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An Environment Smarter than You Are

“The merit of style exists precisely in that it delivers the greatest number of ideas in the fewest number of words.”

-Victor Shklovsky

“Basic” is the best insult to emerge in the last few years, a slicing, leveling adjective perfect for the present zeitgeist. Like all great slang, there was no single word for what it expresses until now, and we immediately knew what basic meant when we first heard it. In a period of information overload, the word compresses whole blog posts and essays that might previously have had to be written, sparing us from reading them. We can now sweep the North Face jackets and pumpkin spice lattes away with a single gesture and free up time to pursue our higher callings or refresh Twitter more furiously.

Awareness of the basic is a necessary value of the present age, heavier than it seems, but not yet properly appreciated. The basic, to attempt a more rigorous definition, is that which adds nothing new: no information, no value. There’s a quote I can’t track down but always attributed to David Mamet, that bad drama merely affirms what we already know. Basicness is bad drama: It invokes what we already know and derives its full value from what’s already been created. Gregory Bateson called information “a difference that makes a difference.” That which is basic does not make a difference.

Bad drama, of course, has a place in life and can be fun to watch, and something basic can be quite good—an appreciation of The Wire or a Uniqlo shirt, for example—but sharing it with another person is only a handshake, an affirmation of sameness, and not a revelation that enriches reality (again, not everything needs to be a revelation that enriches reality). This only becomes a problem when there’s too much of what’s basic and the richer material—the real information—is crowded out or lost in the noise.

The opposite of basicness is style. If the basic is pure redundancy, in the informational sense, then Victor Shklovsky’s definition of style (see above) will suffice: an act of semantic compression that adds new information, expresses the familiar more concisely, or ideally both. Style involves an actual statement. We often equate style with high quality; this richness of information is why. There’s an excellent Ribbonfarm essay that praises density in writing, contrasting it with brevity. Density, as a prerequisite for style, involves an intelligent compression of information. Brevity, by contrast, is often just a loss of information. Style, density, and quality are frequently different ways of describing the same characteristics, in many domains.


The rules (source)

And now we arrive at why “basic” is such an important concept today: because the human environment—cities, the internet, commercial establishments, and even homes—are becoming more basic all the time. We finally have the perfect word to describe them. Maybe the incessant spread of the basic is why we finally had to name it. The generative forces now producing the world yield not only the corporate sameness of Starbucks and malls, but also the platform-driven predictability of the internet (Medium, Facebook) and the well-behaved consumerism of reconstructed urban areas. All of this has in common the above definition of basic: no new information, no surprises, no mystery or ambiguity, just what’s already known. Simpler, flatter, thinner. There are countervailing forces at work making the world more interesting, of course, but right now they are less powerful.

Why are we getting more basic? I blame design. Design, that impossibly broad discipline that by now touches—if it doesn’t envelop—almost every human product. Design, not software, is eating the world (and software is arguably a subset of design). To a hammer, everything is a nail; with the tools and technologies now at our civilization’s disposal, everything is a design opportunity.

Sanford Kwinter criticized our culture’s relationship with design and this emergent world “in which we are hectored mercilessly by design, swathed in its miasma of artificial affectation, hyperstyle and micro-human-engineering that anticipates, like a subtle reflex arc, our every move and gesture. Design has now penetrated to, even threatens to replace, the existential density, the darkness, the slow intractable mystery of what was once the human social world…Design has become us; it is, alas, what we are, and there is no way (for now at least) to separate ourselves from it.” To Kwinter, design is making the world less free, less complex, and less interesting, if possibly more “user-friendly.”

