Blog All Kindle-clipped Locations: Destruction and Creation

I fin­ished my pre­vi­ous post on why design­ers should be inter­est­ed in John Boyd with the rec­om­men­da­tion to read his essay “Destruc­tion and Cre­ation”. I thought I’d share the bits I high­light­ed in my copy. It is part of Osin­ga’s Sci­ence, Strat­e­gy and War, to which the loca­tions below refer.

Loca­tion 3176 – Boyd intro­duces a very sim­ple but fun­da­men­tal rea­son for why we should care about deci­sion making:

… a basic aim or goal, as indi­vid­u­als, is to improve our capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action

Loca­tion 3183 – the same applies to design and design­ers. We do not want to be con­trolled by our cir­cum­stances. Boyd was talk­ing to a mil­i­tary audi­ence, but the descrip­tion below is true of any social sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing the design practice:

In a real world of lim­it­ed resources and skills, indi­vid­u­als and groups form, dis­solve and reform their coop­er­a­tive or com­pet­i­tive pos­tures in a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to remove or over­come phys­i­cal and social envi­ron­men­tal obstacles.

Loca­tion 3190

Against such a back­ground, actions and deci­sions become crit­i­cal­ly important.

Loca­tion 3192

To make these time­ly deci­sions implies that we must be able to form men­tal con­cepts of observed real­i­ty, as we per­ceive it, and be able to change these con­cepts as real­i­ty itself appears to change.

Loca­tion 3195 – design­ers are asked to do noth­ing but the above. The suc­ces of our designs hinges on our under­stand­ing of real­i­ty and our skill at inter­ven­ing in it. So the ques­tion below is of vital impor­tance to us:

How do we gen­er­ate or cre­ate the men­tal con­cepts to sup­port this deci­sion-mak­ing activity?

Loca­tion 3196 – in the next sec­tion of the essay Boyd starts to pro­vide answers:

There are two ways in which we can devel­op and manip­u­late men­tal con­cepts to rep­re­sent observed real­i­ty: We can start from a com­pre­hen­sive whole and break it down to its par­tic­u­lars or we can start with the par­tic­u­lars and build towards a com­pre­hen­sive whole.

Loca­tion 3207

… gen­er­al-to-spe­cif­ic is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, while, spe­cif­ic-to-gen­er­al is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and integration.

Loca­tion 3216

… such an unstruc­tur­ing or destruc­tion of many domains – to break the cor­re­spon­dence of each with its respec­tive con­stituents – is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. We call this kind of unstruc­tur­ing a destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3225

… cre­ativ­i­ty is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and inte­gra­tion since we pro­ceed­ed from unstruc­tured bits and pieces to a new gen­er­al pat­tern or con­cept. We call such action a cre­ative or con­struc­tive induction.

Loca­tion 3227 – here Boyd starts to con­nect the two ways of cre­at­ing con­cepts. I have always found it grat­i­fy­ing to immerse myself in a design’s domain and to start teas­ing apart its con­stituent ele­ments, before mov­ing on to acts of creation:

It is impor­tant to note that the cru­cial or key step that per­mits this cre­ative induc­tion is the sep­a­ra­tion of the par­tic­u­lars from their pre­vi­ous domains by the destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3230

… the unstruc­tur­ing and restruc­tur­ing just shown reveals a way of chang­ing our per­cep­tion of reality.

Loca­tion 3237 – so far so fair­ly straight-for­ward. But Boyd gets increas­ing­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed about this cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation. For exam­ple, he sug­gests we should check for inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy of a new con­cept by trac­ing back its ele­ments to the orig­i­nal sources:

… we check for reversibil­i­ty as well as check to see which ideas and inter­ac­tions match-up with our obser­va­tions of reality.

Loca­tion 3240 – so this is not a two-step lin­ear act, but a cycli­cal one, where we keep tun­ing parts and wholes of a con­cept (or design) and test them against reality:

Over and over again this cycle of Destruc­tion and Cre­ation is repeat­ed until we demon­strate inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy and match-up with reality.

Loca­tion 3249 – in the next sec­tion, Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the process he has pro­posed by show­ing that once we have formed a con­cept, its matchup to real­i­ty imme­di­ate­ly starts to deteriorate:

… at some point, ambi­gu­i­ties, uncer­tain­ties, anom­alies, or appar­ent incon­sis­ten­cies may emerge to sti­fle a more gen­er­al and pre­cise match-up of con­cept with observed reality.

