A Peace Apart

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( Thoughts on John List’s latest book — The Voltage Effect)

My mother tells me that one day when I was about 10, we were outside gardening and she complained about something. To which I replied philosophically “Well, life is nothing but a series of compromises”.

I don’t remember this. But it sounds like me. And though my mother remembers it as ‘amazing’, I prefer to think of it as just early pragmatism. But years later my unusually sober appreciation of pragmatism did become a superpower, in the design studio at architecture school.

Building design is an endless and open-ended process of problem-finding, model-making, move-testing, form-finding, and all manner of complex decision-making. All of which yield myriad patterns of technical, structural, and aesthetic tradeoffs. Conflicts requiring dynamic compromise.

For me, this frictional pattern language is creative and fun. Even therapeutic. Despite that at every turn, the compromises (chosen or forced) must be tweaked or broken. And then, the jenga game begins all over again. Anew. Until time runs out, or hopefully — endless compromise is reduced into a singularity. One brilliant design. A loving and lightly-forced compromise.

Few students can stomach this much rolling complexity. They prefer instead more static, more deterministic problems with correct answers. Knowable outcomes. Not surprising then, the dropout rate during the first two years of architecture can be 70%. And those few remaining must quickly learn radical new decision-making strategies, to even grasp (much less master) design thinking.

Architects learn to ‘satisfice’ — or make a choice that is merely adequate or satisfactory, rather than optimal. This is counterintuitive. If I want to design a new animal, intuition tells me to give the beast the ‘eyes of an eagle’, the ‘strength of an ant’, the ‘legs of a cheetah’, and so on. But nature does not work this way. Combining optimal solutions is.. sub-optimal. A paradox.

To ‘satisfice’ instead is pragmatic - for many reasons. First, there are simply too many design variables to even preconceive what an optimal solution is (or could be). And secondly, the variables change and drop-out so fluidly, that any optimization will be radically short lived. And perhaps most importantly? Prematurely ‘fixing’ certain features, limits the overall harmony of design.

The term ‘satisfice’ is a mashup of ‘satisfies’ and ‘suffices’. It was first coined by American complexity scientist, Herbert A. Simon back in 1956. Herb Simon (Carnegie Mellon University) is still a legend in computer science and a founding father of AI, Information processing, problem solving, and organization theory. In 1975 Simon was awarded the Turing Award.

Shortly thereafter, Simon’s brilliant work on decision-making (bounded rationality) was so crosscutting, it earned him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1978. And the beastly idea that garnered him this ultimate prize? Yes, the simple acceptance that reality is bounded by complex factors that enforce.. compromise.

Simon observed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that, “decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Obviously, we want to leverage scientific solutions, and apply them to the real-world, so the latter is preferable. The world is so complex.

Prior to Simon, Economic theory assumed that humans acted rationally to optimize desirable outcomes. Anything that fell outside of this simple orthodoxy was ignored. Yet Simon showed humans hardly ever do either thing (i.e., act rationally nor optimize). The naked ape has learned instead to simply ‘satisfice’ solutions, because there are bounded (hard) limits to real-world resources — like time, money, brain power, pragmatism, etc.

Bounded Rationality is ringing in my head once again, as I read Professor John List’s new book The Voltage Effect.

List proposes a pragmatic new field of enquiry. Scalar Science — The Art and Science of Scale-ability. Dr. List demonstrates (repeatedly from almost every angle) that by pragmatically understanding what scales and why, we can intelligently drive change in our schools, workplaces, communities and society at large.

That all sounds fine enough. But the implications are astounding. The Voltage Effect is nothing less than a global panacea. A vital new Operating System for an over-stressed and crowded planet — suffering from limited resources, and countless, intractable, and forced compromises.

John List’s prescient Earth-OS.1 engages real-world complexity at full fidelity. There is fundamentally new knowledge here. List shows us how we can intelligently test fit, and maintain a dynamic fidelity - with our own world.

As an architect and armchair social scientist, I find Dr. List’s work geomantic to the core! Scalar Science can coordinate the interactions of people, our living spaces, and the natural environment. It literally puts us (and all things) in their proper place. This pragmatic new methodology (design thinking) can overcome uncertainty and manage blinding complexity. Before it’s all just too late.

— EPILOUGE —

The Voltage Effect reminds us of who we really are, how complex the world really is, and why we so often fail to appreciate our place in it. It gives this reader a wonderful geomantic feeling. One that is surprisingly therapeutic. Once you accept that not everything will scale, and you know why? The world becomes a lot less hostile and more knowable. More manageable.

I believe the ongoing mission of the Nobel Prize Committee is to put us (and all things) in their best and rightful place. This is geomancy. And it is after all, a Peace Prize. Peace is essentially at its core, geomantic. And peace for us can only yet be obtained with pacific pragmatism. Through design thinking.

I look forward to Professor John A. List becoming the next Nobel Laureate.

© 2022 FRED

Author: Fred Abler is a writer, entrepreneur and advisor.