V. THEORY DEVELOPMENT III

DISSECTING THE STUFF CELL

The most striking form of the self-organization of stuff is the crystal that  expands itself around the body: the stuff cell. Since stuff is an endless resource and the combinations to be made are limitless, no two stuff cells are the same. Nonetheless, they all share some elementary properties regarding their structure. 

In this chapter the second data set will be used to explore how the self-organization of stuff leads to physical form. First, some generic clusters of stuff within the cells, recognizable by their distinct role and patterns, the ‘organelles’, are defined. Secondly, those are analysed in the emergence of stuff cells throughout time. Most importantly, those observations are linked back to the  theory developed so far. Can the models on the dynamics of complex systems and the doubly complex view proposed in the previous chapter explain form? This part of the research is the synthesis of theory and observations, and hence both the final phase in the theoretical development, and a test.

5.1 Generic elements

Like the cells in a body, stuff cells are highly specific in the activities they grow around. Despite their differences, however, a basic anatomy can be recognized, that arises as a logical outcome of the processes and building materials creating all. Local rules construct no blueprint, but do lead into common paths that create forms with reoccuring elements and roles. Similar to how body cells share the fact that they all have a cell boundary and cytoplasm, and most a nucleus, mitochondrions and ribosomes, stuff cells show generic components in their physical structure. These are not pieces of stuff, but clusters of organization playing a distinct role in relation to the whole.

In this paragraphs five of those roles, derived from studying data set II, will be identified, determined and discussed.

5.1.1 Input / sources

Almost every activity involves the processing of something; a material or non-material input stream that is used over time. This resource often finds itself on the side of the stuff cell and is consumed in the course of the action; flowers are picked up to be arranged in a vase, sheets of wood are used to saw in functional pieces, tomatoes are sliced to mix through the salad or books are consulted for information.

This input stream is often imported from outside the stuff cell as a batch of the same objects; it is collected from the storage or the store. This ‘pile-by-kind’ (Tversky, 2016) is positioned at the side of the stuff cell, in contrast to the one-to-one organization happening in its core.

Fig 5.1: Sources often arrive in ‘piles-by-kind’, ordered because of the space-saving properties of grids.

5.1.2 Output / products

While the sources shrink, other piles of products build up in the course of the activity. This input is processed into piles of products. In the picnic on the front page, the full stomachs can be seen as an output product, and so can the trash, empty bags and pile of dirty plates and trays.

Output streams leave the system in similar scaled steps as the makes the input streams come in, often only a little less ordered. A  piece of stuff that, for instance, left over and not of use for the host anymore, is first moved to the side of the workplace, then put in the litter bin under the table, the larger bin in the kitchen, the waste collection point in the street and is eventually collected and processed outside the city. A pattern of one-to-one-correspondence at the place of the actual activity gradually finds its way back to piles-by-kind, such as a stack of drawings, a pile of dishes, a compost heap or a full bin bag. If a clear overview and space-saving is important, this happens in a grid pattern, similar to fig 5.1. If not, it follows a pattern of ‘ordered chaos’.

Fig 5.2: Output is produced in different streams. Hence, these are often naturally sorted, but not always to the smallest level of scale. A litter bin is an example of ‘ordered chaos’.

5.1.3 Working fields

What all stuff cells have in common is a place of assemblage, where individual items meet in a one-to-one way. This place is the central point of the stuff cell, where the actual activity takes place; the dishpan where the plates are being washed, the pan in which a meal is being prepared and a game board being played on. These working fields are the ‘home’ of the activity; the focus can move to other elements at the side, but always travels back to this center of operation. Most of the time they find themselves right in front of the user.

Stuff cells tend to have more than one working field that orders itself in a hierarchical way. Right in front of the user the primary working field (e.g. an easel with a painting in progress) can be found, while to the sides smaller centers of assemblage, secondary working fields, (e.g. a glass of water to rinse the brush and a palette to mix paint) support it.

Fig 5.3: Working fields in a hierarchical scale sequence.

5.1.4 Tools

Another category is that of tools, devices used to perform the activity as an extension of the human body (hands and fingernails are tools, but as we are talking about stuff here exclusively external instruments are considered). Tools  are elements to perform the activity with, and unlike most input streams not ‘used up’. Instead, they typically travel between different stuff cells, especially when generic and multi-purpose. Although it differs per stuff cell what is a tool, typical examples are a pair of scissors,  a computer mouse or a hammer. Also larger instruments such as a bandsaw, a piano or a bike can fulfill this role.

