synthetic zero

November 28th, 2008

There’s an interesting tension between structure and freedom; normally, we see these as in opposition but in fact there’s a curious dynamic, which is: leaving things mostly unstructured (that is to say, attempting to design, build, manage, or create something with a minimum of formal process) can, in fact, discourage rather than encourage openness and amplify unconscious habits and allow unexamined assumptions to proliferate and dominate. Of course, process can be stifling, especially if it is overly heavyweight; however, it’s also the case that plunging forward without carefully examining and reexamining one’s prejudices, without explicitly providing space and time to discover the unexpected, can lead to repetition rather than novelty, stasis rather than creativity.

It’s important, therefore, to balance freedom with process; it’s possible to be systematic about deconstructing one’s preconceptions, about carefully observing the results of one’s work, about listening to the world, discovering things about the effect one’s designs and actions are having or might have, on the world.  A concrete example would be doing user testing of a proposed design; rather than simply building something and hoping it is easy to use or understandable, trying it out with potential users and observing what happens. Another would be engaging in a Deming cycle of continuous process improvement: regularly examining and reexamining the way one is managing, building, designing, and updating a process or a product. Another, more personal, example might be sitting meditation: providing a context in which one is not trying to “do” something active, but simply paying attention, providing a space to notice things about one’s situation, habits, or context which might otherwise go unnoticed in the flurry of activity that fills most people’s lives. One can make some effort to regularly examine one’s activity and formulate testable hypotheses about it; i.e., create a theory, a view of a process, one which, being explicit, is open to question and revision, rather than simply plunging forward without forming any provisional views (neglecting to form a view is not the same as having no views; it simply means one’s hidden assumptions and unstated views become the unquestioned set of assumptions under which one operates.)

There are so many assumptions people make, small and large, all the time, which are, in fact, worth examining; everything from how to tie your shoes to the nature of time, space, memory, desire, fear, love, and action. And, it helps to use forms, structures, to aid us in seeing and uncovering these assumptions, so they can be refined and opened up to something larger, more encompassing, more precise, and more practical.  Using a form (a process or practice), in other words, to break down the tyranny of forms (preconceptions and habits of mind and body).

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  1. natalie says:

    fascinating. this is how 12-step programs operate. they are very loosely structured, and one constant is “working the steps,” an ongoing practice of self honesty, observation, and opening up.

    December 6th, 2008 at 7:22 pm

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