Understanding Through Building

  • building things has been my go-to way to gather deep understanding
    • implementing small demos of creative-coding ideas
    • implementing papers to be able to "interact" with them
    • building Realtalk-like system after visiting Dynamicland to better understand their decisions
    • building interactive sketches when exploring the solution space of a research problem
  • maybe part of the reason that it works, is that it forces effort (and Understanding Requires Effort), but I have an inkling that maybe there's something more here
  • I keep finding people who gather deep understanding about things by reading and immediately using what they read in some context - this doesn't seem to be always possible though, especially for abstract concepts
  • connections:
  • of course there's a Cybernetics lens on this, where acting generates knowing, and knowing, in turn, generates acting:

    A common preconception is that generally, understanding should precede acting and that theory is superior to practice (which depends on and is justified by theory), with post-rationalisation usually regarded as a shortcoming. In the context of radical constructivism, this preconception seems shortsighted: If acting generates understanding, and understanding, in turn, generates acting, the relationship of acting and doing can be described more appropriately as cyclical.

    — Christiane M. Herr - Design Cybernetics: Constructing Cybernetic Thinking, Design, and Education

  • this approach can be called "bricolage":

    Claude Levi-Strauss recognizes "bricolage", a "science of the concrete" (...) Bricoleurs construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials.

    — Epistemological Pluralism - Styles and Voices within the Computer Culture - Sherry Turkle, Seymour Paper

  • there seems to be an overlap between building and publishing a lot, and being able to find work which allows for building more - another example of how Following Genuine Interests Forms Positive Feedback Loops:

    The sheer volume of your work is what works as a signal of weirdness, because anyone can do a one-off weird thing, but only volume can signal a consistently weird production sensibility that will inspire people betting on you. The energy evident in a body of work is the most honest signal about it that makes people trust you to do things for them.

    — Venkatesh Rao - The Breaking Smart AMA

  • kinda related to Understanding Through Building:

    The design process is a sequence of expert activities that produces an innovative product. The artifact enables the researcher to get a better grasp of the problem; the re-evaluation of the problem improves the quality of the design process and so on. This build-and-evaluate loop is typically iterated a number of times before the final design artifact is generated

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_science_(methodology)

    • but, the field-testing part seems very important; with Understanding Through Building I only "test" with myself, or even less, use the process itself to "only" understand the problem better without any real use for the artifact
  • another take at this is programming as a profession vs programming as a tool for understanding dynamic systems (Simulators, Understanding Through Building), with this lens:
    • again, not everyone has to be a professional software engineer, but:
    • there are people who would benefit from being able to build dynamic systems to learn, understand, and act on them - programming here is a dynamic-modeling tool

make tools (for learning, not for thought exactly), publish them, observe their use, distill insights, share

— Robert Cobb

  • this is closely related to Tools Building Us - the tools we use shape at what "level" we think, and should be changed (or adapted) through the gradient of sketching (or Understanding Through Building) to engineering ("graphic design" is also a form of engineering in this context)
  • 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.
  • another example would be building small experiments testing small hypotheses orbiting around a bigger theme - of course balance is important here, so when you're using a project to learn new technology, you probably shouldn't also try to do something "wild"
  • when designing, making art, or building in general it's often good idea to play with the material as directly as possible - this allows us to use Epistemic Actions to think about the task differently, and forces Understanding Through Building
Szymon Kaliski © 2022
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