For those of us who work on and with the Web, the idea that the Web has its very own inherent qualities is not new. Whether you read John Allsopp’s seminal article “A Dao of Web Design” or watch Frank Chimero’s elaborate talk “The Web’s Grain”, the fundamental concept is the same: Instead of approaching building for the Web as if it was one of the static mediums that came before it, we should embrace the Web’s inherent qualities. The Web is interactive, inclusive, non-linear, edgeless, unpredictable, fragile, and, above all, dynamic. It is in a constant state of change and growth.
Last weekend, I watched an interesting episode of the latest season of Netflix’s “Abstract”, a documentary series about creators across all disciplines. The episode portrayed Neri Oxman, a designer and professor at MIT Media Lab. Neri leads the Mediated Matter research group at MIT where she and her team create the most amazing objects out of natural materials which they apply and form in new, otherworldly ways. Neri considers computation, fabrication, and the material itself as inseparable dimensions of design and she creates products and buildings that are informed and engineered with and for nature. She calls this “material ecology”. She 3d-printed transparent glass. She created a dome that was woven by 6,500 free-ranging silkworms on a huge nylon frame. She 3D-printed wearable structures that contain living matter like, for instance, bacteria, to explore the future of body-extending wearables that can interact with the environment they are in.
Her work is fascinating, mind-boggling, and innovative, but what I found the most interesting, is the underlying approach she takes to create those multifunctional objects, structures, and systems. Neri Oxman sees the world and all structures within it as organisms that change regularly and respond to use. Therefore, building becomes much more of a dynamic process where you start exploring a material by prototyping a lot and then try to provide the conditions under which the system grows into the desired direction. This idea of nurturing growth and letting a system gradually and naturally evolve is in stark contrast to the traditional notion of architecture and systems design as the assembly of ready-made parts and patterns. Usually, when we talk about designing systems for the Web, for example, we draw parallels to architecture and refer to seminal works like the book “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”. Constructed from small, reusable components and repeatable patterns we aim to create highly complex systems that, ideally, are flexible, modular, scalable, and persistent.
While this modular approach often works quite well, because it makes it easier to establish standards and achieve a higher level of consistency, it also comes at the price of rigidity and uniformity. For one, context is often missing or only partially considered. So a solution that might work well in one situation might not be the right solution in a different context. Predefined patterns only get you so far. But moreover, it is hard to envision and construct a system upfront that includes the possibility to grow and adapt over time – especially on the Web, one of the most diverse environments where, just like in nature, the only constant is change and control is an illusion.
What if the nature of the Web, the Web‘s grain, with all its edgelessness and unpredictability, called for an approach that focuses much more on exploring materials and nurturing growth than it is about predefined templates? After all, the most resilient systems aren’t those that are the most rigid but the ones that prove to be most flexible, adaptable, and fault-tolerant. What if we understood the Web not as a “world made of parts” but a breeding ground for possibility and change?
What if, after all, we were gardeners much more than we are builders?