Fixating on Solution Aesthetics can Lead to Solving Wrong Problems

  • this might be important for Understanding Through Building - when prototyping things to learn, it's important to focus on the actual problem, instead of trying to "stroke the aesthetic ego" by polishing rounded corners, playing with type systems, etc.
  • some examples:
    • high-modernism:

      If the plans for villagization were so rational and scientific, why did they bring about such general ruin? The answer, I believe, is that such plans were not scientific or rational in any meaningful sense of those terms. What these planners carried in their mind's eye was a certain aesthetic, what one might call a visual codification of modern rural production and community life. Like a religious faith, this visual codification was almost impervious to criticism or disconfirming evidence. The belief in large farms, monocropping, "proper" villages, tractor-plowed fields, and collective or communal farming was an aesthetic conviction undergirded by a conviction that this was the way in which the world was headed-a teleology.

      — James Scott - Seeing Like a State

      • top-down planning of cities or whole countries never seems to work
        • reference: "A City is not a Tree" - Christopher Alexander
      • the rigid tree-like structure of organisation, though it seems scientific, sometimes is just an aesthetic choice
    • transclusions:
      • most designers of transclusions seem to be thinking about the aesthetic of the technology
        • "everything is a graph!"
        • "you can link to anything, at any level!"

          Arbitrary prose paragraphs aren't effectively usable in multiple places: good prose depends on arc, narrative, context. Text transclusion is almost always disjointed. I fear that most of the system designers who have been excited about this approach are in love with an idea about technology, rather than an idea about writing or communication.

          — Andy Matuschak -

    • coming up with systems for organising notes, and reference material, instead of doing "actual work" with them - Notes Should Serve a Purpose
    • common misunderstanding of Seymour Papert's work:
      • programming in itself is not going to make you think better, programming is just an "interface" for working with various ideas, and the focus should be on the ideas themselves

        In Mindstorms I made the claim that children can learn to program and that learning to program can affect the way they learn everything else. I had in mind something like the process of re-empowerment of probability: the ability to program would allow a student to learn and use powerful forms of probabilistic ideas. It did not occur to me that anyone could possibly take my statement to mean that learning to program would in itself have consequences for how children learn and think

        — Seymour Papert - What’s the big idea? Toward a pedagogy of idea power

  • counterargument from Mindstorms on Henri Poincaré:

    The question at issue here is whether even in the course of working on the most purely logical problem the mathematician evokes processes and sets problems which are not themselves purely logical. (...) according to Poincare, the mathematician is guided by an aesthetic sense: In doing a job, the mathematician frequently has to work with propositions which are false to various degrees but does not have to consider any that offend a personal sense of mathematical beauty.

    • following aesthetics to solve logical problems
Szymon Kaliski © 2021