On Stone Circles and Building Things

1.

Itis fairly common in England to see small plaques set into the front of older houses with chiselled numbers saying when they were built. 1906, 1871, 1832. In Cartmel, a little village at the southern tip of the Lake District, home of a couple of very good restaurants, there’s a little whitewashed stone cottage, and in black paint above the door, the date of its construction: 1776.

At the same time as the Declaration of Independence was being signed in North America, under the cloudy skies of Northern England, somebody built this small house, putting stone after stone on top of each other to fashion solid, rough walls with their backs to the rising hills.

People still argue over America’s founding ideals; they wonder if those ideals make sense still. The white house in Cartmel still makes perfect sense today. It is lived in, wired up for power, water and wifi and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. So it functions just as you’d expect any brand new house to function: as a home, as an asset and as a node on the network.

For some reason, I have no photos of this house, even though I can picture it exactly. I remember having this thought, too — about it being built at such an interesting point in history — as we walked past, and I didn’t tweet it. My little interaction with it is gone, but no matter. The next person to go past doesn’t need any written clues from me. They know what the little house is for.

On the same trip, we drove through the Lakes to visit the stone circle at Castlerigg, a set of standing stones from nearly 5,000 years ago. There are rows of stones, jutting out of the ground like a mouth of old teeth, gappy and knobbly, chipped and jagged. Even under clouds they shine slightly, as if they have been buffed. My wife is from North America, and she has a deep affection for stone circles. Whenever we are driving outside of London, if there’s one nearby, we’ll barrel down the sideroads to find it.

There are over a thousand in the UK, all built thousands of years ago. The famous ones — Stonehenge, Avebury — have car parks and signposts, but we’ve also climbed farmer’s fences and squeezed down muddy tracks, to find more fragmentary evidence… of what? Even in the multi-room, million pound visitor centre for Stonehenge, the central mystery is unmissable. Nobody knows why it was built. No-one can explain anything about it. People can only guess.

At Castlerigg and at Stonehenge, I have the feeling after a few minutes of being observed, or more accurately, the sense of being in a conscious place again: there is a definite sense that here is a place in a way that ten minutes down the road is not. A road leads here: this place was chosen and it was designed.

And we know how they were built. We can trace the stones, find the quarries where they were dug from — in the case of Stonehenge, from Wales, more than a hundred miles away — and we can know with reasonable certainty how the stones were dragged through raw effort, rolled on logs, dragged through the mud, and hauled into a very specific design of concentric circles, in specific places and a certain angles, for reason no-one will ever know now.

But other than these ghost emotions, there is no discernible logic to these places, and so you’re left admiring something more raw: the fucking effort. The rocks are huge, cold lumps of a planet, hacked out of the earth with hands and nails and primitive tools. And then people — people like you and I, with the same muscles and the same set of limbs — dragged these things through the rain and the wind, for days and days, for weeks.

We don’t build things like these days, you might think, assuming we only build things with diggers and power tools. But of course, we do make things like this — most of the software on your computer is built exactly like this. They’re built with raw effort, code, line by line placed like bricks in a wall. Each commit is sent, each commit is checked. Yes, deep in the bowels of Google, there are algorithms, picking over inumerable terabytes of data like spiders in the dark — but the menu bar above this document in Google Docs was laid out by hand. The explanations around what will happen when I press the share button, or the File button, all typed out into a system, read back by a developer, transformed into code on a cold morning in San Francisco, tested by a remote team in Mumbai, clicking, clicking, clicking through the requirements, to see if it matches up.

The next time the design team are explaining an interaction to the dev team, or as a Product Manager, you’re asking how many sprints for a feature, think about Stonehenge, and some mad druid raising her arms to sky and asking for a lintel stone to be hauled into the sky and placed atop another two.

From a construction point of view, Stonehenge is absurdly primitive. You could make a copy of it in a day with all the tools we have. So it will be years in the future for software; so it should be now, really. Think of all the time you spend wanting to make simple changes and how long those changes will take. Computers still move so slowly compared to how fast we can draw, or speak or think.

We build websites like they built stone circles — lots of manual labour and a thin level of understanding of the forces involved. Just as we now look at Stonehenge and ask, “why on earth did they build that?” People will one day look at Facebook and ask the same question. If, a thousand years from now, a tourist in the ruins of Menlo Park turns to his daughter and says, “so that people could share things,” will that make any more sense than if he said “the truth is, nobody knows what it was for.”

2.

AtCastlerigg and Stonehenge, we take photos, and ping them to Instagram. It seems unlikely the photo will last the next 1,000 years, whereas the stones of course, will. It is tempting, particularly in places like these, to be filled with regret, and to think digital things are uniquely impermanent; that they fade almost as soon as the monitor sleeps. But of course, stone circles are a freakish exception. Most things don’t last — and if they do, they are not remembered. They take up space at the back of drawers, sit in boxes and basements, removed from shelves and settling into the dust, far from view.

The world has no use for artefacts, really. It is mostly full already. Permanence is not the aim of real art; the aim is movement. The aim is to build a thing in a way that moves people onwards, and that alters their ideas of what can come next. This is true of even the most permanent things you can think of; a great building is not built to last for thousands of years. Was Castlerigg built to last 5,000 years? Even if it was, the builders would have wanted its purpose to survive as well, not this unmoored mystery. It was built so that there are two moments in time for everyone who sees it, and thus, two sets of possibilities: the moment before, and the moment after, when expectations are replaced by possibilities. After Castlerigg was done, everyone on this island knew stones could be raised to the sun like this, just as after Brunelleschi built the dome in Florence, no church could ever look the same.

The job that I do right now — called product management — it is all about wanting; and you spend your life in it wanting things to happen. Like all desire, the wanting is a question, not an answer: to what extent are you making your own perfect object? To what extent do you just want to hold the world and listen?

This, I think, is why I’ve always liked asking that question: what does good look like? Because the first instinct is to just answer it, and the second instinct is to know there is another answer, out of sight, that exists on the other side of the creative process. And this is why it is worth doing anything at all: so those who see it know it can be done. What about these words — which will not last 5,000 years, nor be seen by whole islands of people? They are just something of me, for you.

Castlerigg stone circle, The Lake District

Originally written for, and published on The Pastry Box.

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