In this post I’m digging into how we organize the critical data objects in our lives and at the same time looking for better solutions.
There’s basically a flanking attack on humanity occurring as we speak. We’re subject to a vast distributed denial of service attack; stalling us out simply by the human time it takes us to examine, understand, process and resolve the vast amounts of information we consume on a daily basis. Resolving the minutiae of our taxes, managing our email, upvoting our social networks. Services like Facebook are full stack closed worlds, owning authentication, content aggregation, the social network, the filtering, the presentation and the power to deny us voice. What percentage of our time is simply spent processing the data flows that come past us?
I would argue that the attention economy is crashing.
We all feel this this in the shared frustration we have with tools today — by “we” I mean the nerds, the teens, the busy, the idle, the artists, the entrepreneurs, writers, bloggers, social media over-sharers, journalists, academics, people fighting for social justice, people living on the street.
Our scrapbook notes get lost, the paper planners aren’t around when we reach for them, post-its on walls fall off or become overwhelming, software todo managers don’t allow exports, schedulers are laborious to setup and maintain, shared issue trackers crash and so on. Our hurriedly jotted down hopes, todos, endless photo-streams, chores, goals, favorites, projects, places, memories, secrets end up being corrupted or lost or locked into some ancient format or interspersed with advertising — or the terms and conditions change as dot coms try to monetize their user base. Our tools and our data are fragmented and difficult to manage, hard to migrate, hard to hold and share.
How many dreamers founder simply due to the weight of organizing deliverables? It’s a mess.
The inquiry I’m taking is to ask a diverse group of peers how they organize, and to then to roughly divvy up the kinds of data we’re all organizing and the tools we’re using. I’ll try to step back and look at the big picture, how we think we think, how we sense make the world, and then to jump back down to pragmatics.
I’m certain almost everybody will be able to quickly point out swaths of precedent that I am missing — so please feel free to provide input and corrections. This will be something of a living document for a while.
If you have opinions on best practices for organizing your data, things you collect, your goals and the like — please feel free to reach out to me. I am on twitter at ʞooH ɯlǝsu∀ .
How do you do that voodoo that you do?
How do you collect and organize things you simply find beautiful or compelling? How do you share your favorite monads — your photos, articles, books, or music with other people? How do you share your favorite local hang-out joints with friends when they come visit?
How do you organize your own life? How do you set big goals? How do you track small chores?
How do you deal with even larger group goals — work and deliverables that you are doing with peers, or even just large organizational efforts; curating a large collection to share with the public or friends?
What frustrations do you have?
Beyond this, how often have you wanted to find that one incredible photograph of your dog doing that neat trick to show to your friends at lunch— but it was utterly lost in the noise of a thousand newer photographs?
Or how often has a todo item slipped through your fingers? Or a scheduled meeting completely flown past? Did you see about getting that window fixed, stop by the pet store to get a new chew toy, enroll in Zumba class and get together over coffee with a friend? Or did you while away the day hiding out from your chores?
How closely aligned are you with your longer term goals? What are the stepping stones between you and those distant goals?
How do you feel about social media? Do you feel like you’re seeing what you need to see or just what you want to see? Are those both the same thing?
Dive bombing the archeological ruins of the noosphere
The littoral bedding plane of our mind palaces are built of tools, techniques, practices for managing information. We are all today (for better or worse) somewhat experts on the best practices for managing the constant action of a digital sea, wave after wave of new very important topics to digest.
There’s been a lot of great thinking, some of which is now obsolete. These are our tax burdens, the romantic historically protected lathe and plaster Victorians that we no longer fit in, have low doorways, lack electricity and plumbing and only at best inform our modern mega structure aesthetics.
Academics among us will point out that here we are invariably touching on broad ideas of Knowledge Organization. There’ll be the inevitable citation of Vannevar Bush where he largely imagined the Internet whole cloth with the Memex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex (although fewer kittens). Ted Nelson also contributes with his Project Xanadu — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Xanadu and of course Tim Berner’s Lee fostered the web as we know it — https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/ . Also worth mentioning is Ward Cunningham’s radical idea of a web of peer based collaboration with the idea of the Wiki — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia.
This all probably starts in an arms race with the first person to paint a sabretooth tiger on a cave wall — the drawing draws out the humanity. And then the first person to try scribble over it. Today Wikipedia has aggressive and non-obvious architectural design to prevent bad actors from filling it full of noise. Almost every tool we have is buttressed by a need for persistence.
