Sunday, February 03, 2008

reassembling information - part 2a

Last week I suggested that our relentless fragmentation of information had perhaps eroded our sense of the whole. That filtering the information we want piece by piece is all very well, but that we could be in danger of losing 'thingyness' to wrap it all up in.

I must confess, I'm a little nervous about setting up this second part as though I have the answers. I don't. In fact, I've barely begun to grapple with this and the following will be riddled with holes and contradictions.

What I do have is some questions, a metaphor I rather like and a comments button, which I would love you to click.

Turns out I had more to say than I thought, so I've broken it into four parts:

i. Thingyness
ii. The mountain & the raindrop
iii. Reassembly
iv. Efficiency vs value

i. Thingyness
“The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name.”
Those are the words of Richard Dawkins. He was referring to the physical world, but it's a good place to start. Because whether physical or otherwise, humans need to apply 'thingyness' to handle all the information around them.
Whether it's a man-made name or a cluster of atoms, the same thing is true: We can only tame the world with a sense of thingyness to solidify the endless data. This is put a little more eloquently on the inside cover of Michael Frayn's The Human Touch:
"[Mankind] has had to fashion from its transitory contacts a comprehensible world in which action was possible."

ii. The mountain & the raindrop

In discussing what makes a 'thing', Dawkins refers to The Matterhorn and a raindrop as examples of permanence and commonality, respectively. The Matterhorn is as permanent as anything you're likely to encounter. And raindrops, while short in lifespan, fall reliably enough to require a consistent label.

The mountain and the raindrop represent the two extremities of thingyness, from the "ok, we're stuck with it" to the "it's gone - oh here comes another."

When we move from the physical world to the digital world, the basic principals of thingyness remain: Lots of information, organised into human-facing 'things'. The key difference with thingyness digitally, is the concept of permanence. The internet - anything pixel-based, really - is generally more raindrop than it is mountain. (Bit of poetic license here - Amazon and Google are mountains in lots of ways)
The transient nature of digital thingyness is set up nicely by these words by Frayn:
“[…] the world is shaped by the traffic that passes between us and it in that one single shifting instant. From that tiny blur of contact we have constructed the universe and ourselves.”
And millions of people spend most of their days trading in fleeting digital raindrops - each one helping to shape that moment. From the vastness of the internet we filter tiny droplets of information we like and spray them out again in new clusters.

The result of this culture is that the type of information we seek out changes. We snack. We peck away at tiny pieces of larger thoughts and longer articles rarely get a look in, as Matt Webb discusses during his piece on Peak Attention. Is putting these pieces back together part of the answer? Does everything need to be chopped into chapters?

It seems appropriate that I should now say: To be continued... tomorrow probably.

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Anonymous Ash said...

This is a great post Andy, and Im thinking of linking to it on my blog at some point today.

In what Dawkin's book are these things discussed? The God Delusion?

9:45 am  
Blogger Andy said...

Thanks Ash, that's very kind. I hope it's of some value. I find it hard to articulate, but it's a start.

The book is The Selfish Gene.
Probably the most eye-opening book I've ever picked up.

10:57 am  

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