What this wants to be?

The late architect, Louis I. Kahn, developed inspiring designs by asking himself the question: "What does this want to be?". I learned this question when studying to become an architect 35 years ago. I've been asking myself this question every since.

Questioning what something wants to be has been compared to the creative work of stone carvers. Rather than make something out of marble, they envision what is trapped inside the marble, waiting to be released. Sculptors understand their process as cutting away the excess material to reveal the beauty within the block of stone. They serve the material they work with, rather than impose their creativity upon it. This humility and emptiness gives them access to transcendent possibilities.

When we wonder what something wants to be, we're expecting processes to unfold. We're applying metaphors of growth, organisms and ecologies. We are tuning into changes that are in the offing. We're intending to work with what is emerging and transforming naturally. Our head is in a very good place to support what is changing.

"What this wants to be?" cannot be answered logically. Our rational thought processes answer "What is this?" with our analytical objectivity. "What this wants to be?" calls for intuitive subjectivity. We need to switch from left to right brain processes and from linear to discursive thinking. We will then wonder without knowing. We can observe without categorizing. We will open to receive inspirations without overruling unforeseen possibilities.

While I've been blogging for the past year, I've been applying this question to many aspects of our online world:
  • What do RSS, subscriptions, blogging, wiki and Google docs want to be?
  • What do Second Life and online games want to be?
  • What do social networking, folksonomy tagging and shared content want to be?
  • What do F2F encounters want to be now that we have networks of conversations online?
One strategy I've been deploying, to answer these questions, is to read far outside the field of relevant expertise. Recently I've read a history of freight trains and the rail networks that expanded with their success. Last week I read a 1000 page novel set in the 12th century (A Pillar of Earth- Ken Follett.) I was immersed in the dynamics of a "long tail" of monasteries, villages with distant monarchs. I'm currently reading an overview of Anasazi culture in the desert southwestern US that disappeared after six centuries of elaborate lifestyles.

This divergent reading renders our familiar technologies as unfamiliar, and unrelated phases of history as amazingly similar. The parallels and contrasts with our circumstances induce new realizations. The sense of "what this wants to be" comes about by seeing the question in a new light.

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