By ‘tools’ we don’t limit ourselves to applications. It turns out that having a big pile of information isn’t a lot of good if you can’t find what you want in it. Within our frameworks arose a concept of ontologies. We grabbed ideas like Aristotelian taxonomies, or prototype based categorization, or even Melvil Deweys’ Dewey Decimal Classification System and pressed them into servitude to manage our torrents of ideas. Google itself ate Freebase — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freebase — and used it to help it achieve a semantic understanding of meaning — not entirely dissimilar from Cyc — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyc to power a search based philosophy. The goal ultimately being nothing less than a model of the universe through a consensus of human eyes. Sprinkle some some RDF based ontologies on the whole thing and you’re done. The semiotics of which itself becomes a field of study by arcane mages in some kind of fractal mirror-worlds landscape.
We’re not even so lucky to have our sausage machines separate from our sausage. Everything blends together. Our ideas are chiseled apart based on how they are framed in opposition to other ideas. It’s convenient to cleave reality, or arbitrarily partition, what is otherwise in fact seamless. The universe only has one object in it. Me, my computer, this table, the planet, your table, your computer and you are a single object until rendered asunder.
Prototypes and buckets overlap. A concept of tagging is introduced by Joshua Schachter and Web 2.0 is launched. Hashtags emerge shortly thereafter much to the delight of purveyors in the craft of synthetic outrage and yellow news.
Yet there’s still not even a canonical splitting plane. No two people see the same reality. Famously Ontario Indians had a hard time sharing an understanding of portage routes with European settlers because Europeans saw water and land as two different things — but the locals saw both as simply one portage route. This also seems like the reason why the platypus is curious to us; an otherwise totally lovable critter but nonsensical; with fur, laying eggs, and a duck bill, venomous toesies, and an electric snout that nurses young with milk. Seemingly with attributes of ducks and kittens and electric eels. Late to our classification systems and thus jammed in uncomfortably in our minds. If Plato had a platypus then we’d be agawk at kittens instead.
Tools like HyperCard also merge both function and form. Hypercard is in fact a whole universe unto itself, a way of organizing knowledge, a way of programming and it’s somewhat surprising that today there isn’t an equivalent. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HyperCard and Justin Falcones overview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8i60_REoeIY . (Probably the closest example today of HyperCard is the Unity3D interface lets novices build video games by wiring up 3d objects to behaviors).
Pragmatically, today there are entire careers dedicated to different kinds of knowledge organization. Being a digital librarian or a project manager is often undervalued but critical. There are also many applications such as Microsoft Project and many websites such as say Asana, Trello, Redmine, Slideshare or even Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest or Pinboard for collecting, organizing and managing ideas, goals, deliverables, collections and whatever it is that we humans can possibly conceive. These tools arise in strange ways but there’s a teleological destination calling forth — if they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them. See https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/cyberspace/the-improbable-origins-of-powerpoint . There’s also a terrifying Jenga of tools on tools. Tokimeki helps you konmari your Twitter followers. As Marie Kondo would say “does this twitter follower spark joy?”. https://www.wired.com/story/tokimeki-unfollow-declutter-twitter .
Notably there is quite a bit of populist frustration even rage around centralization of media, filtering, trust and censorship. Twitter and Facebook have largely failed to build even simple trust filtering mechanics and instead laud their removal of yet another hundred thousand fake accounts (as if that isn’t a reflection of a fundamental incompetence). It in fact looks like the new battlefronts are now memetic — battling for our hearts and minds by deforming the fabric of our delicate webwork of social connections. Fake News! Is the new paean cry — as if we finally triumphantly achieve a tautological nihilism that the only truth is that nothing is true. Tim Berners-Lee proposes Solid — https://solid.mit.edu . Others propose a variety of industrial strength solutions ranging from cryptographically secure public ledgers to IPFS to https://numaverse.com or https://urbit.org and an infinity of other ideas. But here we simply want to acknowledge the frothing edge of the wave rather than dwell on it.
The topic stretches further when we think about just how many ways people share and organize thoughts… gestures, yelling, paper, graffiti, laptops, phones. Our tools and our facts are affected by the medium, the size of our displays, or their portability, or their need for electricity, their interfaces, their durability, the need for secrecy, or the need to broadcast loudly, the need for collective input or not.
