It’s interesting how things happen. Last week I discovered a great presentation by Brian Clark on Transmedia, Art and Phenomenology, and now this week I find an excellent one by Charles Tolman and thought I would write a few notes on it. Toman is interested in the process of desiging software, a complex process in which the designers and coders are required to have an understanding of both the high-level structural design and the low-level design elements. Hierarchy-based management methods will not work, since there is a dynamic relationship between the parts and the whole, a dynamic way of seeing which Tolman also sees in the work of Henri Bortoft.
As Tolman says:
This is why I am so sceptical about large system initiatives managed in the traditional way. One of the latest casualties being the BBC DMI initiative which was abandoned after a project spend of £98 million. Ouch.
This does NOT mean that we cannot make large systems, it just means that we must factor in this tight link between the whole and the parts, the high and low level design. This is hard, even requiring a significant evolution of consciousness if we take on the ideas of Henri Bortoft and the Goethean scientific approach.
So much of our culture sits on assumptions that hierarchical structures work. Indeed a top-down approach is the usual way that I have done projects in the past. But I have to jump to the risky items FIRST, many of which will be low-level design problems that, if not solved, will mean the whole effort is a waste of time. This is why I much prefer attacking problems incrementally, which is a much more organic process and also explains the rise of Agile software development techniques.
If we look at who Tolman finds interesting, it is some of the great philosophers, including I am glad to see Goethe and Gadamer, both of who make regular appearances on Transition Consciousness (see Key Articles if you wish to read more).
Tolman also sees great value in the work of Iain McGilchrist, who has written about the different ways in which our left and right brain hemispheres comprehend reality. We should not get stuck in the left-hemisphere way of seeing, which misses the ‘coming-into-being’ aspect of experience.
I do not really intend this article to be a master class in phenomenology, that would be too much. It is more about drawing people’s attention to why the philosophical discipline of phenomenology is relevant to software design, and indeed, all design. In being so focused on the concept of the appearing of objects in our conceptual worlds, it teaches us to have a disciplined imagination.
We can learn to develop a disciplined imagination by studying the method of observation developed by Goethe, which Goethe himself called a “delicate empiricism’. Sometimes we miss just how important observations are in problem solving, and we are so caught up in our mental models of what we suppose a situation is, we can miss extremely important aspects.
As Tolman concludes in his slides, what this work is guiding us towards is a new world view where we are no longer trapped by our own technology, but one where we are more conscious, working on both our technological and human development, so that technology can be better shaped towards human needs. What I would add is that working with Goethe’s delicate empiricism re-awakens within us a sensitivity to the livingness of the natural world, and therefore I would like to hope that we are batter able to develop technologies in harmony with our planet.
My previous article mentioned how Brian Clark is encouraging the creation of a new movement inspired by phenomenology. There are certainly many people around the world who have gained deep insights into their practices, whatever these may be, so perhaps the time is now fertile for this movement to reach a wider audience?