The Third & The Seventh, presented below, is a 12½-minute long film by indie animator Alex Roman. The entire project was created by a single person using desktop 3D and music composition tools. The result is a lush, cinematic look at architecture, literature, nature and photography, set to a minimal classical score.
A while back, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in British Columbia, I came upon a vintage reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. I don’t remember enough about the machine or the tape to be able to say what make or model it was, but I remember it being more of a home-use kind of recorder than a professional recording device. It had a limited number of controls, a tethered handheld mic, and didn’t lend itself to more than straightforward recording and playback operation.
Along with the machine were a couple of magnetic tapes. I threaded them into the player, hit play, and was amazed to hear my uncle as a young boy, speaking into the handheld mic. What’s more, there were background noises from around the house, and even some up-close recordings of authentic 1960′s television shows and commercials. I had stumbled upon a veritable time capsule.
At my own house, I have my own stacks of audio cassettes and VHS tapes, most of which I’ll never revisit. I also have countless small caches of 3½” floppy disks, discarded hard drives, CDs and DVDs lying around. The chances are great that whatever was on there will eventually be discarded in a trash heap somewhere. My old TV shows and computer programs don’t stand a very big chance of being resurrected, I’m afraid.
And yet, I can’t help thinking that these are my own time capsules. This, or any data that once had cultural or personal significance should not be discarded hastily, if at all. Not because it’s useful, but because it has relevance, and because it paints part of a portrait of what your tastes were like back then, what you used to hold dear, and more revealingly, who you are now.
Suppose you were given a huge plastic bin, with a mish-mash of all sorts of “data” (in one form or another) that you once found relevant or important, even if only to you and for only a brief moment — albums you had listened to, shopping lists on scrap paper, receipts you’d doodled on, shows you’d taped off the TV, etc…
Now suppose that instead of that bin, you were given a hard drive, with all of the same stuff, converted to digital form. Every notebook you had in school was perfectly scanned-in, showing every detail down to the creases in the paper. Likewise, when you played the MP3 version of that mixtape you made in grade 6, you would even hear the scratchy false-start of that cheap cassette tape recorder you used to own.
Here, memory, as a human faculty, has been committed to memory, of the digital variety. And when you view it / play it / read it, the exchange swings the other way; computer memory becomes human memory.
Memory, in any sense and as a concept, needs to play a much bigger role in our conception of the natural ecology that surrounds us, and which we are a part of. What I mean by that is that if memory is defined as the physical (chemical, magnetic, etc…) record of a temporary flow of energy (neuro-chemical, electrical, etc…), then it is instrumental in the way we understand our material world. A rock “remembers” rolling down a hill, because it has been ever-so-lightly chipped and weakened by the fall. A person remembers every single footstep, because it leaves a barely-perceptible mark on the psyche, as well as the foot. The sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells that we experience leave a permanent physical imprint somewhere in our bodies, though where exactly is not well-understood:
A psychologist called James McConnell generated some evidence that memory is stored throughout the body with a series of experiments he conducted using worms. In one experiment, he taught worms to turn right in a T maze. When the worms regenerated after he cut them in half, he found that the new worms took significantly less time to learn to go right in the T maze than the regenerated halves of untrained worms. In an even more dramatic experiment, he ground up trained worms, fed them to untrained worms, and found that those cannibal worms took less time to learn to go right in a T maze than worms which had been fed on untrained worms. The information must thus be retained at a chemical level, since that is all that survives being minced and eaten.
With footnote: This produced a rash of rude suggestions about what to do with retired professors who had lost their faculties.
From A History of Media, by Dr. W. Lambert Gardiner (Trafford, 2002)
It’s wrong to reduce the concept of “energy” down to “mere” chemical reactions or electricity, however. These are manifestations of energy, but only in a narrow physics sense. The world as we know it wasn’t made by a lone lightning strike, it was built through all kinds of higher-level human energy: creativity, passion, conflict, and so on. There’s definitely an underlying physical basis to human activity (that could be rationalized in terms of “mere” chemistry), but there are unmistakably times when emotional energies swell and storm between two people, a group or even an entire society. Revolutions and social movements, for better or for worse, wouldn’t occur if such complex patterns of energy transfer didn’t exist beyond simple cause-and-effect chemical or electrical reactions.
My point is this: if energy transfers can take place on the smallest physical scale, or the largest one, and if energy exists in more complex forms such as human emotion, then memory (data) is a contextual record of energy’s effects on the physical world at all scales, sizes and complexities; the human world has a memory, the natural world has a memory, entire civilizations have memories, individuals have memories, and so on.
