The Page as Tableau, the Mind as Visitable Place, and Collective Knowledge as Landscape

Earlier this week I wrote about wikis as a potential tableau of the human mind, navigated by auto-generated mind-maps. I’ve been thinking more about this, and specifically more about the fundamental unit of wikis (and the Internet as a whole): the page.

It seems to me that, rather than the unfathomable Windows nested-folder ‘content management system’ of our hard drives, a wiki-and-mind-map tableau of the My Documents and My Messages and My Links folders on your hard drive as a surrogate for ‘everything you know that you can write down’ would need to unfold as a huge tableau of pages. The mind map navigator would become what its name suggests — a map of this huge tableau, this ‘virtual visitable place’.

This idea of the MyDocs + MyMessages + My Links part of your hard drive as ‘everything you know that you can write down’ (hereinafter referred to as EYK-TYCWD, pronounced eck-ti-quid) is important. As Dave Snowden is fond of saying, we know more than we can say, and we can say more than we can write down. So this codified, explicit stuff we keep on our hard drives is not EYK. But it’s an important subset, and the best that KM or at least PKM can hope to offer us.

Some of us write down a lot more than others, for a variety of reasons. Some people are inclined to write down only what’s useful in their ‘work’ identities, formalizing their personal/business life split. Some people don’t think much of their own thinking, so most of what they write down is links to the writings of, or syntheses of, or addresses of, the people whose thinking they like, the others who ‘speak for them’, at least in the written world. Some of us just don’t spend much time in or see a lot of value in the written world at all — those who prefer oral or non-verbal communications. So while a wiki tableau of one person’s EYK-TYCWD might be dense, a goldmine of useful and context-rich knowledge to discover and explore, another person’s might be very fragmentary, or even non-existent. But, we work with what we can get, and maybe EYK-TYCWD is good enough.

Our short and long-term memories have different kinds of ‘stuff’ in them, and this naturally translates to any tableau of our EYK-TYCWD. In the diagram above I’m postulating that the most useful parts of our EYK-TYCWD are of three main types:

  • Stuff on subjects of significant personal interest or expertise: This is the stuff we’ve thought about the most, usually over an extended period. We mentally organize this stuff, I think, by subject, though what each of us calls each of these subject depends on our mental frames, where our interest or expertise came from and how deep it is.
  • Stuff on projects and events and experiences relevant to us: This is stuff that is more transient in nature, which we tend to organize more on a calendar or time basis. Once the project is over or the event has passed, some of its memories may make their way into the more permanent ‘subject’-organized stuff, but a lot of it will be forgotten.
  • Stuff in messages, conversations, threads and stories we have originated or participated in. This stuff is the most transient of all, but, along with events and experiences, it is the stuff that is most likely to ‘change our minds’, to cause us to change what we think and believe or reorganize it according to a different point of view. If the story is memorable enough it can pass into our more permanent subject-organized stuff (arguably it then becomes myth).

Could we design an algorithm that could parse the EYK-TYCWD on our hard drives into these three types of knowledge and create a map showing the topography and taxonomy and landscape of our personal knowledge, values and beliefs, and the connections between this content? We might need a concept map rather than a mind map to do this, since concept maps are better at showing circular and n-to-n connections than the tree-structured mind maps. Might this algorithm even illuminate us, and help us organize our own thinking better by showing us a picture of the connections we haven’t already formed with our synapses?

The common denominator of all the end-nodes of the mind map pictured above is that they are flat pages. What is a page, anyway? It must resonate in some way with the layout of our brains, since it is ubiquitous in all human cultures. Studies suggest people are four times more likely to scroll down through a document (even a long one) embedded in a page of a message than to open the same content in an attachment. Books and notebooks, still the principal means by which we store our EYK-TYCWD, are made up of pages.