5.1.5 Support

The last recognizable role is that of general support, both for the activity and for the host.  Items such as lamps,  curtains, but also cups of coffee, direct their purpose not so much to the activity specifically, but provide the basic conditions necessary to perform it. Some of those conditions are easy to create on the spot, others are more controlled by the environment. Productive stuff cells are often recognizable because of the circle of empty cups they leave around, instead of the fact that they crystallize directly next to a coffee machine, while for other basic needs, such as electricity this works the other way around. In this role of support we can clearly observe an iterative process between searching for what already is, and creating the right conditions by oneself.

This is considered further in chapter VI, where stuff cells are regarded in relation to their environment.

5.1.6 A dynamic theatre

The difference between input streams and tools is often clear, but can at times be overlapping. Is a pencil a tool to draw with, or a material resource of charcoal? And is a book providing quotes a tool to work with or a non-material resource of information? The same accounts for tools and support; is a chair a tool to sit on, or a basic need essential to start at all? Stuff forms a complex ecology in which the roles particles take are not only dynamic, but also ambiguous in nature. It is therefore not the precise categorization of every artifact that is of interest here, but a general pattern recognition (one time more eloquent than the other) that gives us a basic vocabulary to discuss within.

Even in the smallest of stuff cells those five basic elements can be found. Brushing one’s teeth begins with the search for tools (a tooth brush) and sources (the tooth paste), in a place that provides the right conditions.Next, the activity starts by putting tooth paste on the brush and subsequently brushing the teeth themselves; to sequential moments of assemblage. The output, that builds up during the activity, in this case used tooth paste and the dirt brushed off, is disposed, to become the input of a process on a larger scale.

Although it seems so ordinary and everyday, a stuff cell is the smallest unit of metabolism to be found in architecture. It is a basic form of life, that eats, digests and secretes. To do so it both finds and creates for itself a place with light or darkness, silence or sounds, a certain temperature, a working surface and a desired level of privacy.

5.2 Stuff cells through time

As we have seen before, stuff cells are no ready-made entities but have a dynamic existence defined by exploitation, conservation, restructuring and renewal. Now that some basic elements have been termed, it is possible to further zoom in on the emergence of stuff cells through time and describe the observations in a useful vocabulary.

On the next page a stuff cell from the second data set is drawn in different points in time. This example of preparing and eating a pita bread with falafel is chosen because it involves a large number of ingredients, artifacts and actions, but is additionally not unusual.  Cooking is an activity we perform almost every day, but it involves a high number of agents.

5.2.1 From primary to secondary

In all three stills a primary working field can be distinguised; first it is the cutting board on which the onions are chopped, then it is the pita bread on the plate, that is filled with all the ingredients, and third it is the mouth in which the meal is tasted, grinded and digested. Stuff accumulates around this central point over time, as tools and support are added to the cell when needed; a process of growth when the system is in its phase of exploitation. The activity stops when the onions are cut, the bread is filled and the meal is finished or, in other words, when the recources are depleted. Next follows a phase of release and the emergence of a new order parameter.

Fig 5.4: The dynamics of complex systems equals that of stuff cells. The three examples on the right all find themselves in the exploitation phase and thus are three different successive stages.

The three stills are all picturing an exploitation phase of a stuff cell system, however, from three distinctly different successive stages. What orders their form most is the primary working field where the other stuff circles around. This is the order parameter, that in every stage is restructured anew.

5.2.2 The panarchy of stuff cell form

In the second phase the primary working field of the first phase, the cutting board, is still present, but now acts as a source since the output product of the first phase, chopped onions, is the input for the second. The cutting board can potentially get the role of a secondary working field, when a piece too big is stumbled upon and is quickly cut in half. However, when this happens it does no longer change the layout of the stuff cell as a whole; it is as if the more complex activity of filling the bread entails the cutting within it.

The successive stages are not only different acts of assemblage (chopping onions, cutting tomatoes, preparing the sauce), but time by time also jump to higher levels, in which the primary working field becomes secondary to the new one, until it becomes tertiary to an even newer one. As illustrated in figure 5.8, the growth of a stuff cell is something panarchic.

Fig 5.5: Phase one: individual items (onions, a knife, a cutting board) together form small assemblages.

Fig 5.6: Phase two: those small assemblages are assembled further into a larger assemblage (the bread).

Fig 5.7: Phase three: this larger assemblage is processed through eating it, making the body itself the primary working field.

5.3 Theory

Now, is it possible to link these processes to the theory developed so far? As we have seen in the previous chapter, individual stuff affords almost nothing except for some basic motor movements, whereas when combined more and more becomes possible. This logically explains the above observations; to perform an activity the affordances to do so need to be present, and therefore be prepared first. An uncut onion does not afford to be put in the bread, whereas onion slices do, a piece of bread with seperate ingredients does not afford to be (easily) eaten, whereas a filled pita does.