A once zero becomes one;
what has happened since?
— Haiku by me
We’re building, in the Internet, a super-library of virtually limitless capacity. Distributed into almost every country in the world, it is by far the largest-scale technological endeavour that humankind has ever undertaken. For the first time, humanity has the ability to document and catalogue the human experience and the natural world, with a level of granularity that might’ve at one time been unimaginable.
If I were to hand you a hard drive with every single piece of “data” that has at one time been relevant to you, sorted chronologically, you would have a breathtakingly accurate portrait of your life until now. You would have, in front of you, a timeline of memory presented through art and artefact, as if seen through the eyes of a collector (or an obsessed stalker). It wouldn’t be complete, by any means, because the most relevant moments in your life may be irreducible to digital format, but it would be an astoundingly close approximation.
The challenges we face building this kind of record don’t lie in capacity, since computer storage technology is amply sophisticated at the moment. The challenge doesn’t either lie in the collection of data, because increasingly, notes, shopping lists, mixtapes, (and one day soon, I hope, sales receipts), are being refashioned in digital form, precisely for this kind of storage and archival.
The biggest challenge we face is contextualizing the data. Without context, data lacks relevance, and this, I believe, is a problem that we’ve been neglecting to solve. Without context, looking at data is like trying to understand the world by looking at it through a pinhole. Metadata is a method of hinting at the context in which data exists, but it is not the context itself. Picking up from the example in my Folders vs. Tags post, adding a tag such as “Abuja” to a document may help to indicate what kind of information is inside, but does not link that information to any relevant information about Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. Tags make searching easy, sure, but they do not provide context by themselves. The context of the data is the luxurious, modern, non-digital, real-life city of Abuja, where people eat, sleep, live and die; the tag itself is merely a piece of text that reads “Abuja”.
If we want data to be both useful and relevant, we have to radically rethink how we keep it. In this line of thought, I am proposing a new conception of data which is embedded in and inseparable from its context. This will necessitate drastically different ways of navigating information, while allowing limitless new relevancies to emerge from existing and new data.
I have been working on this problem for a few years now, and I believe I am closing in on a solution. I’m building a prototype of my idea to present, and hope to have it ready within the next year. As I do, I will also continue to write about some of the philosophical and technical ideas surrounding this project.
Now, if I could only remember which damned diskette I left my notes on…
Dan Pink on the Surprising Science of Motivation — Dan Pink delivers a “lawyerly” case for managers to rethink how employees are motivated in the workplace, touting the greater benefits of creative reasoning over traditional motivation-by-incentive techniques.
One theme that I’ve noticed is gaining quite a bit of popularity in information and user experience design, over the last few years, is the notion of organizing information via tagging, as opposed to the more traditional hierarchical folder structure.
Picture your desktop. Not your computer desktop, the physical workspace surface you have in front of you after your computer gets stolen.
Now picture your desktop after a busy day’s work. Chances are you have papers and documents of every kind that you need to organize and put away. Unless you have a system of filing them, you’ll never find them again, when you need them most. So a good filing system is crucial if you want to stay organized.
The traditional solution has been a filing cabinet, packed full of alphabetically-, topically-, or chronologically-sorted folders, into which you’ll divvy and drop your day’s documents. Fine.
Along comes Apple, and in 1984, along comes the first Macintosh, with System 1.0. This is a breakthrough computer for many reasons, not the least of which is its great new Graphical User Interface (GUI). For the first time, users are able to switch on their computer and be presented with a graphical view of what a work area may look like. There’s a floppy disk icon where your files and documents are stored, a desktop where you can create and keep documents temporarily (spreadsheets, texts, images, etc…), and even a trash can where you drop the stuff you don’t need anymore.
And the coolest thing of all is that the virtual folders on the floppy disk icons even look like the paper file folders you keep in your filing cabinet. There’s even a little tab for labels!
Even better, virtual folders can contain other virtual folders, and so on, which is hard to do with physical paper file folders.
(To be fair, the idea of folders existed way before the Macintosh; but I think they generally tended to be called directories, and Apple was one of the first companies to equate them to real-world file folders).
The idea of storing documents in a system of folders has been persistent and continuous throughout the history of personal computers until today. It’s a very comfortable way of working with computer files, because it’s very like the way we work with physical paper documents. When an idea like this one becomes so natural to the way we work, it’s hard to find a reason to change it.
