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Category: Thoughts

limits of liquid information

To thrive in a digital world it is not enough to build great systems to connect with information and people and to help you interact with your own memories and thoughts. Sometimes there is no substitute for just sitting and thinking, chatting with people and reading a book without constantly referring to external information. The world is speeding up in many ways so although it’s important to keep up, it is also becoming increasingly important to slow down, to remove yourself from the maelstrom of everyday work. Important, deep thinking does not fit well on a conveyor belt of work. Step back, get a wider picture sometime.

“Email is great for staying on top of things, but I want to get to the bottom of things.”
Don Knuth

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The history of writing is as old as humanity's own history…

The history of writing is as old as humanity’s own history, inasmuch as what came before writing is commonly referred to as pre-history. From simple book-keeping tokens through the chiselled epic saga of kings and inked poetry of the common person, through the typed history and electronic messages, the written word has never stayed still.We are not at the summit of history, we are merely on the ascent through unstoppable time. The beautifully anti-aliased text on our LED screens, only yesterday replacing vacuum tubes, is not the pinnacle of the written word, it is only the most illuminated, the most blindingly fresh and new, at least to our contemporary eyes.

A picture can take a thousand words to render but some words there are no pictures for. No music. Nothing else has the compactness, clarity and illuminating power of the written word. Love, Hate, Understanding, Distrust, Compassion, Fear, Knowledge – all can be the painters and the musicians muse but simple words encapsulate them like nothing else.

Reading and writing is not an innate, ‘natural’ skill like enjoying a song or a beautiful scene. Reading is a learned process where years of practice and study pay off with explosive insight and powers of communication every time it is used.

There is a tangential problem with the fact that reading and writing is a studied skill and that is that we think we know what reading and writing and words are – since we have spent so much time and effort learning how to use them. We are all experts. We derive great benefit from the time and effort we have invested – so why should we question what the written word is and how we can use it – how we can interact with it?

We should, because we are not at the end of history.

Did the ancient Sumerian wonder if his marks of bales of hay could one day express his love? Did the quilled poet long for the day of electronic internet publishing? It would be beyond the powers of their imagination, it would be beyond any perspective they might generate. But all the innovations up til now happened. They happened in concert and co-evolution with the technology around them.

But now we are at a completely different stage of history. The history of the written word will now be written in software. Instead of a clear technological step forward, such as mans capacity to make sharp metal moulds which could reproduce printed text clearer, faster and over more copies than wood block printing, the innovation from now on in rests mostly in the imagination of the designers of text systems.

This is an arbitrary, slightly absurd, a little frightening but mostly incredible opportunity for improving the way we work through text to learn, think and communicate.

When Doug Engelbart demonstrated interactive text in 1968 he not only showed the world the ability to type and re-type, to edit to your heart’s content, but also how to express connections through links and so much more. Since then computers have increased in their capacity to process and store information many million fold.

The innovations we have seen since then are pitiful and lacking. It’s crucial that we exert serious effort to push the written word further along so that it may help us along in turn:

Words are recorded symbols, symbols through which we think and communicate. How flexibly and powerfully we interact with our symbols is how flexibly and powerfully we interact with our thoughts and those of others.

Interactive text then goes to the very foundation of knowledge work and what is more important than improving the way we work with our knowledge?

In the beginning was the word. There is still a long way to go….

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who this book is for (revised, with definition of 'knowledge worker' clarified and expanded)

This book is for you, who want to work to make digital environments more useful in helping us work and solve problems together, either as a user or designer.

I only have pieces of advice for the liquid information systems designer:

Take ownership of the problem, not the solution. Focus on the actual use. What does the user need to accomplish, not just in detail but also in terms of the bigger picture? Try not to hold on to pet solutions.

Assume you are wrong. Always. Learn what you can, question it, talk to people in different fields, never forgetting actual users. Question your assumptions and their assumptions.

The goal is to help knowledge workers understand the world and communicate what they learn clearly. That’s really the heart of it.

There is a “distinction between “knowledge workers” and other categories, such as clerical workers. Clerical workers use information—about, say, customer orders—to aid the smooth working of the company. Knowledge workers use information to change themselves.” I am not convinced there is a sharp boundary but it’s worth thinking about how the job of a knowledge worker results in a change of the knowledge worker.

Clerical work is external – you can do clerical work at arms reach. You move this information over there, you arrange that to happen here. Knowledge work however, is immersive – the information you work with has to be processed in the knowledge workers brain.

The liquid approach will hopefully be useful to those who design Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and other knowledge augmentation systems for large companies where the whole systems are integrated and controlled. However, half of workers are employed by small companies (as defined by companies employing under 500 people in the United States ( and these people cannot be expected to have the support of a knowledge work focused IT department. Innovation happens at the edge. Be the edge.

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

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