Loca­tion 3257 – the point below is one I can’t help but iter­ate often enough to clients and cowork­ers. We must work under the assump­tion of mis­match­es occur­ring soon­er or lat­er. It is an essen­tial state of mind:

… we should antic­i­pate a mis­match between phe­nom­e­na obser­va­tion and con­cept descrip­tion of that observation.

Loca­tion 3266 – he brings in Gödel, Heisen­berg and the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics to explain why this is so:

Gödel’s Proof indi­rect­ly shows that in order to deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy of any new sys­tem we must con­struct or uncov­er anoth­er sys­tem beyond it.

Loca­tion 3274

Back and forth, over and over again, we use obser­va­tions to sharp­en a con­cept and a con­cept to sharp­en obser­va­tions. Under these cir­cum­stances, a con­cept must be incom­plete since we depend upon an ever-chang­ing array of obser­va­tions to shape or for­mu­late it. Like­wise, our obser­va­tions of real­i­ty must be incom­plete since we depend upon a chang­ing con­cept to shape or for­mu­late the nature of new inquiries and observations.

Loca­tion 3301 – so Gödel shows we need to con­tin­u­ous­ly cre­ate new con­cepts to main­tain the use­ful­ness of pri­or ones due to the rela­tion­ship between observed real­i­ty and men­tal con­cepts. Good news for design­ers! Our work is nev­er done. It is also an inter­est­ing way to think about cul­ture evolv­ing by the build­ing of increas­ing­ly com­plex net­works of pri­or con­cepts into new ones. Next, Boyd brings in Heisen­berg to explain why there is uncer­tain­ty involved when mak­ing obser­va­tions of reality:

… the mag­ni­tude of the uncer­tain­ty val­ues rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed.

Loca­tion 3304

… uncer­tain­ty val­ues not only rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed but also the degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der per­ceived by that observer.

Loca­tion 3308 – Heisen­berg shows that the more we become intwined with observed real­i­ty the more uncer­tain­ty increas­es. This is of note because as we design new things and we intro­duce them into the envi­ron­ment, unex­pect­ed things start to hap­pen. But also, we as design­ers our­selves are part of the envi­ron­ment. The more we are part of the same con­text we are design­ing for, the less able we will be to see things as they tru­ly are. Final­ly, for the third move by which Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the cre­ation of new con­cepts, we arrive at the sec­ond law of thermodynamics:

High entropy implies a low poten­tial for doing work, a low capac­i­ty for tak­ing action or a high degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der. Low entropy implies just the opposite.

Loca­tion 3312 – closed sys­tems are those that don’t com­mu­ni­cate with their envi­ron­ment. A suc­cess­ful design prac­tice should be an open sys­tem, lest it suc­cumb to entropy:

From this law it fol­lows that entropy must increase in any closed system 

… when­ev­er we attempt to do work or take action inside such a sys­tem – a con­cept and its match-up with real­i­ty – we should antic­i­pate an increase in entropy hence an increase in con­fu­sion and disorder.

Loca­tion 3317 – it’s impor­tant to note that Boy­d’s ideas are equal­ly applic­a­ble to design plans, design prac­tices, design out­comes, any sys­tem involved in design, real­ly. Con­fused? Not to wor­ry, Boyd boils it down in the next and final section:

Accord­ing to Gödel we can­not – in gen­er­al – deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy, hence the char­ac­ter or nature, of an abstract sys­tem with­in itself. Accord­ing to Heisen­berg and the Sec­ond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncer­tain­ty and gen­er­ate disorder.

Loca­tion 3320 – the bit below is a pret­ty good sum­ma­ry of why “big design up front” does not work:

any inward-ori­ent­ed and con­tin­ued effort to improve the match-up of con­cept with observed real­i­ty will only increase the degree of mismatch.

Loca­tion 3329 – when­ev­er we encounter chaos the instinct is to stick to our guns, but it is prob­a­bly wis­er to take a step back and recon­sid­er our assumptions:

we find that the uncer­tain­ty and dis­or­der gen­er­at­ed by an inward-ori­ent­ed sys­tem talk­ing to itself can be off­set by going out­side and cre­at­ing a new system.

Loca­tion 3330 – cre­ativ­i­ty or explo­rative design under pres­sure can seem like a waste of time but once we have gone through the exer­cise in hind sight we always find it more use­ful than thought before:

Sim­ply stat­ed, uncer­tain­ty and relat­ed dis­or­der can be dimin­ished by the direct arti­fice of cre­at­ing a high­er and broad­er more gen­er­al con­cept to rep­re­sent reality.

Loca­tion 3340

I believe we have uncov­ered a Dialec­tic Engine that per­mits the con­struc­tion of deci­sion mod­els need­ed by indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties for deter­min­ing and mon­i­tor­ing actions in an effort to improve their capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action.

Loca­tion 3341

the goal seek­ing effort itself appears to be the oth­er side of a con­trol mech­a­nism that seems also to dri­ve and reg­u­late the alter­nat­ing cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation toward high­er and broad­er lev­els of elaboration.

Loca­tion 3347 – chaos is a fact of life, and as such we should wel­come it because it is as much a source of vital­i­ty as it is a threat:

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, then, an entropy increase per­mits both the destruc­tion or unstruc­tur­ing of a closed sys­tem and the cre­ation of a new sys­tem to nul­li­fy the march toward ran­dom­ness and death.

Loca­tion 3350 – one of Boy­d’s final lines is a fine descrip­tion of what I think design should aspire to: 

The result is a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of men­tal con­cepts matched to a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of observed reality.

Week 173

At the stu­dio, cof­fee brew­ing in the french press, El Guin­cho on the stereo. Last week I felt over­whelmed, this week I just feel aller­gic. Lit­er­al­ly. I have a head full of anti­his­t­a­mines, hope they kick in soon.

One thing I decid­ed to do about the over­whelm­ing bit is block out more time in my cal­en­dar for work. Not say­ing how much, but I already had some time blocked for a while now, and I have dou­bled that. It just won’t do to have hard­ly any time to do actu­al design. I guess I’ll just need to to talk to few­er peo­ple. If you do not push back, it is easy to lose all your time to meet-ups. Peo­ple are reck­less in the ease with which they impose on oth­er’s time. Myself includ­ed.1

We played a card game last night at the stu­dio. An insight I’ve had after review­ing the past peri­od with my interns. To become bet­ter design­ers, we need to make a lot of games, this is true.2 But it also helps to play games, many games, of any kind. So we’ll set apart an hour or so each week and we’ll play a game that some­one brings in. I kicked it off with Domin­ion, which is inter­est­ing for the way it has built upon trad­ing-card-game deck-build­ing mechan­ics, like Mag­ic the Gath­er­ing. In stead of it being some­thing that hap­pens before a game it takes place in par­al­lel to the game.

What else is of note? Ah yes. I attend­ed Design by Fire 2010 on Wednes­day. It is still the best con­fer­ence on inter­ac­tion design in the Nether­lands. And I real­ly appre­ci­ate the fact that the orga­niz­ers con­tin­ue to take risks with who they put on stage. Too often do I feel like being part or at least spec­ta­tor of some clique at events, with all speak­ers know­ing each oth­er and com­ing from more or less the same “school of thought”. Not so with Design by Fire. High­lights includ­ed David McCan­d­less, Andrei Herasim­chuk, m’col­league Ianus and of course Bill Bux­ton.

The lat­ter also remind­ed me of some use­ful frames of thought for next Tues­day, when I will need to spend around half an hour talk­ing about the future of games, from a design per­spec­tive, at an invi­ta­tion-only think-tank like ses­sion orga­nized by STT.3 The orga­niz­ers asked me to set an ambi­tion time frame, but as you may know I have a very hard time imag­in­ing any future beyond say, the next year or two. (And some­times I also have trou­ble being hope­ful about it.) But as Mr. Bux­ton points out, ideas need a ges­ta­tion peri­od of around 20 years before they are ready for prime­time, so I am plan­ning to look back some ten years, see what occu­pied the games world back then, and use that as a jump­ing off point for what­ev­er I’ll be talk­ing about. Let’s get start­ed on that now.

  1. Mule Design had an inter­est­ing post on this. Part of the prob­lem is peo­ple, but part also soft­ware, accord­ing to them. Imag­ine a cal­en­dar you sub­tract time from in stead of add to. []
  2. Tom wrote a won­der­ful post on games lit­er­a­cy. []
  3. The Nether­lands Study Cen­tre for Tech­nol­o­gy Trends. []