In order to move safely and efficiently through an environment we need to be able to propel ourselves forward, to look around the environment in order to understand what is going on and what is where, in order to generate an internal ‘map’ – and crucially – we need the ability to change direction based on our best understanding of the environment and our needs.
It’s not enough to simply move. It’s not enough to simply move and passively look.
The act of moving, seeing and changing direction must be done in concert. If not, then we are not navigating, we are simply stumbling around.
These are perhaps the most primitive and foundational principles of life on planet Earth, yet when it comes to moving through our information environment we spend most our effort on the first component, simple motion itself. We spend some effort on enhancing our ability to better understand what’s going on in the environment but we spend almost no effort on augmenting our ability to change direction.
By changing direction as a creature in a physical environment I mean having the agility to continuously update our internal maps and then twist and turn and use our muscles to go in new directions, jumping, running, walking, making turns, re-tracing steps and so on.
By changing direction as a creature in an information environment I mean having the agility to continuously update our internal maps and then twist and turn and use our brains to go in new directions.
If we do not apply this most basic principle to how we deal with information (or simply: Our understanding and perspective of this world) that would be insane, and insanity is how we choose to live: We move based on old impetus, we glance at the information to see whether it fits with our preconceptions so we can decide to ignore or use it as a foundation for our direction and we simply very rarely use our ‘potential’ view to augment our ability to change direction.
Towards a Solution
Moving towards directions to fix this is not hard, it’s not expensive and it does not require magic. We can go back to Piaget’s insights about how a child learns and we can take useful directions for this. Jean Piaget uses the term ‘assimilation’ to describe how a child takes in information which fits with the child’s internal map, or schema.
When something does not fit the child’s map, the process is referred to as ‘accommodation’. This can of course be a very taxing thing to do mentally when dealing with complex new information and this is why we simply don’t accommodate as much as we can, we often just choose to disregard the new information which doesn’t fit our mental maps – it’s simply too much work to try to modify our present understanding to make it fit or to reject it based on a thorough understanding of multiple aspects of the issue.
Joseph D. Novak took Piaget’s work into the visual realm and invented Concept Mapping in 1972 as a result. The idea is very simple though there are conventions which add to the power of the system and which constrains it, such as adding labels and arrows to the connecting lines.
The basic idea is to let the user put whatever knowledge they have on an issue onto cards (physical or virtual) which can then be laid out in patterns and lines can be drawn between them.
This then allows the user to organise their information visually and to see where there might be gaps and contradictions – using the powerful human visual processing system to augment their (relatively) tiny working memory.
This allows us to ‘see’ our own thoughts, which is a powerful tool to help us understand our own thoughts and how they relate to the available information about the world.
The result of this process is revelatory and useful, but it has a few downsides which need to be addressed: This view does not easily convey a narrative to guide a secondary reader, it does not support long-form writing and there are no common document formats to interchange the layout.
We should therefore make this type of view not it’s own piece of software but a view of text in a document, allowing the user to move between this ‘concept map’ view and the traditional word processing view.
It’s not enough to create a powerful visual mind map space living on its own, which takes time and effort to convert into and out of again, but like the agile creature moving through the forest, we need to be able to switch views without any perceived effort.
The result can be an ‘incredible’ thinking space where the user can really map out their understanding of their work and as a result more easily accommodate new perspectives and new knowledge.
The result is that assimilation and accommodation becomes much closer, as the user can better ‘see’ their own internal map laid out clearly before them and can manipulate it without the cognitive load it would take to do it all ‘in-mind’.
The result is we become quicker at changing our minds and hence increasing our capacity to better understand and act in the real world, not in the world of our prejudices, social, scientific or cultural.
I believe that we cannot afford to not invest in this direction.
I propose that we put real time, money and effort behind increasing our ability to see our own thoughts – and therefore have the ability to change them.
I’d like to invite you to Let’s invest in this through supporting my Author project where we are building a Liquid | View to provide such a free-form, multi-dimensional view of your information: http://www.liquid.info/view.html
I’d further like to invite you to participate in our annual Future of Text Symposium http://thefutureoftext.org
Let’s give ourselves a better view of our information and ourselves.
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