Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wicked and Tame

This afternoon I finished re-reading Selber's Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004), which we've picked up in ENGL516 for its tightly applicable yet expansive heuristic: functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies. For Tuesday we're also looking at a complementary tier, network literacy. There's not a lot I want to recount or highlight about the Multiliteracies book in general this time through, but one specific section drew me in more this time than when I first read the book a few years ago.

Under rhetorical literacy, the section on deliberation (152), Selber refers to a 1973 article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Both professors at Cal-Berkeley, Rittel (Science of Design) and Webber (City Planning) differentiate between wicked problems and tame problems. Selber summarizes their position this way:

Although tame problems can be enormously complex, their complexities are largely technical in character, as are their solutions. In contrast, wicked problems are more intractable in that wicked problems do not have single solutions, only interim and imperfect solutions. Adjustments in tax rates, changes in school curricula, procedures to reduce crime--these problems can all be understood, addressed, and resolved in countless ways because there are elusive social dimensions that muddy the causal waters. (153)

Selber continues for another page or two to apply the wicked/tame distinction to challenges facing interface designers. That design planning and implementation is wicked, not tame, reminds us of the important limitations of technical rationalism for addressing situated social problems at a variety of scales (e.g., poverty to usability). I am inclined to accept the proposition that follows for Selber, which is that deliberation ensures a humanistic perspective in response to HCI challenges. Among questions that remains for me, I still wonder after tracking down and reading the Rittel and Webber article whether deliberation makes a wicked problem less wicked. In other words, what does deliberation do to the problem? Does it make it appear more tame? Does it blunt (or defer) its wickedness? I find it easy to value deliberation, but I wonder whether deliberation sometimes seduces us to conceiving of wicked problems as tame.

To enlarge the context--and with it these questions--a bit further, here is one point when Rittel and Webber compare tame and wicked problems:

The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly "tame" or "benign" ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.
Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues--whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime. (160)

They also say that wicked problems are notoriously difficult to "define" and "locate" (159). Perhaps this is what deliberation increases--our means of defining and locating problems, of sorting out "what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition" and "finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies" (159). Curriculum, which both sources list, is a fine example. But so is just about any composing situation, isn't it? Writing and rhetoric strike me as deeply, constantly, willingly entrenched in wicked problems, and perhaps only in reductive notions of techne and in formulism do we find disappointing instances of writing-understood-as-tame(d).

For a closely related thought-exercise, I scraped from the Rittel and Webber article the ten traits they assign to wicked problems. Selber draws correspondences between the first three and interface design problems, which profit "from a more rhetorical and less rational view of things" (154). Others on down the list might prove more difficult to align with interface design, specifically, but they do match up intriguingly with other problems encountered by writers.

  1. "There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem" (161)
  2. "Wicked problems have no stopping rule" (162)
  3. "Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-and-bad" (162)
  4. "There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem" (163)
  5. "Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one-shot operation'; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly" (163)
  6. "Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan" (164)
  7. "Every wicked problem is essentially unique" (164)
  8. "Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem" (165)
  9. "The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution" (166)
  10. "The planner has no right to be wrong" (166)

The original article is worth a read, particularly for the way they elaborate each of these qualities of wicked problems. The degree of overlap between composing problems and wicked problems piles up, making this both a theory of problems/planning worth returning to and one I wished I'd noticed (and also deliberated) more fully a long time ago.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 17, 2011 4:00 PM to Reading Notes
Comments

A more recent piece that picks up Rittel, from someone who's very rhetoric-friendly, is Richard Buchanan's "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" from Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 5-21. Buchanan also has stuff specifically on rhetoric and design as architechtonic arts. Happened upon it a while ago when I was prepping a course for last spring...

c

Posted by: cgb at February 17, 2011 6:18 PM

Ah, excellent. Thanks for the citation. I'll have to check it out. Buchanan sounds vaguely familiar, as if his name came up before. But I haven't ever read any of his stuff that I can think of.

Posted by: Derek at February 17, 2011 6:34 PM