This may matter because we’re about to enter a new realm of Virtual and Augmented Reality where interfaces and tools will likely change yet again.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality give you a lot more room visually to arrange and place virtual objects. Many of our tools and interfaces are constrained by limited real-estate. We keep notes in small books, or on laptops, or in ways that make us think carefully about how much information to show at once. VR/AR work interfaces will likely be as different from your smart phone as your smart phone is from your notepad. (It may be erroneous to think that because VR and smartphones both run on electricity and use screens that they will be in any way similar to each other). There’s a lot of speculation about this already — by way of just one recent Medium post I came across recently : https://medium.com/@benhylak/some-thoughts-on-spatial-computing-fed8145beccd .
Arranging the universe
Let’s stick a prism in the torrent of data that flows past us:
- Atomic. There seems to be well packaged information objects; each encapsulating a whole idea, mapping well to something real. One single goal, one single idea, one gestalt framing. A book, a photograph, a project folder. Often this is somewhat idealized (the real world is pretty messy).
- Collectables. These are objects that often aren’t time sensitive, that don’t represent a domain coverage, that can stand alone even if they’re part of a set, there’s no specific set position primacy or centrality of any member. These are often collected because they are interesting to us. Pinterest is a website dedicated to collectables such as dresses, art, design ideas. Kindle collects books and Flickr and Instagram collect photographs. The bulk of the Internet by volume of bits appears to be here.
- Coverages. Tools for learning also seem to be somewhat special — distinguished from merely collectables; here we are interested in collections that represent a complete coverage of a domain — flash cards for learning sign language are an example.
- Relational. There also seems to be systems of knowledge that are more relational, where the objects themselves have their meaning through association with other objects. A gantt chart, a map of the world. The whole of a topic can itself be atomic but inside that is a tangled web.
- Actionable. Some objects populate our todo lists. Actionables seem to get special attention; including near term chores and goals, longer term aspirations and group planning efforts. In a sense they define our lives.
- Private (as opposed to public). We have personal notes, journals, reference materials, todo lists — things that we don’t want to share with others (or that others are not interested in). This is the kind of stuff we are drowning in that seems to be handled most poorly.
- Grey area. I want to denote objects that sit on the boundary between private and public because this is a space that is hard to get right. Getting it right can mean the difference between success and failure of a tool.
- Group (as opposed to solo). We have group collections, libraries, wikis, shared gantt charts and other kinds of efforts that are both more public and more formal. When working with other people we start to have to formalize our languages around those objects. Humanity has build large works here.
- Social media as a barnacle on group activity that is public exhibits unique traits and is worthy of note by itself. Although each social object isn’t hugely significant, the aggregate of social activity helps us see our community. I tend to refer to these as ‘heartbeat’ moments — where we get both a feeling of the pulse of our community and how members in it are doing. Rarely actionable and often in a grey area protected space.
The quantum froth
Often when people are domain experts — building something, studying something, writing something — they’ll collect representations that capture ideas, scenes, dialogue, moments, images, and other ephemera as research. If you’ve ever been on a movie set you often see collections of maquettes, moquettes, swatches, sketches and suchlike thumbtacked to walls or arranged on tables. Or if you’ve visited an interior designer they may have entire walls covered with different kinds of pretty tiles, or fixtures, or door knobs. Sometimes these are meant for show, but often they’re kind of an externalized brain — holding the fine grained nuances and details of the world — the exact texture, heft, feel and reality of those objects as an embodied reference. Actionables are here — people seem to scratch down informal todo-lists and cross them off (but I will circle back on that later).
Here I note that most of us have a pretty messy internal process. This isn’t something ‘to be fixed’ or improved on per se. Any system for organizing knowledge should accommodate the way people work already.
In a sense structured knowledge emerges from these kinds of messy spaces.
Moving slightly along the space of organizing there’s a pack-rat in each of us busy collecting all manners of shiny objects. Our appetite here is probably the reason that top ten listicles are so popular.
There’s also lots of room at the bottom apparently. Our cognitive universe seems to be made up out of millions of ideas, and more are being invented every day. And we use all these labels: thoughts, ideas, notes, todo items, goals — to capture at heart the essence of what we’re sharing, what we’re relating.
Because these are often meant for sharing they start to exhibit a bit more formality than our own jostling notes.
Many people seem to want to be able to collect and sometimes share lists of things like their own life story, food recipes, favorite and most delicious buddha bowls, influential science-fiction books, fun board games, easy karaoke songs, sexy time music collections, favorite fine artists, favorite multi-day hiking trails, favorite late night hang out joints, favorite underground comics, home renovation tips, plants to plant in fall, birds popular in your region, train spotting and so on and on to infinity.
