Fake newscasters, real truth

Are blogs a better interface than Windows?

There’s a great piece by David Gelernter in today’s Circuits section of the Times. As you may know, David Gelernter is the extremely-smart critic of digital design, and author of tons of books on said topic — including my favorite, Machine Beauty, a really nice attack on why computers are so hideously ugly.

One of the big problems, Gelernter has always maintained, is that the windows-style interface — with files and folders — is a rather stupid way to organize virtual space. Xerox and Apple and Microsoft only adopted that metaphor in the first place for lack of imagination. Sure, files and folders might be obvious picks for organizing a hard drive, because they nicely emulate the way we organize files in the real, physical world. But the whole point of a virtual space is that it isn’t the real, physical world. Inside computer space, we can organize information in entirely different ways than we do in the concrete world. Consider just one problem of the windows-style system — which is that it forces us to keep all the data in our different applications in different places:

Just ask Bill Gates: as he said cogently last July, “Why are my document files stored one way, my contacts another way and my e-mail and instant-messaging buddy list still another, and why aren’t they related to my calendar or to one another, and easy to search en masse?”

Why not, indeed? Computers are all about sifting through data, representing it in new ways, and uncovering patterns we didn’t know existed. Why the heck are we forcing them to represent every piece of data as if it lived in a paper manila folder?

Gelernter has spent the last couple of years developing an alternative to Windows. His system, Scopeware, represents data not in files and folders, but in a long, chronological stream:

What is this universal information structure? A narrative stream, which says, “Let me tell you a story. ” The system shows you a 3-D stream of electronic documents flowing through time. The future (where you store your calendar, reminders, plans) flows into the present (where you keep material you’re working on right now) and on into the past (where every e-mail message and draft, digital photo, application, virtual Rolodex card, video and audio clip and Web bookmark is stored, in addition to all those calendar notes and reminders that used to be part of the future and have since flowed into the past to be archived forever).

And so the organization of your digital information reflects the shape of your life, not the shape of a 1940’s Steelcase file cabinet.

To me, this makes perfect sense. Chronological order is very much the way I think of — and recall — my life. Indeed, it’s how I remember my data. I remember that, oh, that’s right, I first saw that web page right around the time I went to Minority Report, and had a big argument with my friend about the movie via Instant Messaging, and was working on some research for Shift magazine.

I don’t compartmentalize my life into messaging, email, web pages, and whatnot. Yet that’s the only way my computer lets me organize things. Why? I’m not saying that the files-and-folders concept is useless; like the Dewey Decimal system, its hierarchical style can be a great organizational and visualization tool. But chronological order is another terrific tool — which is why I think Gelernter is onto something.

And, come to think of it … so are bloggers. Blogs, after all, are in their simplest form nothing but a reverse chronological record of a whole pile of stuff related to your life. Most bloggers merely record their daily thoughts or sites they’ve been looking at. But truthfully, if you wanted to, you could pretty much dump everything in there: Your emails, your memos, your stories, everything you write down digitally. Hell, some bloggers have pretty much done that. Their blogs function almost like long, trailing maps of their brains.

The point is, a blog is a cognitive tool, and one that neatly integrates the idea of time. I started this blog so that I’d have a record of all the ideas and things that are piquing my interest. And even though I’ve only been at this for a few months, I can already see how useful this might be a year from now. I’ll be able to look backwards through time and see how various manias and obessions play themselves out through my thinking. Of course, chronology isn’t always sufficient; but if I wanted to, I could organize all these entries into categories and folders, and slap a search engine onto it, to give me ever more ways to parse this mess. And maybe some day I will. But even in their rawest, base form — a backwards-streaming list of stuff — blogs innately embody some of the crucial innovations that Gelernter pushes.

I am not, of course, suggesting that I would find a blog sufficient to organize my whole life. But they are chronological tools, and Gelernter is right about the power of chronology — it’s how we naturally tell the story of our lives. That is precisely what millions of bloggers have known for years.

(Footnote: Apparently, so many people read Gelernter’s essay today and rushed over to try out his software, that it melted down — and he had to put up this text-only version. I’ve downloaded the tool and am going to try it out.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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