Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Attention-Deficit Hypertext Disorder

Blogs are, by their nature, fast-twitch brain cells at work. I have an idea, bam, it's up on your screen. There's no technological reason for this, of course, but it's the social nature of the beast. The problem with this is not that ideas aren't well-thought out (although they aren't), or that they don't benefit from a bottleneck editorial process that ensures quality (although they don't), but something worse: they never change.

Blogs represent a great deal of knowledge, insight, and personality, but the problem is that they grow the way crystals grow: always outward, only at the edge. A blog represents a time-ordered series of thoughts, which admittedly is an incredibly powerful way to put your thoughts in order. After all, you thought of them in that order, why shouldn't a reader? But this is the same fallacy that inhabits biology textbooks that insist on presenting Lamarck before introducing Darwin; just because a (wrong) idea came first, doesn't mean the best way to learn the subject is to repeat the mistakes of the past.

It's best to think of blogs in two dimensions: one is the ordering of publication; this is the standard that all blogs are today. But the second is the order of comprehension, the best way to read and understand it. Now in many cases that might be the same as, or largely similar to, publication order. But what if I decide I was wrong about an earlier post? What if my insights have changed? What if I decide that the whole "hammer equivalence" is a dumb idea and I should have used the "Six Men of Indostan"? Someone who reads in publication order will not benefit from my hindsight.

So I'd like to borrow an idea from operating systems, something called an absorbtion log. Let's call it an absorbtion blog (not the same as a self-absorbtion blog, of which less said the better.) The idea is that as new ideas are appended to the log, they can overwrite and replace older versions of that same thought. (In the OS version, the log entries can delete older values of the same variable. This improves the speed of replay of the log in case of a crash.) And really, we don't want to delete the old entry, just string it off in another dimension, so that readers can, if so inclined, discover the stages of thought in the past. I've seen a few cases of integrated wikis and blogs, and it seems that this is a good step towards absorbtion blogs.

The fundamental question we should attempt to answer is how do we make representations of knowledge -- such as blogs, wikis, The Brain, knowledge management systems, libraries, encyclopedias, etc. -- provide three competing services: a graceful way for new readers to learn the content; a way for experienced users to find new information; and a way to encourage growth not just at the edges (temporal or otherwise), but organically throughout the system.