Monday, March 13, 2006

Timeless Way

A Timeless Way of Building

Just been reading Dion Hinchcliffe's post A Timeless Way of Building Software, in which he rewrites the opening of Christopher Alexander's book A Timeless Way of Building into a kind of Web 2.0 manifesto. See my earlier post on Christopher Alexander.

Dion seems to want to present Web 2.0 as something new, and yet grounded in ancient software engineering wisdom. His own examples are all very recent, but his version of Alexander's principles would seem to apply to every piece of software ever produced by Microsoft, especially Windows and Word. As I said in my recent comment Hype and Hyperbola on the impending encounter between Dion and Dare Obasanjo, "technology is full of statements that lack precise empirical support". Especially in the "blogosphere" (stupid word, yes Dare I agree.)

The Google interface is a particularly interesting test case. Much praised for its simplicity, it provides access to some extremely sophisticated computer science - certainly not something you could produce by mashing together a few software design patterns. Nothing timeless about this, unless you count the timeless quality of hard work. And all credit to Joshua (creator of and the Flickr people for putting in a lot of creative hard work, and getting bought out by Yahoo. You certainly can't attribute their success just to deep study of the Gang of Four book. (Or to Gang of Four song lyrics.)

Coincidentally, the cityofsound blog today provides a couple of extracts from an Observer article on Divine Inspiration, which shows how painter Will Alsop and composer Steve Reich both rely on hard work - doing something that we could call a Focal Practice (as this term is used by the American philosopher of technology Albert Borgman).

Christopher Alexander's original book was called the Timeless Way of Building. The title ends with a verb - a focal practice. Dion Hinchcliffe has stuck a noun on the end, which changes the emphasis completely. And in any case, I think it's the wrong noun.

If there is a timeless way that is illustrated by Dion's examples (and I'm not convinced about this), then it is not about software. It's about business service. As the software increasingly becomes a reconfigurable commodity, then it becomes possible for people to produce new business services - the timeless (but often forgotten) principles and structural patterns here are not about software but about the service economy - supply and demand.

Yet another new blog crossed my path this weekend. In his post Business Patterns, Allan Kelly mentions Christopher Alexander and myself, and points out that I haven't updated my patterns material recently. True - and furthermore I still haven't followed up my post from December 2004 on Patterns and Strategies. I think Allan's line of enquiry may be significantly more productive than Dion's, and I really will try and follow it up this time ...

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