Category Archives: discourse machine

A Dictionary of Received Ideas

Her colleagues often repeated that ‘there is no perfect solution to a design problem‘. Rebecca was pretty sure she had read it somewhere within the context of computer science or learning technology but after looking all over, she still had not found a solid source for the idea. After posting her question to the mailinglist, Luke e-mailed almost instantaneously:

It sounds like you are looking for Rittel and Webber’s third of ten characteristics of wicked problems:
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad1

The ‘third characteristic’ Luke was referring to, came from a book on the theory of planning:

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

Jude thought that it was something Herbert Simon might have said:

Evidently, organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize’.
A ‘satisficing’ path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all its needs.2

In her e-mail Jude explained what she thought Simon meant by that:

What is good enough is certainly better than what is not good enough.


The bar for what satisfices can be raised over time, this achieving the even better, but not necessary the best.

Neil agreed with Jude and added a reference to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered where the same concept of ‘satisficing’ accounts for the role of decision making in design. Rebecca was not sure which of these two quotes would be more useful for her research.

Design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise.

or rather:

We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings.3

Prue suggested the gnomic but brilliant remark made by Ray or Charles Eames:

The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.4

Terence was not being very helpful. He felt she might first need to ask herself what it meant for something to be a ‘perfect’ design solution.

Derek suggested that all of this was spinning around good oldfashioned pragmatism. Therefore the relevant source would not be a designer, but psychologist and philosopher William James:

We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.5

Ranolph liked to apply Samuel Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho as a definition of design:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.6

and pointed her to the reworked Rittel and Webber statement by Jeff Conklin:

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.7

She closed her laptop, smiled to herself and thought:

Perfect is the enemy of good.8

  1. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.
  2. Simon, H. A. (1956). “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”. Psychological Review, Vol. 63 No. 2, 129-138.
  3. Small things considered: Why there is no perfect design. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
  4. Quoted in Eames Demetrios, 2001, An Eames Primer, New York Universe Publishing p 173. Prue Bramwell-Davis.
  5. Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, 1907
  6. Samuel Becket: Worstward Ho, 1983
  7. Conklin, Jeff; “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Wiley; 1st edition, 18 November 2005
  8. Voltaire in La Bégueule, Contes, 1772

Table practice

A late report from I Don’t Know! — an artistic conference on knowledge production [18/09/2011]

Arriving for the second day of the conference, I am welcomed by EVC with a cheerful: “We are very curious what you’ll do. When we received your proposal we really did not know what to expect!“. At that point I had just read the descriptions of the other parallel ‘table practices’, and was panicking about choosing such a pragmatic approach. Oh well.

Before the seven sessions begin, the organisers ask us ‘to make our notes public’, meaning to write them on vertically placed cardboard surfaces scattered around the room. Additionally, we are invited to formulate ‘matters of concern’ on pink post-it notes (yellow ones are for possible responses, solutions). It is probably post-it fatigue but the question rubs me the wrong way, as does the term ‘mise en abyme’ that is used to explain the purposeful recursion of the discourse. Another coffee, and it is time to start.

The two discussions starting from The GML-Field Recorder Challenge are each useful and interesting in their own way thanks to many smart and generous people around the table. First we ‘simply’ discuss The Challenge in relation to the questions posed by the conference. Participants point out the difference between ‘writing about’ (or data from?) movement and the act of moving itself; the interplay between standard and practice (referring to choreographer Steve Paxton who resented the standardization of ‘his’ method Contact improvisation, feeling it would risk transforming a practice between people into a technique) and reminding me that the relation between markup and text is architectural.

The second session is a bit more complicated. It takes a while to get started, and in the end The Field Recorder Challenge is used as a ‘case’ in an attempt to compare artistic research to case law, or in short, to a ‘file’. Surprisingly, the situation gets almost out of hand when we discuss one of the stipulations of The Challenge: “The winning design will have some protection in the event that the device falls into the wrong hands“. Apparently one of the blockages for approaching artistic research as a ‘file’ is that it would imply an act of sharing without control. What if your work would be used for a bad cause? How then to take responsibility for your work?

The entertaining Discourse Machine is another kind of ‘table practice’, developed by EVC and PR. It is a conversation-game in the genre of Talkaoke1, though more intellectual in style. In proper Don’t Know!-fashion, it at the same time provokes discourse AND a reflection upon the discourse itself (or on the provocation?). The game is played in rapid succession by seven participants who take up the role of presenter, audience member, interviewer, critical facilitator, feedback-person, interviewee or communications manager. PR confirms that this Discourse API could work with altogether different questions too.

Throughout the conference, the vocabulary of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour is omnipresent. The confidence by which participants refer to them in conversation makes me wonder about my own usage of their work. A week later, inspired by AL, SV, PH, and LL working courageously through Stengers’ essay Ecology of Practice, it is good to read:

To challenge is something rather easy, you can always challenge somebody. But challenge as related to the eventuality of a cosmopolitical achievement must include the very special fact that in front of a challenging situation, nobody can speak in the name of this situation. Indeed borders are involved and there is no neutral, extra-territorial, way of defining what matters in the situation. It implies, for each involved party, different risk and a different challenge.”2

When it is my turn to speak in the gigantic plenum that concludes the day3, I am too impatient to say anything properly nuanced. As usual, KVDB is to the point: “Be careful not to fetishise your Don’t know!“.

  1. “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on”
  2. Ecology of practices and technology of belonging
  3. 50+ exhausted participants placed in a large circle. One by one we respond to yet another quest for ‘matters of concern’. In the middle some conference debris, a recorder slid into the void space, two microphones and a spaghetti of black cables.