Here’s one example — the Flickr group that attempts to collect and organize birds : https://www.flickr.com/groups/birds/ and here’s another example on Pinterest — collecting Goth regalia : https://www.pinterest.com/pcmods/goth-costume-ideas/ .
These feel like simply random collections of accumulated sparkly items — a trait we share with animals. You might equally find such objects in the nest of an uplifted crow, pika or bower bird — there is less of an attempt at a coverage of a domain and more of an “oooh pretty!”.
I’m quite fond of the power of these kinds of tools to connect us to fresh ideas and strategies. For example consider Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies https://dangerousminds.net/comments/brian_eno_and_peter_schmidts_oblique_strategies_the_original_handwritt which is nothing more than a set of koans — so much kinder to us than alcohol or other techniques people use to break out of train tracks and achieve cognitive parallax.
You’re nothing but a pack of Cards!
There’s a conceit that single ideas are concrete objects that we can cut, paste, share. We see formalisms around the visual representation of atomic ideas on the web around us, and often these representations paint ideas as small cards.
The Google Material Design philosophy (which is a set of best practices around UX design) : https://material.io/design/components/cards.html introduces a formal framing around cards which captures this idea.
A card in their nomenclature is literally that — a small rectangular visual representation of an idea that holds a title, a description, an image in a single container — and all objects in that collection have the same schema or layout. Cards don’t have “priority” or “centrality”. All cards are equal. There may be prototypical cards that are exemplars of the class, but instances are equal.
Atomicity of course is an illusion, but a powerful one — that the entirety of an idea is in ones hand, that an idea is portable or mobile, that the held idea is independent of other ideas. We cling to a sense of ’truth’ and there’s a durable phrasing here. This riffs on Gottfried Leibniz’s Monads.
Cards historically have been static, on physical paper, immutable. Today cards online can be animated to reflect dynamic state. If you have a collection of hiking trails then the cards could show the time and current weather and how many friends are in that area for example. The opposite is true as well. You can print out a set of cards to take hiking to identify mushrooms.
Cards pair well with coverages — a collection of atomic ideas that fully describe a domain at some lower resolution. This seems useful for learning or memorization. See https://wikihow.com for example.
We see people often using collections of cards to study a new language such as Chinese, or Sign Language. There is a slight formalism here; that these are ontologies meant to break up a topic into digestible pieces.
I would also even classify http://slideshare.com, powerpoints in general and the like in this way. These provide 10000 foot views of domains that themselves are infinitely complex — collections of flora and fauna are simpler than each flora or fauna. Collections of design patterns are simpler than the design patterns themselves — https://sourcemaking.com/design_patterns .
One question here is what can somebody learn not in say 10000 Malcom Standard Unit Hours but in 20 hours? Can one get an 80% understanding of something with the right tools? If so, then there’s a possibility that if it was easier to collect, share, organize, curate and essentially extract or distill the best of the best ideas, that one could learn new topics more quickly. See also:
Alfred Korzybski famously said we are different from plants or animals in that we can not only bind energy from the sun as plants do, or bind space to our whims as animals do, but we can also bind time. We can share knowledge with each other and skip the tediousness of learning new topics from scratch.
Above these atoms we have molecules — distinct kinds of things with complex relationships to each other. We see organizational patterns, relationship diagrams, structure. Ideas around centrality, precedence, importance, frequency come to the fore. Sometimes priority varies as per the observer, but there’s a idea that not all ideas are equal. Here we seem to hunger to build maps — to see territories. We see patterns are captured in UML (Unified Modeling Language) here as well.
Automated constellations of knowledge start to diverge from purely random buckets. A good example is http://everynoise.com/ — which is a map of all music. The layout is largely automated, it does organize ideas relative to each other spatially but that spatial organization isn’t extremely rich — the value is more in idea idea itself rather than the relationships between the ideas. Concepts have qualities and they can be mapped on those qualities. Rich and visual mappings are a natural and rewarding product of a data collection.
We have timelines, calendars, gantt charts, photo spheres, files and folder hierarchies, and more radical ideas like helixtime.io for example. The overview effect begins to creep in and we start to be able to see the magnificent sweep of geological time — such as http://humanhistorytimeline.com or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphical_timeline_of_the_universe.
