It all began many years ago with an architect’s remark that newer buildings tended to be lifeless and depressing, even in the event that they were made using ever fancier tools and techniques.

Tech’s wear on humanity

The problems with technology are myriad and diffuse, and widely studied and reported: from short attention spans and tech neck to clickbait and AI bias to trolling and shaming to conspiracy theories and misinformation.

As people increasingly live online, these issues may only worsen. Some recent visions of the metaverse, for instance, suggest that humans will come to live primarily in virtual spaces. Already, people worldwide spend on average seven hours per day on digital screens – nearly half of waking hours.

While public awareness of those issues is on the rise, it’s not clear whether or how tech corporations will have the ability to handle them. Is there a approach to be sure that future technologies are more like my first Apple laptop and fewer like a Twitter pile-on?

Christopher Alexander in 2012.
Michaelmehaffy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Over the past 60 years, the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander pursued questions just like these in his own field. Alexander, who died in March 2022 at age 85, developed a theory of design that has made inroads in architecture. Translated to the technology field, this theory can provide the principles and process for creating technologies that unlock people’s humanity quite than suppress it.

How good design is defined

Technology design is starting to mature. Tech corporations and product managers have realized that a well-designed user interface is important for a product’s success, not only nice to have.

As professions mature, they have a tendency to arrange their knowledge into concepts. Design patterns are an awesome example of this. A design pattern is a reusable solution to an issue that designers need to unravel regularly.

In user experience design, as an illustration, such problems include helping users enter their shipping information or get back to the house page. Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, designers can apply a design pattern: clicking the brand on the upper left at all times takes you home. With design patterns, life is less complicated for designers, and the tip products are higher for users.

Design patterns facilitate good design in a single sense: They are efficient and productive. Yet they don’t necessarily result in designs which can be good for people. They will be sterile and generic. How, exactly, to avoid that may be a major challenge.

A seed of hope lies within the very place where design patterns originated: the work of Christopher Alexander. Alexander dedicated his life to understanding what makes an environment good for humans – good in a deep, conscience – and the way designers might create structures which can be likewise good.

Christopher Alexander discussing place, repetition and adaptation.

His work on design patterns, dating back to the Nineteen Sixties, was his initial effort at a solution. The patterns he developed together with his colleagues included details like what number of stories a superb constructing must have and what number of light sources a superb room must have.

But Alexander found design patterns ultimately unsatisfying. He took that work further, eventually publishing his theory in his four-volume magnum opus, “The Nature of Order.”

While Alexander’s work on design patterns could be very well-known – his 1977 book “A Pattern Language” stays a bestseller – his later work, which he deemed way more vital, has been largely neglected. No surprise, then, that his deepest insights haven’t yet entered technology design. But in the event that they do, good design could come to mean something much richer.

On creating structures that foster life

Architecture was getting worse, not higher. That was Christopher Alexander’s conclusion within the mid-Twentieth century.

Much modern architecture is inert and makes people feel dead inside. It could also be sleek and mental – it might even win awards – but it surely doesn’t help generate a sense of life inside its occupants. What went incorrect, and the way might architecture correct its course?

Cluster of nearly-featureless city buildings with competing shapes and colors
An example of the sort of postmodern architecture Christopher Alexander criticized.
Garry Knight/Flickr, CC BY

Motivated by this query, Alexander conducted quite a few experiments throughout his profession, going deeper and deeper. Beginning together with his design patterns, he discovered that the designs that stirred up essentially the most feeling in people, what he called living structure, shared certain qualities. This wasn’t only a hunch, but a testable empirical theory, one which he validated and refined from the late Nineteen Seventies until the turn of the century. He identified 15 qualities, each with a technical definition and lots of examples.

The qualities are:

  • Levels of scale
  • Strong centers
  • Boundaries
  • Alternating repetition
  • Positive space
  • Good shape
  • Local symmetries
  • Deep interlocking and ambiguity
  • Contrast
  • Roughness
  • Echoes
  • The void
  • Simplicity and inner calm
  • Notseparateness

As Alexander writes, living structure will not be just nice and energizing, though additionally it is those. Living structure reaches into humans at a transcendent level – connecting individuals with themselves and with each other – with all humans across centuries and cultures and climates.

