Diary: Two lectures and a conference

27 October 2013

On Monday, I heard a lecture by Michael Sieweke, who studies cities like New Orleans and Venice that are shaped over time by the interaction of rivers and the sea. The next night, I heard another by Manuel Castells, a polymath whose current interest is social movements that make use of the Internet to organize and mobilize. On Saturday, I went to a conference on Horst Rittel, Mel Webber, and "wicked problems"* 40 years later. 

A remark in passing by Sieweke to the effect that the current problems in the Venice lagoon (it's turning into a bay) stem from riverine interventions in the Veneto initiated by Venice in the Renaissance reminded me of the singular importance of time. Time was, curiously, mostly missing in the reconsideration of Rittel's notion of wicked problems. (Two people referenced Steward Brand's Clock of the Long Now in the Q&A, but the panelists didn't understand their questions.) The term "wicked problems" itself was questioned - Hugh Dubberly suggested "tangles" and several speakers were at pains to distinguish them from the merely complex. (One speaker noted that so-called "tame" problems are thorny in reality and may be "wicked" without our realizing it.) 

The final conference session, focused on community involvement in the planning process, brought the time issue into focus for me. The discussion hovered around fundamental disagreements about issues. Near the end of his life, Rittel proposed what he called "issue-based information systems," arguing that with community problems, intractable by nature, the best you can do is to track the debate. I think this is true - that unfolding time in fact resolves a lot of arguments, either because the protagonists get past their prejudices or because they die off and the next generation can't see what the fuss was about. 

In the second panel, Stanford's Terry Winograd asserted that we've entered the age of monstrosities, while IIT's Kim Erwin, noting the existence of huge, consequential data pools that contain inaccurate information, said that the problem with "monstrosities" like this is that no one's responsible. (She gave the example of a federal database of people with criminal records. It's estimated to be wrong 6% of the time, and the agency "responsible" won't stand by its accuracy. The current Obamacare portal screw-up and the NSA scandal suggest that "no one responsible" is how the government designs its initiatives.)

Combining these two comments, I immediately thought of Syria, which gives the West no "lever" for intervention (short of armed attack) with the exception of the poison gas removal, an old-style international action for which Assad, of all people, ends up taking responsibility. But I also thought of Castells' discussion of social movements, driven by outrage against larger entities they no longer trust: corporations, the market, and government especially.

Castells' description of social movements "horizontality" and peculiar stasis reminded me of a group process workshop (Tavistock Institute, et al) that I took in the early 1970s - a process without a task. Occupy has tasks, of course, but is studiously leaderless. Castells, who's in the midst of working out a theory, said that Occupy is the confluence of cyberspace and public space. He mentioned what he called the "space of autonomy" - by occupying public space (or any space that is nominally public but in reality controlled by others), Occupy shifts that space temporarily into the public realm, making a broader point - a symbolic point - about how constricted our space of autonomy really is. My sense is that Occupy's influence will be felt later, that it will seem much more impactful in retrospect. Some of that influence may simply be that it channeled the zeitgeist at a time when no one else was able to do so.

Another of the panelists, a Berkeley engineering professor named Eric Paulos, showed a slide of a 1984 project by Mark Weiser, "Aspen TV," that anticipated Google street view by roughly two decades. "I have dozens of examples," he told me later. What he was showing is the lag behind an idea's first appearance and its "sudden" wide currency. Rittel is like that - devoted to the Socratic method, he wrote relatively little, but has had an outsized influence over time, not always with attribution. As Michael Sieweke's Venice lagoon example shows, influence is a two-edged sword. Castells said that social movements aren't always benign, which brought the post-World War I Freikorps and Brown Shirts to mind, the genesis of the Nazi's parallel armed force. The Tea Party was asked about in the Q&A, another social movement that could go either way.

*: "Wicked problems" was defined by Rittel and Webber by a list of attributes. If I were to define it, I would say that it's a problem that can only be resolved, not solved  - that will arise again in some other form. Housing people decently is a classic example - a problem pretty much forever. 


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