It's all about me

Pattern recognition

My progress towards being a better programmer has walked almost hand-in-hand with being involved in the hippie festival scene. How this came to be is a story in its own right, but in the early 00’s, these parallel lifestyle decisions seemed complementary not paradoxical. You might not expect that the one would inform the other much, but what I’ve found is that both are really about people and patterns of behaviour.

The idea that people are predictable is anathema to a lot of hippies, and can readily wind them up. I once found myself in a somewhat charged conversation with a chap at Glastonbury Festival, sharply condemning the practice of generalisation. The irony that this is, of course, merely a generalisation, was totally lost on him. But the fear that one is not seen, or even ignored as an individual, is a deep rooted and actually rather toxic one. For a few years I helped run the gate at the Buddhafield Festival, and it was astonishing how many of the hundreds of people pulling up on the day felt they were the exception to whatever rules we had about parking, camping, and so on. Many were affronted that there were any rules at all, again without seeing the irony: a principle that there are no rules, would in itself be a rule. In fact, many of the rules we had were really only there to deal with the people who didn’t like rules, and that’s pretty sad when you think about it.

It’s thus practically a mark of faith in the hippie psyche that we’re all individuals. If on reading that a nasal little voice squeaking “I’m not!” appeared in your head, you can probably see where I’m going with this: it’s only through recognising that we’re not very individual quite a lot of the time that, paradoxically, we begin to allow our uniqueness to flower.

Of course it’s more than possible for a system to be incapable of dealing with even the obvious exceptions; we’ve all fallen foul of an intractable process at one point or another. This, though, is often a failure of intelligence, not an indicator that generalisations are dysfunctional. There are horror stories where something sui generis has its distinctive features hacked off, to be brutally trimmed into a square peg, then hammered through a round hole, by someone lacking the wit or patience to deal with the issue sensitively.

Pattern recognition in humans is a way of reducing what would otherwise be an overwhelming state of cognitive overload. Much energy would be overspent in evaluating every experience as novel, such that when something out of the ordinary really does present itself, we’re too drained or dissipated to respond creatively.

An awful lot of what I do in my development work is deal with templates, structures that match a highly predictable pattern of information or behaviour. I might need to deal with this in as simple a manner as an if … else statement block, or build a complete class. It’s become more and more remarkable just how far patterns go: even exceptions to a rule will usually follow a pattern. It takes intelligence to see where the real exceptions will come from, and crucially, allow them to be there. In my view, any system that doesn’t allow for deviance already has rotten extremities, because it’s failing to see where fresh sources of nourishment will come from.


The title of this post is borrowed from the novel of the same name by William Gibson who I saw, entirely coincidentally, at a book event in Bristol at the beginning of the week. The novel has no obvious connection to this post, but I recommend it anyway.