Mar 30

IA Summit 2003: Stewart Brand

Mike Lee took an excellent photo of Stewart Brand and his pace layers. Stewart Brand’s presentation (at the IA Summit) was wonderful and gave me a chance to ponder building sites for the long now. It was the first time that his ideas really reasonated with me and seemed applicable to what I do every day.

More than once I’ve struggled with retrofitting features, changing navigation and adding other elements to sites with rigid information architecture and fragile table in table in table nested code. Dealing with these creations that were meant to be immutable has always made me more sensitive to the flexibility of the designs I delivered. Stewart Brand’s conceptual system is an excellent way to contemplate what elements change at different rates depending on the nature of the element’s functionality. It’s essential in the process to isolate those things that change frequently from those things that are more constant if your design is to be sustainable. So, as he spoke, that was what I was mulling over as I jotted down the following notes.

Architects design and then they go away. The systems i'm interested in get better as you go along.

The point here is that basic structure is the same -- all buildings get added to. There needs to be some kind of honoring of the original style.

pace layers

  • fashion
  • commerce
  • infrastructure
  • governance
  • culture
  • nature

Don't embed services in structure, otherwise you have to tear the house down to fix them when they break. A design welcomes change or fights it.

If commerce has too much to say in how governance functions, things will break. The wars that are playing out now are pretty much cultural wars. Cultures don't change rapidly and should not.


  • learns
  • proposes
  • absorbs shocks
  • discontinuious
  • innovation/revolution
  • gets all the attention


  • remembers
  • disposes
  • integrates shocks
  • continuous
  • constraint/constancy
  • has all the power

The power is in the slow moving parts

Robustness + adaptivity

When you let maintainence go, it falls apart and no one can remember what it was for.

clock design principles

  • longevity
  • maintainability
  • transparency
  • evolvability
  • scalability

OK, Digital stuff

"Digital information lasts forever or five years whichever comes first" -- jeff rothenberg

The Rosetta Project
micro etch graphic material rosetta disk 1000 languages


James Spahr
Why are you using a circle?
[At this point my mind immediately went to the phaistos disk, which I started thinking about so I missed the answer. However, I think he just referenced such precedents.]

Bob Boiko
Can you talk about the sante fe institute and concept of emergence and what it has to do with organizing information?
[He answered by discussing his Long Bets site]
Predictive talk is cheap. It's just loose talk.
[The site is ] serious code that wants to be around for 1000 years [I'll assume he wasn't talking about the client side code which wants to be around untill 1999.]
Added discussion to site and site started to get richer. The whole idea is to go toward another emergent property here is that as more data is added, predictions get better.
Gardening, that's how I like to design. My main goal and motivation is 'what can i do to make things interesting for myself and everybody else with the least amount of effort?'

Peter Merholtz
Pace Layering -- JJG's diagram w/ pace layering applied to it -- other areas where it can apply?
It's fractal -- you can find pace layering in every scale. It would be fun to apply on quick functions -- brain?

Do you consider yourself an artist?
Not if I can help it. I've studied art -- was an artist. It's destructive. Art is rapid turnover. It has to be. Buildings aren't served well by art. I'd like to see craft service design.

Still live in a houseboat?

Somebody asked....
Why is slow better?
There is a duty and opportunity. [Advice from Freeman Dyson] when young, scientists work on what's fashionable. That's how you build a reputation.

The embededness of legacy systems -- what you are programming away might well be embeded in systems for years -- when that hits you get vertigo. Watch your fundamental structure because you might be stuck with it for much longer than you expected. Eg. y2k problem -- a bunch of code stuck around for longer than people thought it would

"online everyone is republican" When people participate it goes very conservative.

autocratic design
media lab Bartos Theatre, controls on chairs to control what's happening on screen. never used for interactive film. It's now used for lectures. You want users input in every stage but there are other levels that won't be reflected in what users want right now.

Should be designed for perpetual design -- it's not a hand-off situation. So much of what a site wants to become becomes obvious in the usage. Must go beyound bug fixes to constant improvement. This is a living site. It's the first thing you notice when you go to a site. Is this a living site or a dead site? Design shouldn't let up and it shouldn't be assumed that it will let up.

How do you know when a site goes astray?
Is it hurting the function of the system? If functionally painful for user it's an issue. Bring in team every once in a while to spruce up things that have gone funky. Design in ways so that system can tell you when things are going wrong.

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