Etymology: Authority

Let’s start thinking about this in terms of memory. I’m going to set out some definitions. They’re not meant to be definitive just shorthand, if you like, for some of the concepts I want to discuss.

Common (human) memory: I can remember that yesterday you were wearing a green t-shirt, for example. There is huge variation here between individuals, and also for those individuals, when they find themselves in differing circumstances or conditions or health. Some people have good memories, some people don’t.

Outsourced memory: In the general instance this is the use of media to record human exchanges and agreements and data. This covers, for example, the writing down of laws. And, of course, it is in the writing down of laws that laws themselves retain an air of civility, of justice. Writing down law does not remove controversy and disagreement, particular in matters of interpretation and perceptions of justice (hello the legal profession in its entirety), history clearly tells us this. It provides something much more valuable, the basis of modern society. Extending the concept beyond merely law and we have our collective knowledge, at species level, being turned into artefacts to travel across both time and space.

Although the concept of outsourced memory is nothing new we are more aware of it today as we see such a proliferation of the product becoming available through retail. It used to be a book or a library. Today it is a computer, a flash stick, a portable drive, or the cloud.

Potentially timeless memory: Is the idea that binds this all together. The idea that gives recorded words their power. The idea is simple, that we can capture at some point in time, either exactly what happened, or exactly what was agreed, and that our capture, our recording, will not degrade over time. We depend on the, often unspoken, thought that we can if required refer back to the document and resolve any conflicts that may have occurred. Was it 4% or was it 5%? Whereas that sounds simple, or even an oversimplification to make a point (be honest most of us could remember which of those two was agreed, right?), please remember that the most significant part of many contracts is the agreed cut.

Potentially timeless memory is an idea, not an actual delivery of eternal memory. It doesn’t need to be demonstrably timeless, it simply needs to have the potential. This view is facilitated as much by the fact that any individuals’ personal needs are only really affected over the 100 years or so they might be alive, as by anything else.

Writing stuff down

Thinking back to my school days, my exam MO involved ignoring everything until there was barely any time left to learn it, then frantically cramming as much as possible.

And there was one clear technique that worked, for me. Writing. Writing down the facts, the data, the story I was learning, the equations, the relationships, whatever I was stuffing into my head. Sometimes again and again and again, but really pretty much just once or twice, which considering I was such a dreadful procrastinator, and had no time, actually makes sense.

I was more than a little surprised the first time it became clear that the difference between how well my revision had been converted to memory, or not, was as simple as writing it down. No-one had ever told me. They had told me to write stuff down, but they hadn’t told me in any way at all, that this could be the single most effective differentiator of success, for me, in remembering stuff.

Just making a note, in case I forget to tell someone too.

Push to window

I have technology fantasies from time to time, a moment of two when I “invent” the latest new tool that will revolutionise how we organise our thinking and our data. It’s always short lived of course. My ideas are usually hopelessly specific and therefore have a narrow appeal, often just me, and then, even if they are good ideas this is hardly the stuff of revolution.

Sometimes I’m pretty sure it’s all already out there, the required technology that is, and I just need to assemble my version of it. That is to move from thinking about it, to actually doing it, building it.

So, here’s what I’m thinking I want today.

It’s a mixture of software and hardware, a browsing aid. A tool that helps me to extract certain key bits of data, quotations, webpages, forum posts or just snippets from any digital source, transfer them to a separate location (both in terms of storage and presentation), annotate them automatically with relevant metadata such as authorship and source, prompt me and aid me with setting up a tagging folksonomy, provide randomisation through visual presentation and lastly, as if all that wasn’t enough, I’d like a highly versatile analysis interface designed to help me yield interactions and relationships between all the information I will have gathered.

Imagine a browsing session. Maybe single topic, maybe not. And you come across a short paragraph that encapsulates a certain point, a viewpoint a position. You snap the words with your fingers, as you currently do to select text on a smartphone, and issue a voice command

“Push to window”

And in an instant the quote, author, source are stored in what I guess only needs to be a fairly rudimentary database. Immediately I return my mental energy to the thread of my session, the full depth of the single source I was reading. This may well happen many times an hour.

Visually meanwhile, the data is being randomly built onto a massive digital whiteboard that covers the whole of one wall to my left. When I issue the command “Push….” I see in my mind’s eye the quotation being flung across the room and landing on my whiteboard.

On a regular basis, which will be customisable but maybe every 45 minutes, I will be prompted by the system to assign a purely subjective tagging folksonomy to each data point. Why subjective? Because I want to use it to drip thoughts into developing streams of inter-related ideas.

The tagging lets me come back to the data at later times, and using a variety of combinations facilitated by the tagging, use the whiteboard to push the data back to me in ways designed to help me see otherwise missed connections and value.

Today’s “Push to window” quotes:

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak

William Gibson

We know that something happened then. We know that broadcast television did something—did everything—to us, and that now we aren’t the same, though broadcast television, in that sense, is already almost over. I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television

William Gibson

Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence

Bruce Schneier

Just as we look back at the beginning of the previous century and shake our heads at how people could ignore the pollution they caused, future generations will look back at us — living in the early decades of the information age — and judge our solutions to the proliferation of data

Bruce Schneier

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself

William Deresiewicz

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship

William Deresiewicz

Links for the original source material

William GibsonBruce Schneier, William Deresiewicz