Curated relationships emerge here. For a highly political example — imagine that you want to diagram the participants, topics and issues of the book “Dark Money”. This book talks about money laundering but fails to be extremely specific and contextualize the illicit dollars versus real dollars. More rigorous views that provided context would be nice especially if group annotatable. What are the foundations, how does money flow between them, who are the funders, what universities and theses come out of this? Even just tracing the money laundering flows such as illuminated by the Panama Papers would be interesting. One could hypothetically start at a point such as Robert Mercer and trace out the dependency graph — to try connect to where suspected money is laundered from Russian oligarchs — and in a way the true volume of the issue could be shown, perhaps ideally contextualized by other money flows in general. With an overview effect we’d know better if these issues were large or small.
Another excellent example of the power of an overview effect is just seeing how Twitter conversations cluster: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/20/mapping-twitter-topic-networks-from-polarized-crowds-to-community-clusters/ .
Precedence also relates facts. Who were the important philosophers, from where did their ideas derive? How did philosophers build on each others thoughts? There are a variety of attempts to map this domain — just picking a random example — http://www.openculture.com/2018/05/the-map-of-philosophy.html . This also shows proximity, and data flow in a sense, but time is a harsh mistress, and data flows here are sadly uni-directional.
Another excellent example of a kind of series of steps or a directional flow is this flowchart on how to become a Web Developer : https://medium.freecodecamp.org/a-roadmap-to-becoming-a-web-developer-in-2017-b6ac3dddd0cf . Group actionables are here in the form of Gantt charts as well and post-it notes stuck on walls.
And here’s a project from NODA VR that just cropped up — a VR based wireframe brainstorming tool:
Towards the end of this realm relationships dominate and the subjects themselves are subordinate. The molecules fuse together into complex organisms.
We reach the point of grammars here — similar to english, or music notation or other roles where the interpreter carries a burden of the understanding.
There’s a whole field of technical description languages for describing both declarative (static) and procedural (dynamic) systems. See for example https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Control_Systems/Block_Diagrams , https://puredata.info , Unreal Blueprints for visual scripting https://docs.unrealengine.com/en-us/Engine/Blueprints and even Scratch https://scratch.mit.edu/ .
Here we’re trying to describe arbitrarily complex processes over time, trying to capture some useful essence of those systems, to share them with others. In a sense the tools become bridges — a translation of the medium that both the human and the computer can understand.
“The programmer”, wrote the renowned Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra in 1988, “has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before.” Dijkstra meant this as a warning. As programmers eagerly poured software into critical systems, they became, more and more, the linchpins of the built world — and Dijkstra thought they had perhaps overestimated themselves. [ https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/09/saving-the-world-from-code/540393/ ] . I’m more optimistic that the priesthood of programming will fade away — and the ability to formally describe behavior over time becomes an expected competency.
I’d be surprised if the average person doesn’t have or use a hundred bots to curate, choreograph and sequence their lives. From alarm clocks to calendars. But we rarely actually program these little machines — we just rely on them fully formed. Programming has yet to become a lingua franca. Nevertheless it’s worth noting that this is also a way that some of us do organize our lives — with tiny digital friends — we automate our bills away, we automate mail sorting, we automate lawn sprinklers, feeding the cat. The brightest monkeys among us even automate the chore of generating income.
Lights, Camera, Actionables!
Things we need to do TOMORROW! — things that are Important or Urgent! seem to be special to us.
There’s a kind of Obi-Wan prayer even — where we’re looking for a savior from our own organizational dark side. This is probably where the most tension is.
Deliverables have a sense of a life goal, or critical right or wrong to failure path that connects deeply to our sense of pride or shame. Goals seem to be arranged in different ways, on different time-scales, stored differently from non-actionables, and are more constantly attended to and groomed. This can include memory again, jotting down todo notes on paper (did you feed the cat!), shared calendars for group negotiation, emails and ultimately formal goal management software such as https://help.github.com/categories/managing-your-work-on-github .
People I’ve chatted with seem frustrated. Teasing apart the frustrations what I’m hearing that people want is a way of organizing goals (and other facts as well) that exhibit traits like this:
- Durable — it should be hard for facts to get lost in the hustle and bustle of every day life. This is why some people keep their data in a notebook that they physically carry around with them. Or take photos of that notebook and transfer the same goals to their phone. Paradoxically this is why other people keep their data online.