Apple was so fully committed to the analogy of storing files in a hierarchy of folders that they even developed a filesystem format called HFS, or Hierarchical File System. (A file system is the nitty-gritty technical specification that defines how your documents and folders are stored as binary 1′s and 0′s on your hard drive.)
Today, on any hard drive, you can easily see evidence of a hierarchical file structure:
This works well enough for most, but there is a fundamental problem with this model of organizing information: it’s not always easy or convenient to partition information in this manner. For instance, in the example above, I’m showing a list of files related to my nuclear launch site in Reykjavík. And if I looked in my other folders, I’d find much of the same information — launch codes, checklists, strategic attack maps, instruction manuals, etc…
But what if I want to get the usage instructions for the Easy-Nuke EN53, and I don’t remember which site uses it. I can either (a) browse through each folder until I find it, (b) re-organize my files by machine type rather than by city, or (c) search for the file.
In the age of Google, the vast majority of users would pick (c), since it requires much less work and doesn’t require any tedious manual steps. So the question arises, “If I’m going to search for the information anyway, is there any point in organizing it in folders to start with?”
Since the paradigm of searching for information seems to have overtaken the outdated paradigm of browsing for information, it seems only logical to do away with the idea of organizing information in hierarchies, and in folders. Isn’t this better:
Gone is the need to create a classification system for your files and folders. Just throw everything in a big shoebox and have the computer search through it on a case-by-case basis. That’s what Google does with websites, and they’re doing pretty well…
However, it gets a bit messy. Since I’m not allowed to have two files with the same name in the same folder, I either have to tack on arbitrary identifiers (e.g. “Launch Checklist “, “Launch Checklist “, etc…), or descriptive identifiers (“Arming Procedure [Tallahassee]“). This is because I am trying to throw files together on a hierarchical (old-paradigm) file system, and these systems are limited by the concept that each file is identified by a unique file path. Therefore, no two files in the same folder can have the same name. The specifics here aren’t as important as the idea that personal computers aren’t designed to routinely use the searching paradigm, they’re designed for browsing. Google has no such limitation, as there are no rules to say that Google can’t index more than one website called, say, “My Blog”. Google was designed around the search paradigm. Those engineers knew what they were doing!
Another problem I might encounter is that unless each of my Tallahassee documents contains the text “Tallahassee”, they won’t necessarily come up when I search for “Tallahassee”. Worse yet, if one of my Reykjavík documents contains the text “Tallahassee” (since “Tallahassee” is a launch code as well as a place), it will also come up.
This is where the idea of tags comes in. Tags are an intermediary between the searching and the browsing paradigms, a way of labelling the kind of information contained within a file (or website, photo, whatever). Probably the most widely-known examples of tags are Facebook’s photo tags — bits of information that accompany any photo, and describe what’s (who’s) in the photo.
Because tags represent information about information, they are sometimes called “metadata” (data about data). Unlike folders, however, tags / metadata don’t define how the information itself is structured, they merely give clues to anyone searching for a specific piece of information inside a file, photo, map or whatever.
Tags can generally be arbitrary bits of text, making it possible to provide a virtually limitless number of groups, and I can tag a file with as many different keywords as I desire:
With these tags, I can now search for “Abuja”, and guarantee that this tagged file will be among the search results even though the text “Abuja” might not appear anywhere in the actual document. Likewise, I can also flag this file and others with a “Make Backups” tag, and easily retrieve them all when it’s time to make backups.
Tags are a wonderfully versatile type of metadata, because they allow for both browsing and searching, they don’t limit a file to being categorized in a single top-down manner, and they are (usually) arbitrary, meaning you can enter as many or as few tags as you want.
Invariably, any programming course, book, or guide starts with an exercise. The student is asked to write and run a simple program. This exercise takes the student through the basic process of creating a script or application, and then running it.
Invariably, this program is called “Hello, World”. Generally, it is a simple program that does only one thing: displays some text.
And invariably, that text reads (you might have guessed), “Hello, World!”.
I think this tradition has lived on in computer programming pedagogy because it’s simple, convenient and cute to make such a program. But also, I think the choice of words, “Hello, World!”, expresses two things: now able to speak the computer’s programming language for the first time, the student is saying “Hello, World” to the computer, but also, when the computer program is run, it’s a bit like the computer itself is “awakening” and greeting the human world on the far side of the monitor. It’s almost as if two entities were shaking hands, getting to know each other.
So, as this is the first post in my blog, and you’re reading it now, I’d like to extend to you the same courtesy: