May the mirror decide

I’m aware of Christopher Alexander’s work—especially given his recent death—though I’ve yet to have a compelling reason to explore it. His The Nature of Order series most interests me, in part due to vain curiosity and in part because of the deliberate humanity embedded within it.

Thus, it was a happy circumstance that led to me reading Connecting to the World: Christopher Alexander’s Tool for Human-Centered Design for Mag7. It discusses a tool from The Nature of Order series:

“In The Nature of Order, Alexander offers an interesting tool that helps us choose between two similar objects or settings by using visceral connectedness. Alexander asks which of two objects provides a better picture of one’s “self.” To use this tool, we have to project our personality onto each of the two objects being experienced. The method requires imagining our emotions, our humanity, and all of our character strengths and weaknesses as somehow embedded in either of the two alternatives. Remarkably, those who apply this test make fairly uniform choices.”

The paper, A Search for Beauty/A Struggle with Complexity: Christopher Alexander, goes into a lot more detail about both Alexander and the mirror test. The actual mirror question was posed in these terms (in CA’s Foreshadowing, a book about Turkish carpets):

“If you had to choose one of these two carpets, as a picture of your own self, then which one of the two carpets would you choose? …

In case you find it hard to answer the question, let me clarify by asking you to choose the one which seems better able to represent your whole being, the essence of yourself, good and bad, all that is human in you.”

The reason I’m even describing this is because it opened up a further development of one half of what I outlined in Butter:

“Tangible benefits from being a high-performing agent in an understood domain can accrue at the same time as the more intangible benefits that result from, to meme-ify it, “living your best life”. They form a mutually beneficial, reinforcing cycle that allows one to use the benefits from being a legible entity to become increasingly illegible along some other critical dimensions. Ideally, this cycle skews—in the long term—to favour life intensification instead of legibility.”

CA’s mirror of the self test is a legitimate (legitimised?) method for what Venkatesh Rao calls “life spirit distillation“, or life intensification:

“Life intensification is the process of consciously becoming increasingly real (and no, I’m not talking about being more “present” so don’t jump to that conclusion) by letting go more and more of your idea of what your life should be like, and embracing the possibilities of what it is actually turning out to be like.”

Consider a fill-in-the-blanks version of the question CA poses above:

“If you had to choose one of these two —–, as a picture of your own self, then which one of the two —- would you choose? …

In case you find it hard to answer the question, let me clarify by asking you to choose the one which seems better able to represent your whole being, the essence of yourself, good and bad, all that is human in you.”

This mechanic, this pointed question, is a way of optimising for life intensification whilst avoiding the pitfalls associated with larping absolute objectivity or claiming some enlightened contextuality drives the decision. Even better, I suspect the question can serve:

  • Any level of the societal stack making a decision (individual, pack, troop, tribe, imagined community)
  • Any domain (architecture, product design, conspicuous consumption) in which that unit is deciding

Of course, Salingaros fires a warning shot in the Connecting to the World paper:

“It is important here to project an honest assessment of our self as a living entity, and not some idealized version or pretended image we aspire to. Visceral connecting tries to sidestep artificiality and false appearances, which can only sabotage the test.”

When the mirror test is confined to an individual, this risk is perhaps at its lowest. As we move up the societal stack—from a pack making a binary choice using the mirror, to a troop, to a tribe and, finally, to an imagined community—the risk of projecting an “idealised version or pretended image” of the self increases.

Funnily enough, the unit size and/or type with the strongest sense of self is also the one least likely to make a binary choice as a collective. I’m referring to a cult. This could point to a dilemma decision making mechanisms evolving within DAOs are trying to navigate (and traditional orgs have been nonplussed by): how to preserve a collective self-ness (and make decisions based on that self-ness) whilst encouraging divergence and facilitating in-group agency amongst participants. 

It’s also worth noting that an important aspect of the effectiveness of the mirror test is the binary choice it compels one to make: this or that, either or. I doubt the impact would be preserved if the possibilities available to the answerer were extended. There’s a theoretical foundation to this assertion. Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that:

“…that when voters have three or more distinct alternatives options, no ranked voting electoral system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide complete and transitive ranking while also meeting a specified set of criteria: unrestricted domain, non-dictatorship, Pareto efficiency, and independence of irrelevant alternatives.”

Which perhaps point to a minimum viable procedure for decision making at any unit size and in any domain: reduce all decisions to a binary and use Christopher Alexander’s mirror test to make the final choice.

How the outcome of that final choice is quantified at unit sizes above the individual is, I suspect, moot. Whether it’s a raw hand-count, deference to an elected proxy or unofficial authority within the unit, or a Papal conclave, I think the decision made would be considered disproportionately “good” in comparison to one made without consideration of self-ness.

There’s another advantage for those daring enough (or stupid enough) to employ the above procedure: reducing decisions down to that binary choice, across different societal stack unit sizes and in different domains, is treaded terrain. Employing the mirror test when established procedures lead to a binary stalemate seems sensible; subtly reshaping established procedures to always result in a binary choice and then employing the mirror? That seems smart.

The Bullseye model in Traction could be used to break a binary deadlock in marketing: outline all possible channels, select the most plausible ones, and choose between the highest potential performers. The Scrum methodology has established procedures for decomposing backlog items down to actionable increments; the mirror could help choose, between two ready-to-go items, which gets Sprinted. The mirror could be used within a design team’s Double Diamond to select between two competing problem formulations or possible solutions. It could even be used to catalyse the final step—the selection of the “something”—of Lincoln Michel’s one rule of fiction writing:

“You can do anything but you can’t do everything and you have to do something.”

I’ll stop proselytising now. Instead, I’ll pose a question: just how amenable to shattering is Christopher Alexander’s mirror of the self test (in its original format or the expanded one I’ve described)? No more and no less than any other decision making methods commonly employed.

Perhaps its biggest advantage is that it doesn’t contrive to be objective, nor does it retreat to some sort of privileged relativity to justify the decision that results.

To take a metaphor from architecture, CA’s domain, the mirror of the self test seems like a simple structure that abounds with humanity. It’s not as grand as contemporary steel and glass monoliths, nor as luxurious as modern personal dwellings. It feels like a mud hut, or a log cabin. Primitive. Outdated. A remnant of an age long past. A structure potent because of its human scale.