Tuesday, February 05, 2008

reassembling information - part 2b

I feel like a chimpanzee trying to explain where bananas come from. I love this topic but it's a little bigger than my brain. I will, however, continue to alternate between pointing at the gleaming yellow fruit I'm so fond of and gesturing to the tops of trees whilst making noises...

iii. Reassembly
Do we really want to reassemble all this information back into bigger 'things'? Shouldn't we be grateful to this technology for freeing us from permanence? Isn't this the beauty of digital; that we are finally the masters of information, cutting and pasting code to deliver ourselves what we want, when we want it? These are open questions to anyone reading this.

Of course we should welcome our new freedom to manage information, but despite the ease with which we can fragment and filter data like this, I believe we have an in-built craving for mountains. We like 'things'. They're manageable, reliable and definite. They're there in the morning and when we get out the shower. And as Matt Webb and subsequently Russell Davies talked about, we have a desire to indulge in more substantial activities.

2007's uprising of widget culture is an interesting development in reassembling information. Widgets put a just little mountain back into the raindrop. Whether it's text, sound, video or imagery, widgets reappropriate information into neat little parcels that we can embed into our lives with a little aesthetic and conceptual stability.

But widgets don't help much with more substantial text-based information.

iv. Efficiency vs value
In June 2006, The Guardian launched G24, an online service with which readers could print a Guardian-formatted pdf with the latest news in it. The content is updated every 15 minutes - pretty impressive if you compare that to a newspaper which only delivers you stories once a day.

It's a brilliant idea. It takes raindrop culture and puts back a little solidity. It embraces the speed of the internet, but maintains value by turning it into a neat 'thing' which you can read on the bus or toilet, or even slot into an archive if you're into that sort of thing.

But whereas G24 concerns only Guardian content, I have a grander vision. I've had this fantasy for a while of creating my own bespoke editorial team; choosing the bloggers and writers I admire the most and having a beautiful document created by aggregating their independent efforts. Not only useful, but a new unique thing.

Currently, I receive RSS feeds from about thirty blogs. Most if it is for snacking, but the odd article jumps out as being a bit more weighty. These are the ones I have stars against and have occasionally printed out to read properly. But printing off random articles crudely onto a pile of A4 just isn't satisfying. I stuff them into my bag and maybe go through them on the train or just forget about them completely.

What if there was a single button that turned all my starred items into a short, beautifully designed pdf for printing. Let's go further and suggest that the template for this pdf was a little more sophisticated. Imagine you could choose your editorial team based on the following:

5 Headliners (these are the people/companies that write excellent, substantial posts)
6 Middleweights (the bloggers that are interesting, but tend to write in short bursts)
3 Quick-hitters (People that offer constant snacking: cool pictures, cartoons, snippets)

Every time you click the print button from Google Reader, you get a beautiful new object - a journal in the vain of G24 - filled with a nice selection from today's blogs.

Each post includes a photo of the blogger and their name. As time goes by, you tailor your editorial team based on your favourite writers etc. Don't like Jack's posts? Delete him. Think you'd like to open with Jenny's thoughtful pieces? Upgrade her to a headliner. Perhaps you could even choose a pool of designers or Flickr users and have your front cover feature their work. It isn't restricted to printing either. I imagine aggregating lots of different bloggers' content in one screen, where I can literally switch on and off the writers I do and don't like.

This reassembly I'm describing is akin to an evolutionary characteristic that Dawkins (if I remember correctly) calls the bottleneck. Simple cells grow into complex things, which produce simple cells and so on. It's a natural cycle to build things until they're too overwhelming to control and then break them into pieces to start again. After all, this is what happens in business every day. Three smart people break away from a corporation that can no longer negotiate the market nimbly enough. They grow their new venture slowly and the cycle continues. I'm rambling.

The balancing act between efficiency and palpable value is a delicate one. Total efficiency (Google Reader) leaves me a little cold. I see a lot of things, but nothing gets my full attention. Seeking out substance and indulging in it takes effort and time. But with a combination of automated aggregation and personal input, I think the fragments we continue to smash into more pieces can be reassembled in exciting new ways that are efficient, but also valuable and pleasurable.

So to conclude, basically when the wind blows those trees, these bananas fall down. It's brilliant.

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Anonymous Ash said...

I have two thoughts Andy:

1. What you seem to be describing is something like a full circle in magazines. First there was a magazine, then came the website of the magazine, and now you are describing a magazine of a website of a magazine, and other websites besides. Interesting how things come full circle.

I think the prediction of 'print is dead' was wildly exaggerated.

2. I find it ironic that your thoughts on this subject are split into three posts, and even into posts 2a and 2b. Was this intentional? :-)


1:23 pm  
Blogger Andy said...

Hi Ash

The full circle you describe is really just information being reshuffled in different places.

We describe it as a full circle because we naturally navigate the concept via familiar 'things' that supply that framework.
I.e. You talk about 'websites' and 'magazines'. These are merely familiar things that - as per Dawkins' description - are common or lasting enough to deserve a name.

My theory is that because of the speed media now can now change, we scrabble to find names fast enough to package the current format of content. That 'quick blur of contact with the world' around us is reduced by the day. What's a 'podcast'? It's just an audio file. They'd been around for years. But in that name we found temporary stability.

The likes of Google Reader makes it so fast to get through information that thingyness is completely bypassed. Well, the 'thing' is google reader, but hence the lack of an emotive connection or sense of ownership.

I guess something that never made it into my post was a question about how our sense of 'thingyness' might change as we move away from the mountain.

Re: my split post. Haha - Never intended it to be three posts. The first was a brain dump. After than I guess I realised that in the absence of the kind of software/culture I'm suggesting, I'm still a slave to snacking culture like everyone else!

1:47 pm  

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