Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Pattern Introduction: Uncovering and Understanding Our Common Language
by Doug Schuler

Doug Schuler

There's an old fable about three bricklayers who were asked what they were doing. The first replied that he was laying bricks. The second reported that he was constructing a straight wall. The third, a somewhat dreamy type, stated that he was building a cathedral.

Readers of the Community Technology Review know they are involved in construction projects as well. Although our bricks are less physical and our walls less visible, we hope we are building cathedrals nevertheless, though ours are built upon conversations and relationships. Our "blue prints"are hazy and ill-defined. Our fellow builders may not be aware of each other and the immense intelligence and vitality that they show in their thoughts and actions. For this reason, in November 2001, Computer Professionals for Society Responsibility (CPSR) initiated a large, participatory "pattern language" project that we hope will elicit, integrate, and illuminate some of the knowledge that inspires our community—in a very broad sense.

The idea of a pattern language is a concept developed by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley and is presented in A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977). This book provides 253 patterns for the construction of towns and houses that are beautiful, convivial, and timeless. According to Alexander et al., a pattern is a "careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem." A pattern language is a "network of patterns that call upon one another. Patterns help us remember insights and knowledge about design and can be used in combination to create solutions." Part of the power of the approach which we're emulating in our project comes from the common format that each pattern follows: title, problem, discussion, and solution. Each pattern also contains illustrative graphics at the beginning and end as well as pointers to other especially relevant patterns in the language. We are hoping to do the same in the area of information and communication as Alexander and his colleagues did for architecture and building.

We have conceived the pattern language project as an open, participatory project and  are enlisting people from all over the world to provide ideas, the "bricks and mortar"for the pattern language that the broad community will construct over the next few years. Approximately 140 people from over 20 countries have submitted to the Public Sphere patterns web site about 170 "proto-patterns," submissions which will be considered for inclusion into the final pattern language. The following pieces show examples of the pattern set as it's evolving.  They help show some of the diversity of the submissions that have been collected so far.

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