But perhaps pages are used more because of limitation of the technology of storing written information — the unfolded paper page and the unscrolled video screen. It is kind of annoying to have to ‘scroll down’ to read a whole article or see a whole graphic, or to have to keep turning pages instead of being able to simply scan the whole and jump ahead when our mind is racing faster than we can read linear material. It’s even more annoying when someone has to keep flipping back and forth through the page-like slides of a presentation deck. PowerPoint uses a ‘layout’ display to give you a larger picture, and Flickr and Google Picasa provide similar tableau displays. ‘Single frame’ business presentations that show a multitude of images and slides connected together in a single, wall-size tableau have proven very effective in conveying complicated and even complex ideas and proposals. With all these tools it is as if we are trying to escape the limitations of the page. Perhaps we need a Google Earth type scrolling, panning and zooming tool to navigate the entire tableau of a map, or of our EYK-TYCWD, though even this tool takes some getting used to — it is somehow not intuitive unless, perhaps, you’ve been raised on flight simulator video games.

With the Web, the page has come to mean more a set of related ideas or concepts than merely the capacity of words that will fit on a page linearly. But as a tableau it is still lacking — we still cannot ‘take in’ at a glance much more on a Web page than we can on a paper page (less, in fact, if the paper page is expansive). And it is still distressingly easy to get lost in a set of pages as we try to follow a thought from one to another, and then try to navigate our way back.

Is the idea of the uninterrupted page of text losing out in a world of on-screen reading, inexpensive graphics, scrollable screens, learning by doing (and by gaming) and right-brain thinking? Rather than a left ‘pane’ to navigate among pages, does it make more sense to have an entire ‘site’ or ‘document’ or ‘book’ on a single, huge, tableau ‘page’ that you would start by viewing at a high, mind-map Google Earth level, seeing the high-level structure of the entire site/ document/ book, and the connections between its constituent parts, and then zooming in wherever (the site or document or book becomes a place) and to whatever level of detail you wanted.

And perhaps you could even take this construct to a meta-level, where volunteers (like the ones who maintain wikipedia) could construct complete ‘landscapes’ of related ‘places’ — an entire slice of knowledge — everything (of quality, as determined by the ‘tourist guide’), regardless of author, written about a subject or a project or an event or a conversation or a message or a meme, from 30,000 feet, with the links between the (site) ‘pages’ visible from that height. So if you wanted to explore (the ‘place’ called) Personal Knowledge Management, for example, instead of having to wade through and trust Google’s highest-ranking links, you might select David Gurteen’s tourist guidemap of the subject, take it all in at a high level, and then zoom in on the parts that seemed most interesting, or useful, or in need of elaboration or clarification, to you personally, the stuff from others’ EYK-TYCWD that best complemented (or supplemented) your own EYK-TYCWD on the subject. And if you engaged that landscape, ‘stayed awhile’, you might find David Gurteen added your constructions to his landscape, to his travel guide, after you’d departed.

Where would you like to go today?

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3 Responses to The Page as Tableau, the Mind as Visitable Place, and Collective Knowledge as Landscape

  1. Jon Husband says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, the mothballed ThoughtShare (which in turn stemmed from an SFU application called Continuous Zoom Web) allowed users to build, and share, annotated linked navigable tours of content. One could zoom in from high levels, arrange the tours as wished, store pacjaged toiurs in a library, define versions, etc., etc.Provided people with the ability to create, send and receive dynamic visual maps of one’s mental neighbourhood (on a given subject, say) … all it takes is a business plan and a bit of money to knock the mothballs off

  2. karin says:

    I have the same thoughts on this mindmapping constructing. For me, I prefer to use the 3d mindmapping , i.e. PersonalBrain. What’s more important to me are the links between the elements. What relationship do they have. 1. Type, 2. status: damaging, sufficient, insufficient, strong. 3. Which are the main drivers that give impulse to all of them. Lay down the mindmap on the floor, see what links are drivers for the rest. Lift them in the air and let the elements rise a little bit. See where the main drivers are positioned. Ask your self why. What elements do they touch. Is there a pattern.These are some unordered thoughts, but very important to me. They will make the difference in the world.Karin, the Netherlands

  3. Bill Seitz says:

    If a long document is structured as an outline, there are JavaScript libraries that make it easy to expand/collapse that view. But I don’t think there are good cases that let you suddenly load in a new section in the middle, which you’d want for a really long web of nodes. I agree that a MindMap may be better.You might want to look at the mockup of JefRaskin’s Zooming interface.

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