Toying with Ideas


Johnson applies his ideas about perception and participation to the world of architecture. Notable for explaining the difference between tools and toys.

The need is expressed for the realization of continuously-involved responsive environments, not conceived of or designed from the remote positions which the designers of today too often inhabit.


Complex? What’s that? What does it mean to you?

It’s more than complicated. Things are complicated when there’s a lot of separate parts, but separate parts and the things built up from them are easy to talk about because they all have names and individual meanings. But complexity? That’s when it becomes difficult to talk about; it’s when the relations or behavior of things is so intertwined and turned back in upon itself that Io slop it long enough to examine its anatomy is to be looking at a corpse.

I don’t think I can talk about complexity very lucidly without you here to talk with me about it. I won’t apoligize for that, but will explain why as we go. What I’d rather do is to describe some tools and toys which, when they’re built, will point a finger at complexity and allow us to communicate about it. For the moment, and for once. I am going to ask that you look at the linger rather than where it’s pointing.


Cybernetics, systems analysis, operations research, and artificial intelligence have arisen from our hope that our new technologies for handling information and its flow through a myriad of changing relationships can give us insights into complexity, its nature, and how to control that nature for our own purposes. Everyone seems willing to admit that the actual proof of effectiveness is in the demonstration of it in a real world, but disappointments tn performance generally bring about criticism of the detail of the conceptual model used. I would like instead to call into question our own ways of understanding and of communicating about complexity, and therefore of the assignment to an autonomous model the “whatever-it-is” that we do when we deal with the world on a complex level ourselves.

Furthermore, I would contend that architects, as seekers after conspiratorial aids, are in an especially embarrassing bind. The objects and relationships with which they want to grapple arc “environment” to them, to their clients, and to all of us all the time. We find no clear opportunity to move off at a distance so as to achieve the remote “perspective” we have been taught to value so highly. We are made uncomfortable whenever we have to include ourselves in any statement we would make for it seems ever so much easier when we can isolate our subject in a frame - turning it from an environment into an art form[1] and thereafter manipulate the parts until we “get it right”.

The environment is rendered less response-able; we are therefore less responsible. But it’s a dead-end street.

The transformations back into real-time, real-world reality never can come off right because any sensitivity our process might have had to the extensive relationships that glue our world together has long since been sterilized out of it.[2]

The medics are asking operations researchers to design better models for “health care delivery systems”, but they are unmistakably leaving the patient himself out of the information loops of the system ostensibly serving him.[3] Economists and urban planners and political scientists are looking for the algorithms that will allow them to conceive of human populations as the ingredients of a predictable soup, however complicated the recipe or however far in the future it will be tasted. They are disinclined to wonder about the difference between cookbooks and real cooks. They seem afraid of an informal mode of doing it.[4]


Freddy Eynsford Hill tried to put it all into words and disembodied gestures of unexpressed affection, but his remonstrances only served to infuriate poor Eliza Doolittle.[5] She said, “Show me!”, but don’t fault her for that; she knew a bigger secret than appears on the surface.

It’s not just that words are an inadequate medium to convey emotion (except in the hands of poets) nor that both the sender and receiver must he skilled in their use in order for anything to come across. The nature of Eliza’s distress lay much deeper than an inability to comprehend. What she knew was that (he growth of the emotions themselves the referent of their dialogue is so intimately bound together with the process of the dialogue itself that in order for growth to continue it must be allowed to involve itself. The process is not “evolutionary” in the sense of transforming from one namable state to another in clockwork time; rather it is “emanative” - characteristic of the growth of an individual — and emerges in Bergsonian time as a transaction which cannot be isolated from its time and place of happening.[6] The most we can hope for (and it's not a compromise but a wholly new demand upon our technologies) is that we have access to a means of active participation in the ontogenesis of our environments.

Architecture, planning, design, and decision-making have too often been carried on as a communications problem that might as well be conveyed by telegram or letter (or as an article for AD?) from a remote sacristy. You can’t make love that way. and you might as well stop trying to make human environments habitable that way We need a more appropriate-interface between people and the spaces they live in. We also need more appropriate interfacings between architects and the modelling systems they have available to think with.[7] Architects need a new set of technological toys.


As we grow up in our Western societies where so much that we have or do is purveyed to us by some sort of institutional entity, we are ever more impressed by the apparent immutability of our surroundings. We find ourselves less and less instrumental in modifying materials or in producing any sort of change in our world which might allow us a stronger personal identification with its processes. Certainly our living spaces have taken on a substantive and relational solidity that defies alteration except by violence, and even when those of us who are brave enough or skilled enough with tools to lake on the task of rebuilding some part of our living structures, the cost in terms of energy and time and materials is almost always outrageously discouraging.[8]

Designers who are called upon Io provide a working or living space that is easily adaptable to a variety of uses, generally cop out and resort to a solution in the form of a big, empty box filled with movable children’s blocks in adult-size. That’s not an adequate substitute for tools, nor is it what I mean by the need for toys. A tool is an extension of your hand and should aid you in the expression of your intentions. A toy is a tool to think with and should help you to explore your intentions inexpensively and in changeable contexts.[9]

One of the major penalties incurred by living in an institutionalized society is that as each function is surrendered from the personal domain to a faceless executor the individual ceases to think about those functions as existing in the world to which he has access. He no longer includes them in his body-image because they do not respond to his efforts. Children probably have the best grasp of complexity, but since they lack the language skills to describe it, we do not value their grasp. By the time we have taught them our reductionist absurdities it is too late for them to feel free about expressing what for them has become ineffable. Conversely, every time we can put back into the individual’s or the community’s hands the means to produce intended changes of environment, the more whole and strong and oriented both become, We learn again to think in self-referent terms.

Architectural spaces with which we are familiar are not amenable to change through the informal efforts of unskilled inhabitants. Inflatable structures hold some promise for devising lively, responsive, self-organizing enclosures, but otherwise there appears to be an open field for invention of “artificial biologies” on a large scale. At “Ecology Tool & Toy” we call what we are working on “Soft Control Material”.

More immediately soluble is the problem of providing “toys” as tools to think with or to communicate with which will become a medium for dialogue in an entirely new dimension.


Apart from a long-range desire lor future building materials which have a life of their own and endow our living spaces with responsive courtesy, there is a more directly soluble problem of smaller scale which every computer company ought to be tackling now. (To my knowledge they are not). Touching keys, pushing buttons, turning knobs, or watching the visual displays of various sorts does not provide real access to the depth of complexity for which computers have a great potential. Nothing that is now attached as a terminal device will react back upon you in a manner directly responsive to the way in which you acted upon it. Knobs and keys give your hand no evidence of the machine’s having anticipated your actions nor do the displays give a damn where you are looking. But let us not confine the possibilities to mere modifications of what exists today. Consider how we converse nonverbally with people and then try to imagine a similarly appropriate means of dealing with architectural spaces, created artificially as models for our playful interaction with them

I still find it difficult to suggest good uses for visual or auditory displays because the viewer’s eye does not put out any light of its own nor his ear any sound, and therefore a clearly interactive exchange is rendered improbable. The manipulation of the acoustics of a space allows one at least to play with the return of his own sounds to himself and therefore makes relevant his head-movements or whole-body movements, but in order for a sharing to take place, the environment would have to engage also in playing with its own sounds. 1 am not sure, as inventor, how to go about it.

But give me a computer terminal in the form of a lively substance which allows me to interact in (ouch and movement, and you have given me the possibility at least for dialogue about very complex relationships. I can imagine stepping away from such a machine quite unable to describe the knowledge I have gained of its inner workings or of the information space that we (it and I) have shared, but being far more knowledgable about my own understandings within the context of the dialogue we had just had than would ever be possible al the level of verbal or graphical exchange. I can imagine plunging my hands or my whole self into (he innards of an artificial organism a box full, perhaps, of inflated bags and sensors and controls - there to wrestle with a “here and now” problem related to an environment which I share with the computer at some other level of abstraction or in some other scale. But 1 can no longer look at a printout or a line drawing and convince myself that I have been allowed sufficient access to an exploration of intended experience in the creation of that entity.

I would like to conscript the architects who are concerned about their problems of dealing with complexity, to join me in demanding of the purveyors of computer hardware that they give us terminal access to more than a means for sending telegrams into the machine and receiving telegrams back out of it. We want to play with material relationships which may perhaps be amenable to algorithmic statement, but we must make it clear that our mode of play is not so statable. We want informal, interactive, exploratory participation in a simultaneous brew of complex relationships and we will not be satisfied with oscilloscope movies in which we play cannot grasp those moving things in our two hands.


Let me recap here an argument I have made at greater length elsewhere.[10] It will lead us to some design criteria for the toys we need.

Dialogue is a complex transaction in which the respondents engage in reciprocal identifications in a manner which is descriptive of their relation to the referent of the dialogue. The transaction takes on meaning to each respondent insofar as he had access to its context, or frame of reference. The means to that access can take on a variely of forms.

At the top end of a “scale of complexity” we find our familiar verbal languages whether spoken or written with which people or machines can converse in symbols In their use we note that, (a) both respondents must know the language, (b) the context within which relevant meanings are to be found must be made explicit in order to avoid ambiguities, (c) the referent itself may be quite distantly removed in time or space from the moment and place of the dialogue, or it may in fact be entirely non-existent as an entity, which could be experienced directly, (d) the medium of the dialogue does not physically react back upon the user of it, and (e) the information loops of (he respondents therefore do not include each other or the referent to any significant degree.

