Design principles

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On the intents informing A Place to Study

We want A Place to Study to grow slowly, long-term. To discuss its intended progression, we do so as-if, from an imagined celebration of its anticipated course through the coming decade.

Study design: On the principles guiding A Place to Study

An possible lecture by Robbie McClintock
January 15, 2030

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for asking me to speak tonight about the intents informing how we have implemented A Place to Study. It is an unexpected honor. Over ten yours, our worksite has grown, not spectacularly but steadily, into a valuable part of the digital commons. Our community includes participants, who actively work to maintain, deepen, and extend it, and users, who come to it, occasionally or frequently, as they wish to advance their personal pursuit of self-formation.

Tonight, I take it that the design principles of interest are not those required to keep this going enterprise on track, an important question that I leave to younger spirits. Instead, I'll address the principles that informed the inception and early development of the worksite, that interesting period between "I wonder if...." and "Wow! It's working!"

First principle: as they say on Wikipedia, Be bold, but add, cautiously!

Anyone starting an Internet project should read, and often reread familiar children's story, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." written by the German poet, Wolfgang Goethe in 1797. This holds especially in starting an autonomous, self-sustaining project in the digital commons. The apprentice must fill the bath carrying buckets of water back and forth from the well. The sorcerer is away and the apprentice cast as spell to command a broomstick to do the job for him. Goethe's verses pulsate with the apprentice's intent, his initial joy that the spell is working, his dawning consternation as the bath begins to overflow, and his desperation when his magic cannot stop the spell.[1]

Goethe's poem drives home the great difficulty of all design efforts: Each has two sides: implement the intent without engendering unanticipated consequences that subvert it. In the world of the Internet, as elsewhere, designers proceed one-sidedly, eager to achieve the purpose heedless of unintended results, and in the world of the Internet no Sorcerers return home to stop a self-subverting, self-sustaining process. We have kept aware of this two-sided problem in starting A Place to Study.

Wikipedia serves as the first example of a highly successful web-based, free-content, user-created enterprise in the digital commons. Its emergence caught people by surprise, and the fact that nearly everyone grows up understanding the function and form of an encyclopedia entry helps immensely in keeping it on track through its development. Even so, it has taken a lot of effort by contributors (along with a sense of humor) to keep an underbrush of non-encyclopedic activities from spreading like kudzu through it.

Unlike Wikipedia, A Place to Study has not had the advantage that everyone grows up clearly recognizing a resource for facilitating her personal self-formation by cultivating her inner life. And in addition to a general lack of familiarity with what A Place to Study tries to do, our efforts to explain it could be confused with religious calls for moral betterment, psychological searching for therapeutic relief, and social software for winning friends and influencing people. Through the initial development of A Place to Study, we therefore engage heavily in explaining "This is what we do" and "Here are things we do not do."

In these do and don't discussions, we want to avoid an adversarial sensibility. We are not trying to say that anything is wrong, meriting opposition and rejection, but rather that the dominant concerns have become too dominant, inadvertently suppressing important aspects of every person's life, namely their personal, inward sense of self-formation. We want to help persons build that sense back up to complement and balance what is receiving too much attention and authority in our lives, the external, behavioral view of ourselves in relation to other people. It is a particularly subtle problem because a person has to mute action on outward matters in order to create the space in which she can nurture her own inward life.

Ten years ago, early in 2020, my colleague, Vik Joshi, and I decided that the initial work on the very basic architecture of the worksite had progressed sufficiently to invite a small group of participants to test it out and begin pushing forward its subsequent development. For six months prior to that, we had been implementing an initial version of the worksite and getting preliminary feedback on elements of it. I was doing most of the composition and Vik was showing various parts of it to small groups, mostly students from high school into graduate school and some inmates from a prison project he was working in. In creating the initial implementation, I wanted to instantiate the basic purposes of the worksite and to lay out the basic affordances it would offer to participants and users. The feedback Vik generated helped inform the implementation and show whether its purposes and uses would be apparent and attractive to potential visitors and such feedback continues to be essential in the ongoing development of A Place to Study.

Over the years, I have participated in the design of many online programs and projects, largely engaging in the efforts without a formal sense of method. I am aware that through it, some principles have been at work. In every project, one continually faces design problems and opportunities and many design alternatives come to mind. One must choose among them and I have felt able to the needed choices informed by some felt, intuited principles relative to which I sense which alternatives are preferable. If pressed to explain the preference, I usually have come up with some ex post facto rationale that does not lay out those intuited principles very clearly. It would concentrate on specific reasons for preferring this alternative relative to those others, not explicitly appealing to the principles grounding the preferences. In the late 80s and early 90s I chaired a department of communication, computing, and technology in education, which included a good program on instructional design. One of my courses each year was on "design and communication in modern culture," which has worked its way into my design choices, as has my long and rather thorough interest in the history of communication as an agent of cultural change. I have worked closely with colleagues who took practices of design research very seriously and I have found studies of design thinking highly instructive—to some degree explorations of the interactions between philosophy and technology as nurtured by Karl Mitcham, more by thoughtful studies of designing in practice as in books by Henry Petroski, and most through the community of inquiry sustained by the journal Design Issues, especially during the 90s, and by books by Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan. All this has importantly shaped the design sensibility I bring to the process, but I cannot point specifically to concepts within it that I have adopted as my design principles.
  1. The tale goes back to the ancients. Goethe told "Der Zauberlehrling" in a ballad he wrote in 1797. Here is a late 19th-century translation and an [ early 20th-century one, with the Goethe's German text too. The drive and rhythm Goethe gave the poem challenges translators. Here a present-day German youth group sings it—the JDD, the Young Poets and Thinkers, Junge Dichter und Denker.