- Low Impedance — It looks like people want ease of access; it should be extremely easy to add a note, to update a goal, cross it off. There’s something of a biochemical reward here as well; somehow jotting things down itself seems to be a rewarding process.
- Multiple perspectives — There’s a desire to be able to try different views. This can be a list view, or a calendar, or a timeline. There seems to be a desire as well to get an overview effect [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect ]. When goals are visible with respect to each other, and or visible over time, it seems to help people clarify the value or importance of goals relative to each other. It is as if the memory of the goal itself doesn’t exist until the goal is visible — it is entirely forgotten until seen again. For people who are struggling with long term motivation and goals it can be helpful to connect outcomes, plateaus and progress to measurables. For example a deep goal that a person may have is to be in shape enough to climb Mt Whitney with their kids next summer, but the shorter term goal of going for a walk every day may not resonate or connect with that longer term goal unless they’re both visible — the short term activity and the longer term outcome have to be lensed together.
- Findable — There’s a desire for plain old search as well. Especially in corporate settings where multiple people are contributing schedulables. The data exhaust of even an individual is overwhelming, let alone a group of individuals.
- Portable. It looks like people don’t want to be locked into a single vendors solution. This is probably why todo list managers fail, or why sticky note applications are a fail. What people want is a data-centric model, not an application centric model. There is a subtle of data loss risk: as time moves on our tools (and even our languages) change — long lived goals have to survive those phase transitions. Just this week for example Flickr is deleting millions of photographs forever from people who don’t know any better. Nobody wants to be stuck with one vender and their mediocre interfaces or held hostage to their business decisions.
- Grey Area. People seem to want fine grained control over privacy. There are knowledge collections that they want to curate and share only the best of — but they still want to maintain a single collection internally — not have to duplicate the collection simply because a portion of it is public.
- Grouping. People have multiple projects going on at once and they want to be able to group related ideas together. Filesystems already offer this concept, but there’s also a concept of tagging, and sorting by priority or precedence. Also there’s a desire to color flag goals for quick visualization and reference.
- Atomic. People seem to want to be able to have simple representations of goals — where each goal is clearly stated. If a goal is built up out of several other goals then that parent goal acts as a kind of wrapper around the child goals — encapsulating them.
Stepping back here — it feels like people have a mental model of how they want to ideally organize information. The real world tools we have are just a rough approximation.
It may be worth asking people what are their mental models of their goals? How do they (just in their heads) envision and keep an eye on a variety of their intents and aspirations? This perhaps gets closest to self identity because people often define themselves by their goals — by the future. It would also be interesting to see how far into the future people plan or think, and as well, how much of their future planning is focused on themselves and how much is focused on other people.
Here I want to step sideways and squint at the realm of social objects.
We derive value from simply sensing the ambient fidgeting, snuffling and lowing of the herd. Most of us have careers, friendships and communities that are entirely sustained by the digital social networks we are on. We are all spewing out these data objects, and as well consuming data objects from other people. There’s a new ecosystem above our individual actions. We’re almost a new kind of creature lately in fact.
We’re constantly finding things we want to save, collect, organize, share. Perhaps we’re into music, knitting, home-repair, exercise routines, favorite hikes, favorite music, favorite images, places to go tango dancing, interesting events, friends, news feeds. We want to filter information using our social network, to see what is collectively upvoted the most. We want to make information socially available — to put together special collections of tips. We just want to stay on top of things that we like.
Each and every public act we make seems to steal a breath from us; fueling parasitical panopticon services that then hold us hostage to the procrustean coffin they want us to fit in. In a sense they’re trying to manufacture us.
This may all seem distant from the pragmatics of how we personally organize information, but it’s critically a part of our lives. Probably most of the information we are dealing with is generated by other people, and we’re trying to manage these massive flows — using closed social services.
If we think about applications like Facebook or Twitter, these are in fact composed of distinct pieces. There is user authentication (which is already obsolete in a world of self-signed identity and distributed file systems) and there is aggregation of information from other people (historically this used to be distributed via RSS feeds), there is algorithmic selection of content (their secret sauce and a key revenue moment) and finally presentation — (within the parameters of how they feel content should be presented).
With respect to presentation — because it is difficult for one company to support a multiplicity of views, and due to a desire for consistency, our “view” of the world through all of the large social networks is homogenized into small square boxes. The space outside of the ideas is immutable; ideas cannot break the frame, there is no grit or messiness to digest — and I believe this creates an impoverished sanitized experience that can be frustrating.