At the other end of the scale we might imagine two people making love, or mother and infant beginning their communication; examples, that is, of intimate mode of exchange. No verbal symbols are necessary for the transaction nor are its messages discernible for an

An outside observer. The characteristics of the dialogue are quite different: (a) no prior knowledge of a common language is necessary, (b) the context of the dialogue is self-evident and in truly intimate concourse no ambiguities can arise, (c) the referent of such a dialogue is composed of the respondents and their relation to each other and is very much a “here and now” phenomenon, (d) the medium for each is the other and the other’s responses, thus it is meaningless to attempt to define a message as separate from the medium or transmission as separate from reception, (e) the information loops of each are so pervasively involved with those of the other and with themselves as referent that here again it is fruitless to attempt indicative separation. The intimate dialogue is in fact immediate.

In between the two ends of the scale are varying degrees of mutual involvement in a shared environment. For example, we find people living together and communicating in the way they change their living space or become involved in cooking for each other: that would fall about mid-scale. The referent is external to either person, but not greatly distant in time or space.

Trying sharing a toy or a seesaw with a child and feel the messages of push and pull begin to elaborate themselves without explanations. In every instance of communication between two people we can find some appropriate level or combination of levels to make the interface between them an optimum for that particular dialogue. An attempt to move too far down the scale in an intimate. direction runs the risk of limiting the range of time and distance (otherness) separating us from the referent and so of disengaging ourselves from it. Moving too far up toward the symbolic level, the onus falls upon us to be explicit about contextual reference so as to avoid ambiguity. Informal or affective gestures become more difficult to make in words and we lose ways for expression of complexity which could be effortless in a more intimate exchange.

Most real dialogues take place at a number of levels simultaneously, making it possible for the transaction at one level to recontext what is going on at another, in direct conversation we convey our intentions to one another predominantly by skillful contextual shifts that act as environment to the words themselves.

For the purpose of building .toys that will allow a playful and informal designing of architectural spaces it is as unreasonable to suppose that we can rely totally upon a medium with which we wrestle bodily, as it is frustrating to have to rely upon one which allows us only verbal or graphical exchanges. We will want some aspect of our toys to respond in a way that we perceive with our whole-body orientation, but still other aspects to permit us to name or define familiar geometries, activities, or seasonal changes as “givens” in the mix. The lesson we will learn is that such toys will render us as environment to our architecture just as it is environment to us, and that the dialogue ensues without either of us (it and me) having to make measurements directly upon the other. We simply participate in as rich a common information space as can be devised and let our mutual interventions in each other’s self-referent loops carry the burden of the communication.

Funny thing: we are only asking for what has been the state-of-the-art in physiology since time immemorial. It’s not new.


McLuhan. M. Understanding media.

Gunther. G. “Natural numbers in trans classic systems”, Journal of Cybernetics, Vol. I. No. 2, April-June 1971; Johnson, A.R. “Dialogue and the exploration of context: properties of an adequate interface”, Proc, of the Amer. Soc. for Cybernetics. October 1970 (in press?). Johnson, A.R. “Information tools that decision-makers can really talk with” in: Decision making in a changing world, Princeton: Auerbach. 1971

Johnson, A.R. “Interfacing with a real world”, 41st National Meeting, Op. Res. Soc. Am.. April 1972, New Orleans (in press?).

Johnson, A.R. “The three little pigs revisited” in: Eleven Views. North Carolina State Univ. Sell, of Design. Vol. 20 2. 1971; Storm, H.O. “Folithism and Design”, Colorado Quarterly, Vol. I, No.3. Winter 1953. Wiener, N., Chapter I in Cybernetics. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1948.

Shaw, G.B. as adapted from Pygmalion into “My Fair Lady”.

Brodey, W.M. “Unlearning the obsolescent”, Architectural Design, September 1969; Gunther. G. “Natural numbers in trans classic systems”, Journal of Cybernetics, Vol. I. No. 2, April-June 1971; Wiener, N., Chapter I in Cybernetics. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1948.

Brodey, W.M. and Lindgren. N. “Human enhancement: beyond the machine age”, IEEE Spectrum September 1967 (Pt. I) and February 1968 (Pt. II); Johnson, A.R. “Information tools that decision-makers can really talk with” in: Decision making in a changing world, Princeton: Auerbach. 1971.

Johnson, A.R. “The three little pigs revisited” in: Eleven Views. North Carolina State Univ. of Design. Vol. 20 2. 1971.

Brodey, W.M. “Unlearning the obsolescent”, Architectural Design, September 1969; Brodey, W.M. and Lindgren. N. “Human enhancement: beyond the machine age”, IEEE Spectrum September 1967 (Ptt. I) and February 1968 (Pt. II); Johnson, A.R. “Information tools that decision-makers can really talk with” in: Decision making in a changing world, Princeton: Auerbach. 1971.

Johnson, A.R. “Dialogue and the exploration of context: properties of an adequate interface”, Proc, of the Amer. Soc. for Cybernetics. October 1970 (in press?)