Fig 5.8: The panarchy of stuff cell development trough time. Every phase transition is that to a level encompassing more items, which is why the primary working field becomes larger and less distinct.

5.3.1 Order parameters

Primary working fields are the place of assemblage, and therefore where the most abstract affordance yet is being created. Primary working fields and affordances are phenomena of the same kind, and so is action identification. Being both constructed and perceived at the same time, affordances form an order parameter, a reminder that structures the activity. Action identities work in the same way in an internal, cognitive manner. The primary working field is the result of the (doubly) self-organizing process between the two and forms the order parameter of the stuff cell in its physical form.

5.3.2 Emergence

It is therefore assumable that how primary working fields emerge in a growing stuff cell can be explained in the same way as the emergence of action identities. Projecting the three basic principles of action identification theory would imply that the prepotent primary working field in principle maintains itself, unless higher levels become available (principle 1). When this happens (principle 2), which in this case is when the affordances for a higher level assemblage are present, the primary working field moves to a higher level. In this transformation it becomes more and more encompassing, as it can entail smaller activities within itself. Only when a lower level affordance is significantly disturbed (principle 3) and cannot be quickly and mindlessly repaired, the stuff cell breaks down and makes restoring this affordance the primary working field, until the requirements for the higher level assemblage can (again) be met (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987).

And indeed, it seems that when a high level action identity, such as ‘enjoying dinner’ or ‘being in nature’ is prepotent, the primary working field is regarded as increasingly encompassing. It then includes the paintings on the wall, the background sounds and the good company, the grass, the trees and the sky. Affordances of high level action identities are as abstract as ‘atmosphere’ and the distinction of  a clear primary working field simultaneously dissappears.

The focal point of the user within a stuff cell continuously changes, both from point to point and from detailed to broad. But it is only when both the action identity and action possibility induce a systemic phase transition to a higher or lower level that the actual layout of the stuff cell changes. In a volatile phase of re-organization a new primary working field becomes the prepotent order parameter where all other stuff finds its way around.

Fig 5.9. Affordances (action possibilities & perceived action possibilities), action identities and primary working fields are phenomena of the same kind – the first two in a constant interdependence, the last as their physical outcome in the form of a stuff cell. All are panarchic, multiple lower levels are included in the higher level (indicated by the dotted lines).

5.4 Stuff cell breeds

The basic anatomy of every stuff cell is that of a primary working field with sources, tools and products around an outer layer of general support providing the basic conditions (see also fig. 5.8). This is the case in, for example, individuals stuff cells that take place at a table. Nonetheless, some stuff-cell-specific variables lead to different breeds.

The first is when the primary working field is notably large. Following the study of Freundschuh and Egenhofer (1997), a distinction can be made between two types of working fields, defined in their relation to the human body. A manipulable working field can be experienced and handled without displacing the body, whereas a non-manipulable working field is only possible to see and work on when one walks around. Washing the car, sanding a table, cutting the hedge and mowing the lawn are all examples in which the stuff cell host moves themselves, together with some stuff (a bucket with water, a hedge trimmer, a lawnmower) on and around the primary working field.

Fig 5.10: Stuff cell with a non-manipulable working field. The person walks around it, taking the smaller items (such as tools) with them.

The other two breeds are related to stuff cell sharedness. When more than one person performs an activity in which both the same working fields and other roles are shared, the form does not substantially change. Often, however, only one of both is, leading to the examples on the right.

Possibly there are more of those variables leading into different structures – this is a case for further research.

Fig 5.11: Example of a shared stuff cell in which the sources are individual, but the primary working field is shared: playing a board game.

Fig 5.12: Example of a shared stuff cell in which both individuals have their own primary working field, but share the sources: having a meal together.

5.5 Life and form

What is life?, is the question Schrodinger wanted to address in 1944. This question proved to be not easy to answer over the years. Most definitions include that life is manifested by growth through metabolism – something that is a clear property of stuff cells. Of course, the system comes to life through the interaction with their living hosts, and cannot be sustained without them. Nevertheless, it is striking how far the analogy between a cell and a stuff cell reaches.

Stuff cells as phenomena are not only – explained through self-organization by the theory on affordances and action identification, but seem like a direct physical result of it. Their structure is panarchical, and in the phases of exploitation and conservation moves to more and more abstract and encompassing levels. They same process is reflected in the functional, cognitive and the spatial.