A tall Chinese pagoda against a blue sky rises above a row of trees in the foreground
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, China. Alexander considered this constructing a paragon of living structure, with its beautiful scale, inner calm and connectedness to its setting.
Alex Kwok/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Yet modern architecture, as Alexander showed, has only a few of the qualities that make living structure. In other words, over the Twentieth century architects taught each other to do all of it incorrect. Worse, these errors were crystallized in constructing codes, zoning laws, awards criteria and education. He decided it was time to show things around.

Alexander’s ideas have been hugely influential in architectural theory and criticism. But the world has not yet seen the paradigm shift he hoped for.

By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, Alexander recognized that for his goals to be achieved, there would have to be many more people on board – and not only architects, but all styles of planners, infrastructure developers and on a regular basis people. And perhaps other fields besides architecture. The digital revolution was coming to a head.

a virtual world showing a medley of elements: a statue, warped checker floors, and signs
A scene from the sport Second Life, evocative of the widespread metaverse imagery. Is it more just like the postmodern scene or the Chinese pagoda?
ZZ Bottom/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Alexander’s invitation to technology designers

As Alexander doggedly pursued his research, he began to notice the potential for digital technology to be a force for good. More and more, digital technology was becoming a part of the human environment – becoming, that’s, architectural.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s ideas about design patterns had entered the world of technology design as a approach to organize and communicate design knowledge. To be certain, this older work of Alexander’s proved very precious, particularly to software engineering.

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

In his talk, Alexander remarked that the tech industry was making great strides in efficiency and power but perhaps had not paused to ask: “What are we speculated to be doing with all these programs? How are they speculated to help the Earth?”

“For now, you’re like guns for hire,” Alexander said. He invited the audience to make technologies for good, not only for pay.

Loosening the design process

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

In short, this process involves democratic participation and comes from the underside up in an evolving progression incorporating the 15 qualities of living structure. The final result isn’t known ahead of time – it’s adapted along the way in which. The term “organic” involves mind, and this is suitable, because nature almost invariably creates living structure.

But typical architecture – and design in lots of fields – is, in contrast, top-down and strictly defined from the outset. In this machinelike process, rigid precision is prioritized over local adaptability, project roles are siloed apart and the emphasis is on industrial value and investment over the rest. This is a recipe for lifeless structure.

tree fern amid other green fern foliage
An example of natural living structure: a tree fern crozier unfurling.
brewbooks/flickr, CC BY-SA

Alexander’s work suggests that if living structure is the goal, the design process is the place to focus. And the technology field is starting to indicate inklings of change.

In project management, for instance, the traditional waterfall approach followed a rigid, step-by-step schedule defined upfront. The turn of the century saw the emergence of a more dynamic approach, dubbed agile, which allows for more adaptability through frequent check-ins and prioritization, progressing in “sprints” of 1 to 2 weeks quite than longer phases.

And in design, the human-centered design paradigm is likewise gaining steam. Human-centered design emphasizes, amongst other elements, continually testing and refining small changes with respect to design goals.

A design process that promotes life

However, Alexander would say that each these trajectories are missing a few of his deeper insights about living structure. They may spark more purchases and increase stock prices, but these approaches is not going to necessarily create technologies which can be good for everybody and good for the world.

Yet there are some emerging efforts toward this deeper end. For example, design pioneer Don Norman, who coined the term “user experience,” has been developing his ideas on what he calls humanity-centered design. This goes beyond human-centered design to concentrate on ecosystems, take a long-term view, incorporate human values and involve stakeholder communities along the way in which.

The vision of humanity-centered design calls for sweeping changes within the technology field. This is precisely the sort of reorientation that Alexander was calling for in his 1996 keynote speech. Just as design patterns suggested in the primary place, the technology field doesn’t must reinvent the wheel. Technologists and folks of all stripes can construct up from the tremendous, careful work that Alexander has left.

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