CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

Using a blog is more akin to using a journal than a printing press. We write things down letter by letter. Yes, there may be many abstracted procedures underneath that makes a computer more like a printing press, but the experience says otherwise. A typewriter is still writing.

But interfacing with code to take that experience away from you? Then I start to see the procedural underworking. Then I start to see the printing press.

Glitch has been an eye-opening experience in regards to how I use Write.as for this exact reason. The distraction-free editor is not the only place I could write these posts.

Glitch can work like a printing press. The code grabs the words that I want to set – anything from RSS Feeds to web annotations to tags from my blog. Then, in conjunction with Write.as, it presses the words onto the post. Any time someone wants to access the post I can make them go through Glitch, which does its magic and spits out an updated post. My pinned Annotations post is an example.

But even the printing press analogy feels off. Write.as interfaces with the machinations of the printing process. Without the API, I cannot push any text to a post. Write.as is not merely paper. It is magic paper. In this confusion I am reminded of Clarke's third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

“The architecture that we create isn’t just an extension of one mind — it’s what allows multiple minds to come together,” says Alan Penn, dean of the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London. “It’s the way that we become more than just the individual to become a social group, and there’s a sort of social intelligence that emerges out of that.”

This is strikingly profound in light of notifications*.

“You Are Now Disconnected: Smartphones and the City” by Mark Bessoudo (source) – HT to Bix for mentioning the article
Of course we want some conversation to be spontaneous. But if it were all serendipitous? Stumbling upon conversation alone would be overwhelming. Conversation should be facilitated too, so thinking about how the architecture of the web can bring minds together is crucial.

I am fascinated by the fact that the “social” in social media can mean different things from one platform to the next. In light of Alan Penn's thought, the quality of social intelligence that emerges from each social media platform is vastly different. And that emerging intelligence is nurtured by the architecture of the software. Whether the developers know it our not, the software answers a litany of questions – How do people communicate with each other? How do you deal with spontaneous conversation? How do people find each other? How do people deal with toxicity?

Some of those answers were thought out in the software's architecture. Others were not. But it is important that each get their due consideration. Nothing can be thrown to the wayside or deemed unimportant, especially how we facilitate conversation between people.

That is why the mention of webmentions is a great answer to the question of how people engage with others on this software – unobtrusive to the writing experience yet enough to engage in dialogue. It looks like the suggestion will not go unheeded either.

There is a lot of conversation happening on the Write.as/WriteFreely ecosystem. All happening on the level of the blog post. Someone mentions an idea from a post, maybe block quoting a passage, and she links back to it in her post.

How does the original poster know he was quoted? Well, he reads other blogs within the Write.as/WriteFreely ecosystem using the reader feed or following blogs via ActivityPub. Soon enough he finds the post.

And that brings up a question – is there a need for notifications? Shouldn't we know whether we are quoted on a post? Wouldn't that facilitate more conversation? It might.

But I wonder whether this organic process is something to be cherished rather than abandoned. The first time I saw myself quoted in another Write.as post was serendipitous – I stumbled across the post in the read Write.as feed. It started the chain of future conversations through blogging.

Ian McDonald beautifully speaks to this in “Ariadne's Thread” (source):

To travel freely through cyberspace—letting yourself get lost, stumbling upon some undiscovered gem, finding something with no connection to your initial subject which may cause you to think about it in a new way—is a beautiful and memorable online experience, but it is seldom you find yourself in this situation, even if you expressly seek it out.

Rather than expelling energy taking steps to ensure our site visitors always know how to get back to point A, let’s remember that the browser itself equips them with the ball of thread needed to escape the maze in the form of the Back button—and the browser History.

Context is something to be built and protected.

The first half of Nate's thought is self-explanatory. We already put a lot of time into building ways to build context. It comes in many forms on the web – places to host and share your blog posts, videos, status updates, images, and audio files.

But once context is established, another obligation surfaces. How do you protect it? That is the real kicker of Nate's thought – protecting context once created.

Bix (who, to give context, I found Nate's thought through) commented on the matter cogently:

At issue, then, for people remembering the old open web, thinking about the existing social web, or making the new indieweb is building tools and creating sites which allow and encourage users to build and protect context, rather than just produce “content”. Building and protecting takes, perhaps, more care, time, and attention than does merely producing.

He is right. Being a creator has all of the appeal. But what we need now more than ever are maintainers. If we are to further build out these webs of context, then the infrastructure needs to be constantly attended to. Otherwise we build context upon sand.

It reminds me of an Aeon piece from Andrew Russell and Lee Vissel:

As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Here's to the maintainers of context on the web.

Tom Critchlow mentioned this intriuging concept in a post, attributing it to Vankatesh Rao. Rao defines it as the following:

A blogchain is longform by other means. Containerized longform if you like. A themed blog-within-a-blog, built as a series of short, ideally fixed-length posts (we’re trying to standardize on 300 words as one container size).

Rao continues:

A traditional blog series is a waterfall-planned longer work that’s something like an ersatz book for lazy vanity publishers. A blogchain on the other hand:

  1. is improvised rather than planned 2 .is responsive to salient events in the environment
  2. evolves at a certain tempo
  3. acts like a themed, bite-sized commitment ratchet; gradatim ferociter
  4. …but without the oppressive intention-debt of a traditional series
  5. is designed for sustainability, more sitcom than movie
  6. is suitable for multi-author collaboration
  7. is structurally a way to build over time (“construction”)
  8. is capable of supporting an inter-process messaging protocol with adjacent blogchains
  9. has no necessary or scripted “ending” but more of a crash-only/infinite game character

It is interesting to think about this within Write.as and WriteFreely instances. Sure, blogs can be self-referential. If you had a theme spread over multiple posts over time, blogchains would be a way to keep them together.