Any re-envisioning of how we organize information would probably impact existing social networks significantly.
Notably people are different from other things we collect because people are ‘emitters’ or ‘branches’ rather than leaves in any kind of directed graph representing knowledge. They’re the source of our creative inputs. But we may have to do as Lessig suggests and strike at the roots to reclaim healthy social networks. The systems we use are extremely corrupt.
As we leave the realm of data we start to consider how we see that data.
Right now most of our digital data objects are locked up inside of specialized viewing engines. Part of this is that web services such as Facebook or Twitter are effectively desktops. They manage the end to end experience of login, data management and presentation. Their views are so limited, their algorithms so opaque that this doesn’t feel sustainable.
Let’s pretend that all of our data from anywhere in the world was under our control. What could we do if this were the case?
The kinds of views we typically want include the basics such as a list view, a timeline view, a calendar view, a dependency view, a globe view for geographic data.
For example, every desktop or interface should allow you to easily arrange arbitrary data on a map — that most do not seems a bit silly:
Beyond this there’s an opportunity for even fancier custom views — and perhaps this would help reduce some of the pressures or frustrations people feel with their tools. Here are some other views that may be nice to apply to any collection of data objects:
Spiral Timelines. Years have a rhythm to them, things that happen in winter happen again the next winter. Spiral timelines can emphasize and surface those relationships in a way that needs to be seen to be appreciated. See the timeline helix view of http://helixtime.io for example:
Faceted Data Views. In fact there’s a history of computer infographics that we’ve hardly touched in modern desktops. Imagine if you could produce views of the stuff you were interested in on demand like so:
Deliberate Mess. You could also have your random serendipity if you want. It feels like today we can’t fully jumble — we can’t actually get out of a middle state of moderate entropy. It could be fun in some perverse way to really just get your stuff all messed up:
Metaphorical Layouts. I imagine that many of us would like to share idiosyncratic views of our own worlds. https://neocities.com is an excellent example of unencumbered creativity — there’s more room for personal expression.
For myself what I’d like to share of myself is something in between. I’d like to still be able to share the datums themselves — a given recipe or a photo, but I’d like to be able to arrange them as I wish.
Instead of somebody coming to my Ello, Twitter, LinkedIn profile or Facebook Profile — and seeing the same boring old monotonous cookie cutter self-representation of me I’d like to stretch out and share the world the way I see it a bit. I imagine my home page would be an island, or a body, and it would have territories. There would be beaches where I’d share my favorite photographs of my favorite trips, there would be a redwood forest where I keep my favorite books and essays, there would be a secret lab underneath a volcano where I share my public facing projects and ideas. There would be a kitchen where I collect my favorite recipes. There’s an opportunity to metaphorically map the entire space. For me I imagine also that I’d arrange my world such that things that were “of the mind” were at one end, and things largely “of the body” at the other. These are just offhand thoughts that I don’t have the freedom to easily do today because most of the services — upvoting, sharing, commenting and suchlike are on closed social networks.
Files and Folders or Groups. This circles right back to the early observations that people seem to like simple atomic views. Objects or artifacts often have some very traditional and canonical senses of a namespace in them. Organizing objects only by search based discovery or by timeline can be very frustrating. So one doesn’t want to throw out basic traditional views. People are used to files and folders.
Conclusions — Future facing Interfaces
Your laptop desktop, your iPhone display and your Facebook are each examples of vertically integrated stacks. This stack extends from low level protocols to high level user experience. The stack defines the data, how it is shared, authentication and presentation. These stacks are the bridge between you and your data, and between you and other people. The tippy top of that stack is the user interface — how you see, conceive, touch, and manipulate data — and how others see you manipulate data.
There are two separate kinds of concerns in these stacks. One is centralization and the second is the interfaces themselves. Let’s examine both briefly:
- Centralization. Today we have single vendors controlling the full stack. Facebook is a good example — your data is presented as a series of homogenous boxes in a light blue pastel framing. Nothing breaks that framing. You can’t get all the data easily. It’s difficult to have your own interface. Luckily there are many people who for a variety of reasons are concerned about data centralization and are working hard on fixing the web as a whole. The IndieWeb effort attempts to bridge the old and the new for example by encouraging people to take back ownership of their published content https://indieweb.org/ . There are many social networks from https://joinmastodon.org/ to https://mosaic.social/ to https://lifescope.io/ to https://darcy.is/ . And there’s an incredibly active discussion in Solid about these topics as well — see https://gitter.im/solid/chat . The comments I’m making are not the first, not the last and not even specially unique.
