Origins of Agile in Japanese Stone Masonry

Where utility ends and beauty begins
By P.C. Maffey

In 2012, in interlude to my software career, I completed an apprenticeship as a stone mason. What could software and masonry have in common?
Published 4/27/2021
7 pages

There is only one rule in Japanese stone masonry: once onsite, —each stone should move only once.

I still don't know who I was working for. Was Yuki a renowned Japanese artist? Or, was he just wealthy enough to own his own gallery in Tokyo and then open another in New York? No matter how much I learned as a gallery associate, I'd never know enough about Japanese art to make that assessment. And certainly none of his family, assistants, or circle of artist friends we'd rotate on exhibit would ever tell that side of history.

But we did talk craft—what made the Japanese way unique and worthy, they'd argue in proud, unspoken terms, to stand in the heart of a foreign city. I served saki and martinis and listened.

"The difference in Japan," a potter, jetlagged, in his late 50s, beaming with the reflection of his own exhibit exquisitely set up in the vaulted SoHo space—as much emotion as he'd show the entire night—, "a stone mason shows up each day with no architectural drawings, no plans." He went on, describing, without quite saying it, how timelessness can only be crafted in the present moment.

"I listen to the boulders. From the time I found them in the quarry to when I select them for final placement, they are always telling me where they want to go. That is what I watched my grandfather do and that is how I know these rocks will stay in place,"
—Suminori Awata, a fifteenth-generation (!) Japanese stone mason and builder of the ano-zumi Castle Wall in Portland's Japanese Garden.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development; codified in 2001. The Lean Startup; published in 2011. We're all too familiar with the story: from Toyota's post-war auto manufacturing floors to punch-card innovators and issue-tracking workflows 70 years later.

Did this iterative approach to building and learning, this common jargon we call agile, originate in a 1950's board room? Or was that just when it was first applied in a business setting? To be clear, I'm less interested in the particulars of historical provenance regarding who or what inspired Toyota's execs, and moreso, in what I can learn from returning to the source material, so to speak.

"Tradition is not simple 'preservation'. It is that element in creative art which does not change at its core but which changes constantly in its expression."
—Uchiyama Takeo, director emeritus for the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

There's no solutioneering here. I'm writing to explore the link between my own craft—namely, software—and Japanese aesthetics. What follows are some questions I've used to guide my study.

Why have I never heard this connection before? Perhaps because it requires a belief that software, business, manufacturing, technology, etc. can have aesthetics? What happens when we jump beyond the safe and manageable world of utility, productivity, and maximum outputs—into the uncertain, immeasurable world of beauty and art?

The question itself speaks to a clear seaparation between these two worlds, or value-systems as they might be called. In American aesthetics, art and utility are divorced. Where they coexist, design serves its functional master. Beauty is a tool. But otherwise art seems to inhabit a different, segregated domain.

In Japanese aesthetics, the relationship between utility and beauty represents a fundamental question to explore in daily life. We see it in the celebration of craft. The functional materials of living—pottery, textiles, gardening, cuisine, calligraphy, etc.—become all the more meaningful as they are made into a medium to express beauty (which to me, is synonomous to art).

You can find this in the aesthetics of wabi sabi; which, I'd summarize as an appreciation for the well-worn paths; where simplicity and incompleteness express the ongoing relationship between all that changes over time and those threads that remains constant; even if the only constant we ever feel is our longing.

In tech, we might squint and see this in the nostalgia for 8-bit games and pixel art, or in the persistence of open-source projects like Wikipedia, VLC, or Lichess. But the comparison feels a little silly. Is there really beauty in our software?

Perhaps, information tech is simply not old enough, not worn enough for us to cultivate much of an aesthetic yet? Our programs get repurposed, utilized in novel ways. But at what point do they transcend their utility and begin to express life's mystery and beauty? It's up to us to give a thing its meaning, right?

What I'm really asking: what's our relationship to our digital tools? Do we care for them? Love them? Can we make a digital thing that reflects back to us the nature of our being? For me at least, "hand-crafted HTML" or an NFT of giffy-cat is not what I am talking about.

We have personal relationships with an old computer, a game we played in high school that we ascribe significance to. Nostalgia may point to the beginning of this meaning-making process, but that's not art yet either, until it transcends one's individual experience. It's easy to forget we're so young and immature in our ways; we are hardly a human generation into the digital age.

"A stone mason builds to last lifetimes."

Each stone is set with intention, based on how it's weight, shape, and color fits together with the whole. The result is a structure that is useful for its load-bearing capacity, its stability, defense, and general utility as a wall; and it is beautiful for it's natural, colorful faces broken by epochs and put together again by the hands of men according to some principles we learn.

Each stone moves only once because, as a rule, it forces the mason to listen to their instincts. To listen to the stones. It attunes you to your own understanding of each stones's shape, strength, color, and weathered history in a non-verbal, non-linear way; an awareness developed through years of practice; the intuition of an experienced craftsman.

In Information Theory, every transmitted bit of data is encoded by a sender and decoded by a receiver. The codes associated with the transmission unlock the meaning of the transmission. These codes are hardcoded into our devices and protocols, written into our software and our language and our culture.

What would it mean to listen to these codes? Semiotics layered upon semiotics... is it all just vaporware? Symbols we use to understand other symbols. Do we lose ourselves in artificial, intangible worlds? Or must things be made of sand, carbon, hydrogen, etc. to have signifcance?

In the end, our software—our entire digital world—is made of codes layered on repurposed codes, like some geologic process running hastily inside our machines.

Thanks for reading! I'm a product engineer, writing about how to be a human in a computer world. This site is my digital garden. Explore, enjoy. My mailbox is always open.

Return to my garden