[Home]HighRoadLowRoad

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A metaphor from StewartBrand's book HowBuildingsLearn. HighRoad is high design, high cost, and hopefully just right. LowRoad is responsive, cheap, low risk, and hopefully can be made right enough.

HighRoad example: an high tech building with pre-planned conduits in the walls to run network cables etc. LowRoad example: if you need to run a cable, just knock a hole in the wall.

Apparently making hang gliders out of carbon fibre is HighRoad. The material is very strong and very light, but it is also expensive and needs esoteric equipment to manufacture. If you want a hole in it, you have to ask the factory to build it in or you lose the structural strength. Aluminium tubes are LowRoad. It is cheap and relatively easy to work with. If it breaks you can fix it yourself.

Oh, you'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye

- Lady John Scott (1876) [1]

This is an interesting way to think about the choices, although the metaphor seems hopelessly slanted toward the "high" choice. --CliffordAdams

In practice I find the metaphor emphasises the value of the low road. For example, a similar idea lurks behind WorseIsBetter and XP's distrust of Wiki:BigDesignUpFront. WardsWiki is a LowRoad approach, as is the WWW. TedNelson's Xanadu is HighRoad. If you are working at the cutting edge of hangglider racing, you may prefer the heavier material because it lets you try out new ideas more easily, and trying out ideas is what keeps you at the cutting edge. -- DaveHarris


I think whatever slant you see is a reflection of your own biases or fears. The high/low distinction is fairly neutral. I'm a low roader usually, but I'm not afraid to take a bicycle path on occasion (e.g. MeatBall). -- SunirShah

I'll disagree that the high/low distinction is "fairly neutral". It is probably one of the most obvious metaphors for good/bad, and one that is found in many contexts. I'm certain that the authors chose it because recommending a "low" choice is unexpected, and even startling sometimes. One doesn't sell many books by just telling people "consider all your options, and do what's best for your particular situation." You need something more interesting to be memorable (and profitable).

I just don't see it... It's not obvious to me which one is good and which one is bad... low, or high. -- MatthewSimpson

In a way, recommendations for a "low road" remind me of the phrase "thinking outside the box". For some, the phrase is a useful reminder to avoid unnecessary (often assumed) limits. It is often misused, however, in order to completely escape relevant criticism. (I'm imagining a building that falls down unexpectedly, and the builders saying "Well, we were thinking outside the box, so we took the low road on structual stability...". (On the other hand, I'm not sure office buildings should be built to last for eons...))

I would prefer to work with a collection of specific ideas rather than a single vaguely-defined slogan. (Well, except that I *really* like "worse is better". I've abused that phrase mercilessly. ;-) The best idea I see in the "low road" idea is that flexibility can often be more valuable than a prematurely optimized system. Still, rather than bunch ideas into high/low groups, I'd rather compare tradeoffs like:

--CliffordAdams

Well, I suppose I'm biased because I try to walk between the two forces as much as possible. I guess it could be characterized East vs. West, but I think it's more dynamic vs. static.

Here's an anecdote from RealLife. Wherever my roommates and I move, we turn the place into a "geek farm" (sorry, Erik!). We knock holes in the walls to run the cabling. The places we move into were built decades ago and certainly weren't built for techheads. Was it practical for the builders to "plan" for this? Or plan for things they could not predict? Perhaps completely modularized construction... but that would raise our rent so high we would never move in.

So what is good or bad here? Good and bad are fictional. You make them up as you go along, so let them go. Then you're only left with choices which are either favourable or unfavourable. But that distinctition is orthogonal to the high/low distinction presented here. -- SunirShah


"One doesn't sell many books..." - StewartBrand wasn't recommending Low Road. HowBuildingsLearn is more of a history book than a consultancy, "how to" kind of thing. He deals with high and low equally and merely uses the metaphor to crystallise certain over-arching patterns, not to convey a value judgement.

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