From Filing Cabinets to Digital Thought

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By Shelley Hayduk

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The way we represent, organize and share our knowledge propels us forward. It can either constrain or extend our abilities to think and create. In 1964, in his groundbreaking new media studies, Marshall McLuhan proposed that it is the medium, not just the content it carries, that impacts our lives. This is captured most eloquently in his most famous line: "The medium is the message."

I propose that the means by which we organize and access information are a part of that medium. So essentially when you open a folder or e-mail to get a document, it's not just about the information we access -- the organizational structure of our content itself has meaning. If this is true, what are our current paradigms for information management and how much have they progressed today?

Digital Filing Cabinets

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In 1886, Henry Brown invented the filing cabinet (known then as "receptacle for storing and preserving paper"). Next, Edwin Siebel's innovation of vertical paper storage in 1896 revolutionized record-keeping.  For the first time in history, we had a way to capture and store volumes of information in a manner that increased efficiency and organization without the need for the laborious process of binding knowledge into books.

Now with the advent of the computer, the Internet, cloud-based computing and social networking, surely Henry Brown would be impressed. Or would he? While some may look back on the industrial-age methods of yore with disdain, we have to acknowledge that we are still using these 19th-century paradigms despite our huge leaps in technology. Check out your computer desktop. We all still open our folders, and pull out our files (from our very big albeit digital filing cabinets). So it seems that we have successfully digitized our industrial age tools. Hmmm...

To be sure, thinking about and modeling computers as the ultimate digital filing cabinet over the last several decades has been pervasive and not without its successes. The graphical user interface took us from DOS-era, text-based commands to an icon-based version of our physical office. It was a natural transition people new to computers could easily grasp. And for the most part, whether you're on a Mac or PC you are still using folders to organize at least some of your information.

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But as useful as this filing metaphor is, in the Internet era it places unnecessary constraints on our information. This paradigm also limits the design and usability of many information management programs. Even the latest enterprise document management systems and portal technology like SharePoint are still collaborative hierarchies for file sharing. This problem of linear information access is further exacerbated when dealing with diverse groups of users. It is also an opportunity lost. When I access the sales reports, why not have them connected to relevant deals in play, products sold and key expertise? The lack of context means people just don't discover more relevant information. Things are overlooked.

Simply put, our brains naturally extend beyond our filing cabinets. We think associatively. Ideas and documents rarely fit into just one folder. As a result critical information gets buried, duplicated, or lost. We end up searching through our rigid directories and, more importantly, fail to capture the connections and relationships that crystalize our knowledge and drive our businesses.

Moving Beyond Information Hierarchies

The premise of organizing information by its relationships is both simple and incredibly powerful. If a piece of information can only be categorized hierarchically (in one place), you are missing every other valuable connection it might have. In our networked world, the inadequacy of the notion that single context can handle all cases is obvious for all but the simplest types of information. An idea might fit under a variety of categories and have many relationships -- the people involved, the steps to implement it, the assumptions upon which it depends, its sources of inspiration, and so on.

Mechanical-Brain.jpgIn this very publication in 1945, Vannevar Bush theorized a rudimentary thinking machine in "As We May Think." He described the "Memex" -- a tool to capture human thought and digitize our memories. His concept was based on simulating a system much more powerful than our filing cabinets: the human mind. Bush was calling for a new relationship between our thinking, the tools we use and the knowledge we possess.

Speaking of systems for indexing and filing information, much like those still in use today, Bush noted that, "The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."

He goes on to say, "Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency."

While Vannevar Bush's Memex was originally conceived with advanced photographic techniques, cards, and physical indexes that would make it impractical if not impossible to be realized, we now have digital tools to capture our thinking that make physical limitations irrelevant.

Mind-Map.jpgThe graphical equivalent of Bush's Memex is a graph structure known as a semantic network, where, concepts are represented by words on a page connected by lines that have meaning. One of the earliest formal semantic networks appeared in the 13th century in the work by Ramon Llull. Semantic networks have remained somewhat obscure and relegated to academia due to their relative inacessibility and formality, but their implementation in software began to appear as early as the 1960s.

Mind maps are another approach for graphically depicting how one thinks. These diagrams are more freeform in nature and are aimed squarely at a general audience. Tony Buzan popularized mind mapping starting in the 1970s. In traditional mind mapping, people draw topics radiating out from a central idea in distinct branches. This lets ideas, thoughts, and their implications be seen and explored in a less linear fashion than a traditional outline. Mind maps enable people to see the big picture and capture key ideas quickly.

With digital mind maps, people can even collaborate online in their visual space. While an important step, digital mind maps still cannot capture the associative connections that are at the core of how we relate things in our heads and are only suitable for one topic per map.

The Rise of the Network and Digital Mind

Although we may be a long way from replicating the human mind, many of the techniques and benefits from the theoretical Memex, semantic networks, and mind maps can be combined in a powerful digital environment for thinking.

Just as Facebook and other social networks, which model the relationships between people, help us leverage connections between colleagues and friends, information management tools must model the relationships between your ideas to capture your knowledge. Systems of information organization that focus on organization by connection rather than separation are essential to capturing knowledge and the way we think.

Strategy.jpgA connections-based, nonlinear approach to information organization and retrieval offers much promise for information management companies like my company, TheBrain.  (In the same manner that nonlinear features of next generation writing software open new creative possibilities to writers, as Keith Blount explored last week.) TheBrain was founded on the idea that computers should model the way a human brain thinks.  Our information environment should be conceptual, representing our thoughts and associative connections to retrieve content.

A graphical representation of our thinking enables us to see the associative connections in our heads and make new ones.  For instance in our PersonalBrain software as you navigate through your data, the information displayed on the screen is always related to the selected topic. You can follow a train of Thought, flowing from one item to the next.

While we cannot mimic our own thinking completely, we can augment it by reinforcing the connections in our heads with the connections on our screens. This approach makes it possible to both digitally back up the associative connections in our head as well as to provide a direct path between those associations and the digital files we use in our everyday lives.

This enables a digital memory reminiscent of Bush's Memex, where you can move to an area of your brain and see your thinking from last week ... or last year. Looking into your digitized mind provides a new level of insight and self-discovery. It's also vastly more efficient and infinitely more stimulating than digging through folders.

After all, in the post-Watson era, where we've managed to build a computer that can outwit us on general knowledge, isn't it time we started leveraging some of our computer's horsepower to boost our own brains so we can retrieve and capture our own personal knowledge?

Shelley Hayduk is a cofounder of The Brain Technologies, makers of visual information management and dynamic mind mapping software.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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