#3 The real reason a pen is mightier than a sword

Context, Christopher Alexander, and Making world a better place

“The pen is mightier than the sword”, is a commonly used adage.

We all know better, of course, than to take a pen to a sword fight. We know that a pen gets mightier than a sword, only due to the context of use. That is to say, pen as an enabler of free press usually wins over a sword as an enabler of violence - for same or opposing causes.

Pen and Sword are examples of forms. Natural world has forms that fit into real world irregularities (See iron filings and magnet above). We can design and build forms for irregularities we observe. Written word from a pen has higher leverage than person to person verbal communication. A sword creates advantage in hand-to-hand combat. Higher the degree of fit of a form to the context of the observed irregularity, fitter the form. The fitness within the same context could also provide leverage to one form over other – pen over sword when creating influence.

Christopher Alexander describes this form-context-fit trio in his 1964 book, Notes on Synthesis of Form. Alexander’s work is deep and broad, and even though it is centered on designing “alive” buildings, it is a must read for designers and engineers of all kinds. My interest in his work is centered around building good software. Because software applications we create are also examples of forms. Keeping that in foreground, I want to draw on a couple of Alexander’s insights to reflect upon further.

First, the purpose of design is to create “well-fitting forms”; forms that fit well into the context. Consider the following. People classify Amazon’s web and mobile experiences as outdated and visually overwhelming. Yet, it hasn’t come in the way of Amazon becoming a dominant force in e-commerce. It has an extremely sound search-driven experience, which makes it easier for people to find and purchase things, despite the clutter. The form here may not be the best looking, but it fits the context of site visitors perfectly. A related challenge in the current software world is that the notion of design has become too narrow. We typically frame design problems as providing simple and slick user interfaces or UIs . But UI is just a form, without the context.

The recent WhatsApp snafus provides an interesting case study. When context became heavily indexed on privacy, people switched forms quickly despite apparent network effects - WhatsApp to Signal and Telegram. Therefore, Form and its Context always need to be understood as a pair for achieving best fit.

Second insight is around the core objective of creating a new form itself. Whether it is to meet all requirements for a good fit, or it is to just eliminate scenarios of poor fit. The story of autonomous vehicles is a case in point. The original goal has been to “train” the software to deal with all possible “real world” road scenarios. We are starting to realize that those scenarios can be practically infinite. Hence, the newer approaches are, thankfully, focused on resolving specific constraints. For example, there is good evidence that autonomous vehicles can help with managing traffic jams. Or consider ideas around vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, like using HOV (high-occupancy-vehicle) lanes for autonomous vehicles, to create more controlled environments for them to operate in.

As these examples show, the right context to build comes from identifying constraints (removing “misfits”), not by listing down all the requirements for a good fit. According to Alexander, it is because, for a form yet to be built, you can only clearly describe context where fit is violated. More specific the context, better you can build the form for changes in that context. For that reason, it is impossible to describe all the possible contexts for a good fit. Otherwise, why would there be a design and engineering problem in the first place?

No doubt, Amazon.com and Autonomous Vehicles are vastly more complex human designed forms than a pen or a sword. However, the common insight is the importance of context, and deep understanding of it, to solve a real problem with a form you are looking to introduce into the world. Here, Alexander warns designers and builders against “impractical idealism”, when they are asked to “design simple objects” to “loosen difficult constraints”. The remedy, he suggests, is to be very careful in defining “form-context boundaries”, in terms of how they fit the “whole”. Alexander’s example of domestic kettle is quite apt (emphases mine).

Let us consider an ensemble consisting of the kettle plus everything about the world outside the kettle which is relevant to the use and manufacture of household utensils. Here again there seems to be a clear boundary between the teakettle and the rest of the ensemble, if we want one, because the kettle itself is a clearly defined kind of object. But I can easily make changes in the boundary. If I say that the kettle is the wrong way to heat domestic drinking water anyway, I can quickly be involved in the redesign of the entire house, and thereby push the context back to those things outside the house which influence the house's form.

In Alexander’s view, which I strongly agree with, you make the world a better place, not by acting on some idealistic design notions, but by a “rational” definition of “form-context boundaries” as they fit into the real world. Similar to how Amazon.com merges online shopping behaviors with quick and seamless delivery of physical products. Or, how autonomous vehicles can solve some real world problems, even if in a more limited context than previously imagined. We have to start worrying less about creating “systemic change”, and care more about deploying good solutions based on what we know.

I started with “The pen…..the sword” adage, because it explains the deep importance of context nicely. Because, it is an adage not only of a proverbial type, but a formally coined one. It was written as below by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839.

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand

To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —

States can be saved without it!

The pen (form), which by “itself is nothing”, can become an “arch-enchanters wand”. When it fits the context, it can “paralyse the Caesars” and “strike the loud earth breathless”.

And as we increasingly leverage software technology based forms to solve complex real world problems, the enduring insights from Christopher Alexander’s work provide an equally eloquent reminder.

The world becomes better, only when we, as designers and engineers, apply technology in the right context - one form at a time.