Preparing for a Feyerabend Workshop

Every Feyerabend Workshop is a brainstorming session. Here are some things my colleague Ron Goldman and I came up with that you can do to prepare for one of these sessions. Note that in these sessions as organizers we will only bring a few exercises and approaches to get things started. We will rely on everyone in the group to provide suggestions as to how we will continue. Please send us any ideas you might have before the workshop.

What’s Wrong with Technology?

Many of us are quite dissatisfied with current computing both as users of current software systems and as designers/developers using current software tools. We thought an instructive exercise would be to have everyone come up with 3 examples of your disappointment with the technology in your life.

When we did so we came up with examples that seemed to fit in two categories: problems due to bad design and problems due to the limits of our science and technology.

Examples of poor design include:

Examples of limited science include:

Please try to come up with several examples of your own. We hope the examples will sketch out areas from which a new science of computing can sprout.

What’s Right with Technology?

Similary, try to think of 3 examples of technology things that are well designed, where things went right. Why are they this way? Try to generalize without losing focus.


The original idea for the methodology for this project came from the anarchist philosopher, Paul Feyerabend. His best known work is "Against Method," which contains a different view about how science proceeds. We suggest you read it, though it is not an easy book to find:

Against Method, Paul Feyerabend, Verso Books, 1993, ISBN: 086091481X

We will likely be referring to ideas from complexity science. You should try to read or browse one of the introductions to the field. The most accessible is this one:

Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick, Penguin Books, 1988, ISBN: 0140092501

If you want to be a little surprised at the potential power of these ideas, take a look at this:

At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Stuart Kauffman, Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN: 0195095995

If you haven’t already, you should read Ron’s and my essay on Mob Software [html] [pdf]

Take a look at "The Design of Parallel Programming Languages." It might be illustrative of the kinds of thinking that could go into the Feyerabend Project.

We will likely be using deconstruction as a brainstorming technique. Essentially we will be looking at mainstream texts, theories, and practices and noting what is marginalized by them. We then will try to foreground those marginalized things as starting points. I don t know of any good introductions, but Brian Marick sent me the following discussion, which seems pretty good.

So what method am I talking about? Let me describe it by example. I’ll be fanciful and pretend that Christopher Alexander had used it in the early 70s.
He started from a position of being uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the state of architecture. To apply the deconstructive method, he would have searched architectural discourse for marginal concepts, ones that were explicitly or implicitly excluded as irrelevant or uninteresting. A marginal concept is treated as one half of a binary opposition; the other half is the privileged or central concept.
What’s central to architecture? - the shaping of physical space. What’s marginal? - what happens within that space, what Alexander (in The Timeless Way of Building) calls the patterns of events.
In the next step, Alexander would have inverted the hierarchy. What if the central concern of architecture were patterns of events? It would be about identifying them, deciding which should be encouraged, and devising the means to encourage them.
A final step would have brought the two concepts together. As a good deconstructionist, Alexander would have leapt at the conclusion that a pattern of events cannot be separated from the space where it occurs (TWoB, p. 73). He would have re-characterized architectural theory as the study of how space shapes events and how desired events should shape space. Therefore, particular forms of space could be described in terms of relationships among component parts and justified by the recurring events they encourage.
So deconstruction could have motivated patterns.
There are a variety of ways of playing the two halves of an opposition against each other. For example, I might ask whether Alexander’s notion of event is infected by properties of space. Is it significant that his recurrent examples - a peach tree growing by a garden wall, people sitting and dreaming - are all notably static? What should we make of this statement (TWoB, p. 94): Nothing of any importance happens in a building or a town except what is defined within the patterns that repeat themselves (my emphasis)? Might his theory be weak on frenzy, disorder, and one-time events? (I don’t know - remember, I’m using deconstruction to brainstorm ideas.)
Another fruitful approach is to show how the marginalized concept forces itself into all discussion of the central one. For example, in Chip Morningstar’s discussion of deconstruction, he sets up an opposition. On the one side are deconstructivists, who are obsessed with wit and style. On the other is the reader (and writer), presumed to favor substance: clear, rational arguments. And yet his own argument is highly witty and stylish, to the point where Morningstar’s clear and rational conclusion is, I would argue, not the one the typical reader will draw. The stated conclusion is there is indeed some content, much of it interesting... [there] are a set of important and interesting ideas..., but the stronger message of the piece is that deconstructionists are laughable. So what does his reliance on style, supposedly marginalized, say about the actual usefulness of clarity and rationality, even in a text that supposedly celebrates them? (Someday I should take this argument further. Thinking about Chip’s article in a deconstructive way gave me all sorts of ideas - which is the point of deconstruction, to me.)