|Christopher Alexander (photo by Jerry Telfer)|
We left off in the middle of a discussion of four problems with master plans. We have discussed (1) precision and (2) imprecision. Before continuing on to (3) alienation, we need to take a closer look at why master plans are both too precise and also not precise enough.
The problem is a pressing one, because ever since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act (1996) the main federal VISTA adopters (VA and IHS) have done most of their VISTA development through contracts awarded and administered through the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). This method of software development requires that the federal agency in question specifies at the outset the outcome for which they are contracting. Every federal VISTA-development contract begins, de facto, with a master plan.
So why do the plans that VA and IHS try to use to develop VISTA lead them to both too much precision and too little?
In The Oregon Experiment, Christopher Alexander answers thusly: because master plans reduce developers, users, planners, and project managers to prophets, to predicting the future, to trying to decide in advance how things will turn out. We suck at prophecy. Any system of organization that requires us to be prophets steers us toward our weaknesses, makes failures of us, because we rarely know at the outset how things will turn out in the end.
Alexander's right, and that's the easiest way to explain what's wrong with master plans, but there is another explanation, another way to look at the problem.
|Hegel (steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling)|
As Hegel defines the terms, Verstand is a left-brain process of analysis, in which the whole is analyzed into parts. Verstand sees the whole as merely the sum of its parts, attempts to comprehend it through identification of those parts, attempts to control it through the manipulation of those parts. This fragmenting perspective on wholistic, organic systems invites Verstand to try to deduce knowledge about the whole through a process of logical derivations from a priori assumptions (such as what the parts are that supposedly make up the whole). It's like trying to understand the world if your only tool for investigation is a knife, good only for chopping things into pieces and rearranging them on the table.
|Toaster, made of parts (photo by Conavan Govan)|
With Verstand we cannot model living systems without doing such violence to them that we deeply miscomprehend them. The grotesque inadequacies and distortions of the clumsy, clanking mechanisms by which Verstand insists on trying to understand organic order creates false distinctions between what are only aspects of a vast, organic whole. Further, while attending to these false distinctions it also misses whole swaths of vital meaning that do not present themselves in the Verstand-friendly forms of parts or facts or axioms or deductions. From the resulting homunculus, Verstand then tries to draw logical inferences about the optimal future state, then builds plans to try to reach that false future through mechanistic means and logical deduction. Even before the plan is written, the battle has already been lost because the planners are not dealing with reality but with Verstand's blinkered, mechanistic conception of reality. It's as though the master-planning process begins by putting on one-dimensional glasses, and then drawing up plans based on the linear, cartoon world that results.
|"Keep that up and I'll bite one of your parts."|
This is why master plans are paradoxically both too precise and not precise enough. The key to avoiding this paradox is to avoid using Verstand thought processes when dealing with complex, organic order.
Fortunately, human beings are also equipped from birth with an alternative mode of thinking, with Begriff. In part two we'll show how to distinguish the two and how to use them in their proper spheres.