everything's an art.

until it's a science. ... i spent last night talking with a seminar from the university of chicago law school. i probably talked them all into a stupor of boredom. as you, dear readers, can imagine. but it got me thinking a lot about the art/science dichotomy. and how it isn't really dichotomous.

it started like this: one of the topics was the behavioral economics of building a brewpub. and a big point of discussion was the cognitive biases of architects and engineers and general contractors and subcontractors and owners (the persons or entities contracting said building of a space). and we talked ad nauseum on the incentive structure of each party. and discovered that there are loads of easily avoidable mistakes that cause unnecessary disappointment for one or all parties. and they're easily avoidable in that at least three of the parties involved design and build things over and over and over again. and in that repetition, a thing will transform from an art into a science.

it's like, first, melina ausikaitis draws a tiny unicorn. then she draws a tiny unicorn again. then 100 times. then 6,714 times, each one adjacent to the last. and at that point, she not only draws each unicorn with a very specific intention, but she could write a guidebook on creating a work of art consisting entirely of tiny unicorns. her art has become a science. there is a best way to do it. and she knows what it is.

same story for building. and brewing and on and on and on. the interesting wrinkle in the above case. that is, the reason mistakes are still so common in building. and it retains an artistic component. is because the decision-making almost always must account for one amateur artist (the owner who so rarely builds anything). and that ignorance, combined with the incentive structures and cognitive biases of all of the *scientific* parties (optimism bias, planning fallacy, low bidding, etc.) leads to misses. the engineers and architects and contractors and subs would all have to work hard-as-f against their own built-in cognitive biases in order to knock out the project exactly as predicted. and they, quite naturally, merely do an OK job at this. and change orders become commonplace no matter the efforts against causing them.

all this said, there are certainly instances where building is more a science than an art. where a developer links up with a group of the same contractors over and over again to build something fairly cookie-cutter. think starbucks. or shell. in those cases, the party with the money has nearly as much information as the contractors. and so the incentive structure favors of maximum efficiency and transparency.

but then, the other side of that coin: after building dozens of the same thing, such owners and designers and builders would tend to get complacent. and inefficiencies would tend to arise. and then something fairly scientific would be rendered once again into an art.

right under all our noses. 

it all reminds me, in a small way, of the purchasing behaviors of beer fans. the understanding of which follows quite closely the pendulum swinging 'twixt art and science.

ain't it funny how humans behave. and how groups think. and how memory works.

art by michael hilger.

art by michael hilger.