About ten years ago I remember having a conversation with my mom about the way my brain worked. Windows 95 had recently been released and I was telling her that I liked to compartmentalize things like Windows Explorer. I explained to her that I put information and thoughts into folders and subfolders within my brain and when I needed to access that information it was only a matter of finding the right folder, which was clearly marked in its proper hierarchical structure.
Now it’s ten years later and we’re on the verge of integrated desktop search (check out this preview for “Spotlight” in OS X “Tiger”). Like good software, I have adapted my thinking to address these technological advances. No longer do I bother putting everything into folders. What’s the point? After all, our brains have a fantastic search function. Just think of the name of your first grade teacher. That wasn’t right at the top of your mind was it? If you had to figure out what the hierarchical structure that information was stored in could you?
Now that was a serious hassle. Your brain would never waste its time digging through all that junk just to get the information it needed. Imagine the time it would take when you were looking for something really tough.
It’s all about connections. That’s why things like smells and music can elicit such intense memories. For instance, right now I’m listening to the song “El Salvador” by the band Athlete which, for me, will forever be linked to walking the streets of London. It happens to all of us and it’s all about connections. In this case, Athlete immediately brings me back to a different city, country and culture. I can see Marble Arch, taste the ale at The Crown and feel the bumpy bus ride down Oxford Street.
But how does my brain find all that information? It’s definitely not in folders, so why was I so sure that it worked like Windows Explorer?
Ten years ago I was explaining my thinking in terms of the dominant technology. Today, however, I have a much stronger analogy to use. When I hear “El Salvador” and make all those connections it’s not because it’s stored in the same folder as London. After all, folders aren’t a very effective way to store things in more than one place. (Last night I explained this to someone as the difference between Outlook and GMail. Outlook forces you to choose what folder your message goes into, while GMail allows you to apply any number of appropriate labels to your message. ) It’s stored in the giant network that makes up my brain.
I can say that today, because instead of being forced to use hierarchical analogies, I can use the non-linear model of the internet to help me explain and understand how I think. For instance, I can say that when I read my 200-plus RSS feeds I throw all the information into a big pool and as I’m speaking to people or reading something I’m constantly searching that giant pool for appropriate connections. I don’t remember every word, just some basic ones, tags or labels, if you will.
When I think of the word iPod, for example, I immediately think of an article I read earlier this evening that was about Apple’s chances to gain personal computer market-share thanks to the halo effect of it’s super-popular digital music player. As memories continue bouncing all around my brain, I think back to an entry I wrote about a similar topic about eight months ago. These things are all stored with the tag “ipod.” They could also be labeled with any number of other appropriate tags, including “music,” “apple,” “business,” “computers” or even “microsoft.” By using this tagging system I’m only storing very basic information that I am very familiar with. I am also cross-referencing. After all, what good is a filing system that doesn’t let you cross-reference? (Windows Explorer are you listening?)
But how was I supposed to figure that out way back in 1995? After all, Google was hardly a glimmer, sites like del.icio.us and Flickr were years away from existing and no one knew what a blog was. I was a 14-year-old who needed a way to explain understand an incredibly complex organ (the one above the waistline) and I used the technology I understood best to do so. I believed what I was saying wholeheartedly and I really tried to file things away in the style I discussed with my mom that day. I tried to keep my brain tidy and organized, always putting thoughts away where they belonged.
But now, thanks to this non-linear, networked model that I play with every day, I’ve got an incredible metaphor at my fingertips. My brain is a network. It’s a living, breathing network that’s constantly evolving and shooting off new links and finding new connections.
In a September 1966 Scientific American article, “Information Storage and Retrieval,” Ben Ami Lipetz described how the most advanced information technologies of the day could handle only routine or clerical tasks. He then concluded perceptively that breakthroughs in information retrieval would come when researchers gained a deeper understanding of how humans process information and then endowed machines with analogous capabilities.
In response to that quote, Jakob writes:
Well, Ben was right, as you’ll soon see for yourself. By looking at how we tag photos on Flickr, we can understand how humans process information. Once we understand that, we can understand how to model it with computers, thereby creating better information retrieval systems.
Jakob goes on to write about the idea of tagging tags and being able to extract data in that way. If you start to tags lots of tags, patterns begin to emerge that explain how things are defined and understood. (Read the whole article, I can’t, and don’t plan to, do it justice right now.)
What’s I think is really important about Jakob’s article is that he understands that the technology we use helps us understand ourselves. This is a concept McLuhan understood quite clearly. But even he had a great deal of trouble getting people to believe him in his day.
Technology is getting more complicated. With every new medium we have gotten closer to understanding ourselves because we are essentially an incredibly complex piece of technology. As technology evolves, our ability to understand ourselves also evolves. In Understanding Media, Mcluhan writes, “the restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology.” Automation changed more than the price of goods, it changed the way people lived their lives. It gave them a new way to understand their world using the metaphor that is the machine.
McLuhan goes on to explain that this is because “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” Computers and the internet put the world at our fingertips, speed up all information, allow us to store important data and generally help us open up our brains to understand different and new things.
Our ability to understand the way we think enables us to think better. Furthermore, our ability to understand this is greatly enhanced by the increasing complexity (or simplicity) of information architecture.
But how was I supposed to understand that when all I had to work with were the stupid little folders in Windows Explorer?
UPDATE (3/24/05): I’m currently reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins which may force me to rethink some of the things I’ve written in this entry. If that happens I’ll make sure to provide a link from here to my new thoughts.