This week, for the New Media Seminar, we read Ted Nelson‘s 1965 Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate (sorry the latter link is behind a paywall). I don’t have much time to write on it, but the main thing that struck me is how far we’ve come. In this piece, Nelson outlined how to think about structuring files to be useful to people in creative and other pursuits. He built on Bush’s idea and in some was was more specific about how to accomplish the feat.
We’re certainly not there yet. I still battle a lot of the organizational issues in my own files that Nelson described. And to some extent, having both paper and digital makes it much messier than just one or the other. But we’re closer. Here are some tools I couldn’t help but thinking about in his piece, with associated quotes:
“As long as people think that [computers are useful only for scientific and corporate tasks], machines will be brutes and not friends, bureaucrats and not helpmates. But since (as I will indicate) computers could do the dirty work of personal file and text handling, and do it with richness and subtlety beyond anything we know, there ought to be a sense of need.”
Downright Jobsian, no?
“If a writer is really to be helped by an automated system, it ought to do more than retype and transpose: it shouold stand by him during the early periods of muddled confusion, when his ideas are all scraps, fragments, phrases, and contradictory overall designs. And it must help him through to the final draft with every feasible mechanical aid–making the fragments easy to find, and making easier the tentative sequencing and juxtaposing and comparing.”
Which, to me, is clearly Scrivener. I love Scrivener, and have used it every time I have to write a book-length manuscript. It’s not great for collaboration, but it’s exactly what Nelson describes for one’s own work.
“Consequently the system must be able to hold several–in fact, many–different versions of the same sets of materials.”
“Remember there is no correct way to use this system.”
Throughout the whole article I kept thinking of Evernote. I am a heavy user of Evernote and it’s exactly this collecting of snippets and connections. It holds images, audio, text. I keep hoping for video. But the main challenge for most people with Evernote is the lack of clarity of how to use it. It’s so big and open ended it’s hard to know how you can best make use of it. The ELF system in this article is similar.
“Note that in such uses it is the man’s job to draw the connections, not the machine’s.”
And this is where it all changed for me. In our systems, the machine does a lot of the work. Just consider Google Now for example. It’s amazing: presenting just the right information at just the right time. But also creepy.
The article was full of statements that resonated with today’s experience: the need to be able to undo deletions, the lack of importance for seeing file structure in some cases, etc. I’m looking forward to the seminar discussion today!