Updated: 14 Oct 2021
Too much constraint can suffocate natural systems. They never become more complex than the person that designed them: A hierarchy, however, imposes a limitation on the degree of complexity of collective behaviors of the system. Yaneer Bar-Yam
A couple of years ago, I designed a free-standing kitchen island for the apartment we lived in in North Beach. The top of the island came from a 3" x 24"x 75" piece of recycled eucalyptus butcher block.
The block needed to be cut down to meet our needs and the off-cuts ended up being large enough to make four cutting boards.
This sketch recounts the starts and stops I experienced making these cutting boards, and ultimately, how I came to see the consequences of organizing information in a hierarchical way in my mind.
Making the cutting boards
I imagined the process for making the first cutting board would be straightforward considering the planks had already been glued-up and planed. This meant, I would need to:
- Fill the imperfections within the wood
- Chamfer the edges of the cutting board
- Sand it
- Moisturize the boards with mineral oil and seal it with beeswax
I had experience doing steps 2., 3. ,and 4. It was the "fill in the imperfections” part that was going to be new for me.
In any case, I got started with filling in the imperfections and progressed smoothly on through moisturaizing and sealing the board.
Then, when I went to rinse the board off after using it for the first time, I noticed an off-white substance running off the board into the sink. This was the wood glue + sawdust combination I had used to fill in the board’s imperfections.
It was at this moment I learned wood glue is water soluble. The cutting board was not usable in its current form. This information was new and inconvenient. I lost enthusiasm for the project soon after and I felt blocked on starting on another one for a bit.
A couple of months later, we moved into a new apartment and we needed more counter space in the kitchen for the coffee set up. The Ikea Bror cart fit the space well and I planned to replace its plywood top with something that would soften the cart’s industrial-looking steel frame and compliment its heft. I found a slab of sycamore at the mill where we purchased the eucalyptus butcher block and I proceeded to finish it.
Before sanding the sycamore slab, I needed to fill in a few places where the wood had partially split. This was the same issue I encountered with the cutting board. Although, this time, I used epoxy to patch the imperfections rather than wood glue. The epoxy filled the imperfections well and I became comfortable working with it.
While working on the coffee cart, Sara wanted to go to Urban Ore. There, I found a solid, albeit rusty, Stanley Chisel. I figured some steel wool, rust remover, and a whetstone could bring it back into usable considtion. It did, and in the process, it occurred to me that I could use the now-functional chisel to excavate the hardened wood glue and sawdust from the non-functioning cutting board that had been sitting in the closet. I also had epoxy left over from the sycamore slab. These new tools – the epoxy and the chisel – and the know-how to use them, summed into what I needed to finish the cutting board, which I ended up doing.
We’ve been using the cutting board and coffee cart without issue for some months now.
Reflecting on the processes of making these two pieces, I think I exposed a faulty assumption that’s been leading me astray in many contexts. Something about feeling like stopping doing something was arresting progress when that model assumes the objective is completion rather than accomplishment.
After finishing the cutting board, I left it out for a while and was critical of myself for not completing it. I’m trying to say that there was no reason for me to feel scared of starting something new but I did because I had a linear or hierarchical model for how progress is unfolds.
I perceived there to be one way of completing the cutting board to start and finish it.
board – and the objective to complete it – as blocking all other projects. bounded, isolated from all other side projects. In this way, to start work on another woodworking project was to halt progress on the first one, to deprive it of attention and thought, and therefore, the new information necessary to complete it.
The above didn’t seem particularly novel or clarifying to me on its own. Tho, when combined with the “tree” and “semilattice” imagery Christopher Alexander’s A City is Not a Tree offered me, I was able see the metaphor that had been upstream of this way of thinking…
I’d implicitly seen projects as parts of hierarchies. Hierarchies have strict ways of relating. Beyond that, hierarchies’ coherence depends on this and so they are not ammenable to new information or revisions for they. Hierachies only accept what htey expect. Webs on the other hand are unbohtered by new bits of information. Worst case, the new bits recmain orphaned, disconnected. Best case, they have lots to offer the existing web/network and so it becomes naturally integration with each new relation that’s uncovered. This, to me, is how i now see evolution. New bits are introduced, some find resonance and relatiions with the existing sum, others don’t and that’s okay. I think this does a few things for me: Creates permission for starting new things, entering new nodes in Helps me to undrestand what makes a godo potential node, something that has the potential to be related. Right now, i thikn about that as Something that has a clear purpose It’s small It’s something that can be thought of on its own so that other entities can relate to it.
Aware of this way of thinking, and anything really, I now see how restricting it can be. Thinking like this supposes projects are related in one known way. I visualize the architecture of viewing the relationships between objects like this as hierarchical or tree-like. Such a structure is unwelcoming to information that does not fit within it; it sees this new information as at odds with its coherence, rather than as a resource for its resilience.
Every entity within this kind of structure has its own, unchanging position that depends on the assumption that the position of all other entities is unchanging as well. This way of thinking is seductive: it nourishes the, “...desire for neatness and order that insists the candlesticks on a mantelpiece be perfectly straight and perfectly symmetrical about the centre.”
Another way of thinking suggests projects are related in many yet-to-be-known ways. This kind of thinking is web or semilattice-like2. There is no fixed representation on which the coherence of the constituent parts depends. As a result, I think these kinds of structures are far more hospitable to new information, there is a lot less at stake to incorporating new information into them. The existing entities, and the structure that keeps them coherent is not fixed, it adapts to the question being asked of it and to the information available at the time it is being asked.
In many situations, we are faced with new information: learning that a particular approach for filling the imperfections within a piece of wood is not viable, realizing the book you started did not hold your attention in the way you thought it would when you started, seeing you and a friend you have felt close to sees a situation from a perspective that is in tension with how you see it. In all cases, I think we are better off when we allow good information to exist for it enables us to have a more accurate understanding of the realities we exist within.
I think this makes sense. Physical objects, unlike abstract ones, can exist in one place at one time, with an explicit set of relationships. They can be ordered, arranged, and frozen. Abstract things, like information, values, people, etc. are far more fluid and shapeshifting. TO deny them this fluidity is to starve them of the linkages they depend on.
lacking In simplicity of structure the tree is comparable to the compulsive desire for neatness and order that insists the candlesticks on a mantelpiece be perfectly straight and perfectly symmetrical about the centre. The semilattice, by comparison, is the structure of a complex fabric; it is the structure of living things, of great paintings and symphonies. It must be emphasized, lest the orderly mind shrink in horror from anything that is not clearly articulated and categorized in tree form, that the idea of overlap, ambiguity, multiplicity of aspect and the semilattice are not less orderly than the rigid tree, but more so
To use the language Christopher Alexander brought to this way of thinking, it would be, “... as though the members of a family were not free to make friends outside the family, except when the family as a whole made a friendship.” That is, this way of thinking suggests that entities relate in finite, scripted ways, that we are all knowing of and if one is not legible to us at the time that we are needing there to be, then will never exist there.
I had been thinking of the cutting board project as a block, a discrete task with a definitive outcome that other plans I had made depended on in explicit ways. I had not been thinking of projects as overlapping, or as nodes in a larger whole or web whose shape and connections were not legible to me.