The Longest Now

On Communication Fads
Friday May 09th 2003, 6:43 pm
Filed under: poetic justice

A standard electronic toolchain: 

thought –> interface –> software –> {recipients, repositories} –> thoughts

I use simply threaded email programs for an amazing amount of interface & software, and simple web forms [with almost no interesting resultant structure] for 90% of the rest.  I’m not proud of this — and occasionally I know of a unique way to access  something I need (a piece of information, a view of past conversations I want to show someone else), and pay dearly for this simplicity of structure in lost time.

The way I think without focusing (directed, perhaps, by having grown up writing on flat pieces of paper and typing [o|i]nto similarly-shaped textareas), my thoughts come out a cluster at a time.  I figure out a second later whether that cluster is full of continuations and illustrations of a preceding train of thought, related free-association, new thoughts wholly unrelated to recent trains, a cusp of connections to be followed, more rarely an epiphany about a surrounding concept or related abstraction, etc. 

If I want to stimulate this kind of thought, I pace.  It’s amazing how different my thought process is when pacing then when focusing on a theme (e.g., while writing a post like this). 

The most efficient way I know of to lay such thoughts out, without losing anything, frequently shifting gears (between unrelated clusters), layering ideas as they take shape, involves pen and paper — a few different colors of pen and large sheets of paper.  Nothing I do electronically can come even close, no matter that I type 10X faster than I write, or that emacs effectively doubles this rate, letting me reuse and restructure things I’ve written in moments. 

Many wonderful things happen on paper.  I automatically differentiate different clusters with whitespace, borders, text direction, font and style and color; I use all manner of unusual images and symbols which come in no fontset and cross lines and clusters — long arrows and bars and diagrams and icons in the middle of text.  Tufte uses an example from a paper of Galileo’s in which he embeds a perfect description of a celestial observation in the space of three characters by drawing it. 

Also the smallest analog nuances of writing style reflect what kinds of thoughts I was having, allowing myself a day or month later to pick up on subtleties that the text alone wouldn’t convey.  But this is a quite different and delicate issue, difficult to overcome with crude input devices — even a too-thick or balky pen can obscure these details.

Other interfaces, word processors and email programs and blogging software, try to facilitate expression by making it easier and faster to write, edit, direct (mailing lists, RSS feeds) and interconnect (categorization, hypertext, blogrolls) one’s different clusters of thought.  The aspect they have a hard time with is capturing the original interconnectedness of ideas which are serialized, both for lack of non-serial interfaces, and for piecemeal consumption by others.

On Communication Fads …

Fad Networks
Thursday May 08th 2003, 7:34 pm
Filed under: indescribable

Certain fads arrive and develop networks in a cluster of media consolidation, where gossip, local pundits, and world news sources collaborate unconsciously to broadcast a unified message of change, improvement, novelty.  Our society expects technology and progress to deliver improvements week to week, so it is easy for a promising fad to draw out a ritual excess of praise and hopeful predictions from all sides (though individual companies can lose out through envious nitpicking).

Air conditioning, radio, telephones, television, trains.  Computers, email, IM, mobile phones, outliners.  Some things truly settle into the fabric of reality; others decay from novelty into underuse — how poorly do we use our radiowaves and outliners today? — as the promise of novel advancement moves to a future target.

Wouldn’t it make perfect sense for someone living in the 1950s, dreaming of the future, to imagine our telephones, radios, televisions, and computers intertwined?  At the very least, one would expect most wealthy technologists to have these combined in a standard elegant way. But life plays funny tricks, and the present isn’t like that at all.

Enter blogging.  There are too many glorious predictions of its use and pending universality to link to the most important ones in a single sentence (I’ll try to update this with a set of links later).  Similar predictions arose when webpage design and free webhosting arose, so a consideration of the web-design fad seems appropriate.  For example, here’s a Harvard Law debate about the novel impact of blogging on elections.

In what ways did web design networks peak when it was a big deal to have a website, and in what ways are they growing stronger now that having one (as a person, as an org) is often taken for granted?  Where are the new metrics?  The analyses of how webpage creation and self-publishing have already achieved what people claim blogging will produce?  In what ways do the persisting fights among web-publishing software inform us about the future of blogging software development? [AOL apparently has hundreds of people working on its upcoming blogging component…]  How will these kinds of expression combine once blogs, too, are a fad of the past

How will the cliques of yesteryear’s web migrate to or be parallelled in a web where the default homepage is a blog?  It would be nice to think that the cleverest social scientists and network-builders were thinking about this and using these questions to guide future tool development.  What will happen once blogs, too, are the future dreams of the past? 

As you choose your own blogging software, and your sphere of fellow-bloggers, and begin to develop a fixed collection of {people you like and people like you}, let me know what you think, and how your ideas change and solidify.

Evolutionary Cusps
Thursday May 08th 2003, 6:19 pm
Filed under: chain-gang

Well, the skins work seamlessly now; I like this one well enough, but miss the multiple sidebars that a more flexible system offers… the Word-style fontification in Manila has occasional snags (e.g., not being preserved across rare operations), the forms used for posting sometimes forget their content if there’s an error in transmission, I still can’t use an embedded outliner to draft posts…

There are so many beautiful tools for expression out there!  We’ve been exercising Manila (c/o blhe) and Movable Type (c/o f|net), and investigate flexible variants like Blosxom for customizing the blogs underlying data structures [ interlocking indices, layered superstructures(metadata) and substructures (chunking) ].  The latter two allow multiple categorizations, and automatically generate by-category views… a big plus in my book. 

Then there are other tools for coordinating shared notes. An email-to-web ice like Neotonic’s Archive, or, more fundamentally, a db-to-web ice allowing many coordinators to create different views for users to see, letting a solid db handle auditing and permissions.

Stay tuned.

Update: we have an Archive instance working, and are planning an NNTP-based mail/web/news gateway for separating preferred input channels from preferred browsing channels…

Evolutionary Cusps …

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