Design has existed for millennia, though, so why is it only now having this effect? Well, design is fundamentally the organization of information, and information has grown easier to copy and more mobile than ever. The “rules” that emerge as design principles today are too easy to disseminate, cheaper (in time, effort, or price), and often proven effective in some way, so they end up everywhere. A few examples:

  • A developer builds a strip mall by applying a few rules, optimizes for economic performance, and plugs in a variety of chain stores that are more or less copied from existing templates.
  • A writer posts on Medium to reach a wider audience and avoid worrying about managing a personal website or blog. The written content may be excellent, but the context, page layout, and often tone are standardized by the platform’s rules, restricting the variety of the readers’ experience.
  • Any American city’s truly weird bars and restaurants are slowly being replaced by more familiar “types” that stray less from familiar experience: wine bar, New American restaurant, high-end ice cream shop. Hence a contrasting example like New Orleans becomes more exceptional and interesting as time passes.

You’re probably thinking, “this didn’t start with the internet—every culture has copied itself in most of what it produced.” This is true, and originality is always scarce, but what’s changed is how me make the copy when we reproduce an idea. The fidelity of digital transmission, so valuable in other domains, means that copies don’t change enough. A designer’s rule can travel around the world without much alteration. And this isn’t even counting algorithms, which produce even more inflexible and widespread outcomes.

A copy, a rule, a transmitted design are basic in their pure forms—no information is added. In contrast to such rules we have patterns, best described by Christopher Alexander: a better way for information to travel. A pattern is an idea of something that is consistently desirable within a larger system, like a park in a city or a novelistic device, but with a need for interpretation and no exact blueprint for its execution. Each new person who copies these must add information through their interpretation of the pattern, and the variation that results is where everything interesting happens.

In his introduction to A Pattern Language, Alexander writes, ”It is possible to make buildings by stringing together patterns, in a rather loose way. A building made like this, is an assembly of patterns. It is not dense. It is not profound. But it is also possible to put patterns together in such a way that many patterns overlap in the same physical space: the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density, it becomes profound.” Urbanists so often call for one kind of density—a greater concentration of population in space—but the kind of density Alexander describes is more important.

Among the aforementioned design failures is the so-called “smart city” movement, a quixotic effort to build cities out of rules rather than patterns. Smart cities, like their modernist forebears, embody the shortcomings of design as Kwinter critiqued it, and usually only succeed in the pockets their plans fail to reach or influence. Ironically, the smart city produces an environment that is dumber (more basic) than the delicate, creative complexity humans are usually able to produce on their own. Lewis Mumford wrote that the chief function of a city is to “convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” In other words, to create information and counteract entropy. Despite the intentions and unintentions of design, if we hope to live in the world we want, we need to seek out environments that are smarter than we are.

3 Comments on “An Environment Smarter than You Are”

  1. lucas3foot says:

    I’m curious to know what you might say about WordPress. In my mind, this is a platform that has patterns that we can follow, but the degree of freedom is enormous. That being said, there are certain outcomes of formatting (and design), and certain rules that we can’t break out of. Is this the kind of thing you praise and want more of? Are there any analogs to this in the physical space? (Street fairs…?)

    • kneelingbus says:

      WordPress is probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, as you suggest. I’ll admit that I use it now because it’s easier than building my own website, not for any special belief that it’s the best option (I’d like to migrate to my own site eventually). I agree with how you characterize it: high degree of freedom but standardized in certain ways. It’s definitely more varied than Medium in this regard. I also accept that there’s a need to automate certain activities (web design) to free up time for others (writing) but in a perfect world we’d all have plenty of time for both.

      As for analogs in the physical world, a city-sanctioned street fair or festival is a perfect example – they often have the same ingredients and copy a similar formula each time they’re repeated, but there are minor flourishes that can distinguish one from another. Not quite a “pattern” as Christopher Alexander describes, but more varied than a chain store. Or the contemporary food truck, that can vary within a few parameters but necessarily assumes a predictable “format.”

      • lucas3foot says:

        I like it. Call us WordPress bloggers the “food trucks” of the internet. I can relate to the desire to automate parts of the design process – if there’s anything that’s at a premium these days, it’s time, and getting the words out with good design (and a degree of freedom) as efficiently as possible is crucial for me. It takes me long enough to write a single post, anyway!

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