Crabs Are A Process
The word “crab” brings to mind a snapshot (or perhaps a scuttling mental video) of the surface appearance of an adult crab. Like most nouns, “crab” is a metonym for a complex system of processes that are concealed by the snapshot-in-time and surface appearance connotations of the word. Some processes are internal to crabs, such as respiration, digestion, and the Krebs cycle. Other processes are impossible to localize in the space and time of a crab snapshot. The adult coconut crab (Birgus latro) is evidence of a complex reproductive process, in which crabs mate and drop their eggs into the ocean on a rocky beach at dusk; the eggs exist as plankton, then as small hermit crabs; eventually some re-emerge on islands to grow into adult coconut crabs. They also interact with human processes, such as fishing, cars, and perhaps occasionally the deceased female aviator process.
Boxer crabs carry anemones in their claws and use the toxins in the anemones’ tentacles for defense; the anemones feed on the crabs’ scraps. The boxer crab process is inseparable from the anemone process. Wider processes are relevant to crabs as well, including the weather effects from long-term astronomical processes, ocean currents, asteroids, and evolution itself. Some processes are inseparable; others have limited interaction; some are completely separate, although subtle interdependencies are often hidden.
The physical shape of the adult crab represents the successful interaction of many processes. Carcinization is the process by which diverse non-crablike life forms adopt the shape of a crab – indicating that the crab shape is a kind of attractor, a particularly viable form given all the relevant processes within the system.
Christopher Alexander: Fit, Attractors, and Visual Solutions to Complexity
Christopher Alexander’s books Notes on the Synthesis of Form (hereafter Notes) and A Pattern Language are the two most insight-dense books about design I’ve ever read. In order to borrow and expand on Alexander’s concepts, I’ll summarize them briefly.
“Fit” is a property of good design – a design element or system interacting with humans and other systems to produce a useful, comfortable, stable, or otherwise appropriate result. “Misfit” is the absence of fit – an uncomfortable chair, a teapot too heavy to use, long commute times, or a house that falls down in a heavy wind. Fit exists in context – a video game that is predictable exhibits misfit because it is boring, while a restaurant schedule that is predictable exhibits good fit. Misfit is more visible than fit; as noted above, subtle interdependencies are hard to predict. Misfit cries out for a solution, but naive solutions often result in worse misfit.
How can human brains handle such complexity? Noticing and cataloging interdependencies within a system is the first step toward human-brain-accessible good design. When you change something in a large, densely interconnected system, you often change many other things. Luckily, complex systems can often be broken into densely interconnected parts that are not very connected to each other. I reproduce Alexander’s elegant illustration of this process in Notes:
Once systems are divided into relatively independent parts, the third step of the design process occurs: creating visual representations as fit solutions for each sub-part. These sub-parts are then visually fitted together into a whole. Visual insights are often extremely difficult to communicate in words; encouraging and practicing the communication of visual insights is one of my medium-term goals for this blog. Visual representations have the power to conceal and render useful complex analytic rigor, as with the concept of shape in go.
Notes is a brief description of a process of design. A Pattern Language, I believe, is an attempt to catalog attractors with the quality of good fit in the human design domain, from the level of the room to the level of the city. Just as a crab represents a successful pattern at the intersection of many processes, so Alexander et al.’s patterns represent forms that achieve or characterize good fit in interaction with complex human processes. (I will note that I came to this conclusion under the influence of hallucinogens, a state in which visual insights that are hard to articulate frequently present themselves.) Though flawed, incomplete, and occasionally insane, these patterns and the method by which they are derived are powerful tools for thinking about how human flourishing is accomplished. I would love to see A Pattern Language for religions, for example. D. E. Brown’s list of human universals is a minimalist starting point. Convergent evolution, whether biological (as with carcinization) or cultural, points to the existence of an attractor at the intersection of all the relevant processes.
Time and Dragons
In addition to thinking about things interacting with surrounding systems, we must also think about things over time. The snapshot view of a crab is not as helpful as the view of crabs as a process over time. It may be more useful to sometimes think about peopling, rather than about people.
Much of the magic of the excellent TVTropes is its crystallization of narrative processes and changes. It is a Book of Changes for narrative, a hundred times richer and more successful than V. I. Propp’s The Morphology of the Tale. What is needed is nothing less than a TVTropes for human life.
Someone once told me that in feng shui, one of the principles is to imagine a dragon moving through a room, to mentally simulate people walking through over time. This is an elegant idea, taking rooms out of the still world of architecture models and placing them in the context of peopling over time. I propose using “dragon” as a metonym for insightful ideas like this: a conceptualization that makes a process over time apparent, especially one that enables easier mental testing of “fit” in Alexander’s sense.
There are probably many dragons buried beneath our awareness, in our verbs and process nouns. New dragons are easier to see; I think gene surfing is an example of a dragon, though not one with design implications. Can you think of any examples of dragons? Triple points for dragons related to social or religious domains.