- Interfaces. Interfaces are about to change as well. There is fresh thinking about how next generation user interfaces should work — see the Microsoft Mixed Reality Guidelines at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/mixed-reality/billboarding-and-tag-along or the Magic Leap Interface Guidelines https://medium.com/@davecancode/magic-leap-human-interface-guide-part-one-9b04875c065a or https://unity3d.com/learn/tutorials/topics/virtual-reality/user-interfaces-vr — and there are decades of thinking in the video game community (so much so that if you’re a game developer and you move to HTML or web development it is like stepping back in time 10 years).
The unresolved or unknown question in my mind is more at the user interface end of the stack. What is an idealized future desktop that manages your data objects? Not to strictly focus on VR or AR but I can imagine you throwing on your AR glasses and seeing a virtual desktop or workbench and some kind of representation of your objects and rummaging through that easily.
And the observation I’m making is that a future workbench could ultimately replace parts of Facebook, traditional desktops and so on. In my mind a homogenous view exists underneath every application and every service and offers standards based object manipulation. Social services especially become applications that ask for permission to access your data — rather than coercively holding your data hostage in their interface.
Let’s imagine a bare bones example, narrowly focusing on just “organizing”. In this example you have a single view of multiple “buckets” — letting you move photographs between a flickr photo-sphere app and a more traditional dropbox file and folder window:
To accomplish all this I see an idealized stack like so:
- Data Centric. Rather than being application centric, a mature personal workbench or desktop would collect data objects, letting you organize them as you wish and composing views over them as you wish. There wouldn’t be a single application bound to a single kind of data. You could view photographs as a list, on a globe, or as a timeline for example.
- Self authentication; for public or shared data there’s no central service that authenticates you — rather you sign your own documents with your own private key and then set them loose to flitter about the world. This could be an IPFS based world, it could be a conventional web — the point is that centralized authentication is obsolete as an idea.
- Aggregation. There’s no upstream service that aggregates for you. Rather you listen to what sources you wish and collect those data points as you wish. This not only includes blogs, or social media posts, but could also include websites, filesystems, text files, spreadsheets or weather readings.
- Filtering. Ultimately you need to be able to write your own filters, but at the very least you should be able to fiddle with the knobs yourself; not be held hostage to what Zuckerberg thinks.
- Trust scoring. A mature Internet would let you not only upscore or downscore various other participants but also share your scoring with your friends; building a trust network. This would quickly let you filter noise from your network and eliminate fake news instantly overnight.
- Buckets. Without any tuning a default view would be largely a jumble of recent activity. But I imagine most people using would immediately define a series of buckets to catch concepts important to them. They might have a “deliverables” or “goals” bucket. They might have a bucket for photographs, and for personal projects, recipes or whatever it was that they were focused on.
- Views. Each bucket would be a view, anything in that bucket is viewed as say a list, or a timeline, or a globe, or a gantt chart, or laid out as text. Views themselves would not ‘own’ the data objects they were showing. Views are effectively applications, they can proxy remote objects — in a sense acting like radioactive tongs for manipulating data from afar.
- UX Conventions. Users would be able to be confident about the user interface behaving as expected. Even novel UX elements would have signifiers that certain things are selectable or movable.
What would such a system allow?
- Homogenous. Objects you create could be viewed in different ways; they don’t need to be re-input into a new system.
- Grey Area. Buckets or things in buckets could be marked as public or private. A portfolio could published to a website based on the works that you felt met public scrutiny.
- Freedom. Right now we are owned by others in a sense. Parts of our brain are held hostage. Not only freedom of expression, but what we see and think. This applies not only to social networks but any creative work we produce.
All in all I think what we want is to take all of the features of all of the services and begin to offer “maturity”. We simply want to be able to move and organize our data at will, and not have the views be dominant. Views are of course important, but each is not so pre-eminent as they are today.
A mature digital workspace is like a workshop in a garage. You have your tools around you, you have your materials, you can move freely between these various pieces, picking and choosing what you want.
Those of us that are more expert can even write their own digital helpers to help filter or organize streams of data. But even those of us doing it by hand would at least have the freedom to pick and choose.
In a mature digital ecosystem, to be able to break free of the information onslaught we are facing, we need to be able to have control. And you should be able to have what you want.