But how about when blogs mention other blogs, when you become part of conversations? This is where the multi-author part comes in. Having been involved in some across Write.as and WriteFreely, I wished there was a way to keep those posts together for future reference, to see where a conversation went and where it could continue to go. Such discourse would benefit from methods that compliment its emergent properties.

And maybe we already do this through tagging and other folksonomy. But maybe, just maybe, there is still room to think about more concentrated efforts to rethink the forms with which we hold our sentences together.

Blogchain is a start.

I think [...] that in general one Man’s Notes will little profit another, because one man’s Conceit doth so much differ from another’s; and also because the bare Note itself is nothing so much worth, as the suggestion it gives the Reader.

This remark from Francis Bacon is surprisingly dissonant today. Particularly because this advice is largely ignored. We read each other's notes all the time – statuses, blog posts, annotations. It makes the basis for how we use the web. And with that, some of Bacon's objections start to get fuzzy.

Since we now read each other's notes regularly, we develop a sense of another's point of view. As Jon Udell poignantly put it, context is a service we bestow upon others. Is that not why we follow certain people's blogs or status updates? One man's Conceit might so much differ from another's, but maybe that is why you read their notes.

And what of these notes? Are they nothing more than the suggestion it gives the Reader? A note's suggestion can be generative, the basis of a new note entirely. As Bix put it:

How do we remember? We blog about it.

A note begets another note. That is how I am choosing to remember the above Bacon quote. Well, I actually choose to remember Bacon's quote differently:

I think [...] that in general one Man’s Notes will profit another, because one man’s Conceit doth so much differ from another’s; and as the suggestion it gives the Reader and Writer, the bare Note itself is of much worth.

Michel de Montaigne had a habit after finishing a book. He wrote his impression on one of its pages. That way, when he picked the book up later, he could see what he thought of it.

Now what if he instead put in a check mark? Maybe an 'X' for a book he liked, a '/' for a book he disliked. What would he think when he picked up the book later? Would those markings jog his memory?

Love it or hate it, the marking only shows that he read the book. Nothing more, nothing less. The substance of the experience is missing. An impression, on the other hand, gives a snapshot of the mind interacting with the text, with the author, with the ideas.

And thus a key distinction appears between interaction and indication. I first learned of this from Bix in one of his post's postscript (source):

One could argue that in a sense retweets and even likes aren’t social media but asocial media because they provide no real information or context. They aren’t an interaction but merely an indication.

An indication is a noun. “How many likes did your post get?” is not a qualitative assessment. It is a quantitative measurement. We weigh indications by the thousands.

An interaction is a verb. You can interact by leaving a comment on a blog post, emailing the author, responding to a post's content with your own blog post – the list goes on.

That is the context Bix is referring to. An interaction is a unique event, not another tick in the 'Like' column. It gives us as close to real information as we can get – here is what someone did with something that they read or watched or listened to.

And that can catalyze more participation. Someone will interact with someone else's interaction. Because interaction begets interaction. Verb begets verb. The possibilities can lead us to just about anywhere.

My profuse apologies, CJ, but the technology doesn't mean diddly squatiferousness if/when the people wielding it are lost.

No apologies are needed. What you write is true. Technology is an extension of man. When man goes awry, technology goes awry with it. And what a wealth of examples of that happening. Even the past five years has given us enough to shudder at.

But if man is indeed wayward, neither angel nor beast as Pascal would write, then there are times when technology appeals to the better angels of our nature. One wonders whether some of those moments were more accident than anything, but they do happen.

Interactions like this – your response making me think deeply about what I wrote and wanting to write a thoughtful response to what you wrote in return – make me cautiously optimistic. Because what we are doing is not on some “disrupting the entire industry and augmenting human intellect” startup level. We simply communicate. To foster that seems worthwhile.

And while I hear Thoreau through the grave, yammering about how Maine has nothing important to tell Texas, I choose not to listen. We are not Maine nor Texas. We are humans. You type to me. I type to you. And lost as we may be, sharing in this conversation breaks through the anomie. I am not writing into the void here. Someone acknowledges my writing and writes back. I choose to acknowledge them and the reciprocity continues.

There is something beautiful in that exchange. The same web that powers targeted ads and hate groups also powered this instance of connection. Accidental? Maybe. But I wonder if these small moments of shared humanity can be nurtured. Perhaps that is our work.

The farmer-writer Wendell Berry has always been a tonic to me. He wrote about the dilemma of “finding yourself” in an essay titled “The Body and the Earth”. His poignance to being lost seems a fitting end to my rambling:

Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work.

“You move through a space and you dwell in a place,” Sennett told CityLab’s Ian Klaus last year. “It’s a distinction for me that has to do with speed and automobiles. When people start driving at a certain speed, they lose awareness of where they are. […] Where this gets reflected in urbanism is the more we create spaces where people move fast, the less they understand about what those spaces are. At about 28 or 30 mph people, moving through an urban environment stop being in a place and are in space instead.” * * Andrew Small, “Why Speed Kills Cities” (source). Much obliged to Bix for bringing the article to my attention.

And so we have to ask – if we slow down enough, would we find the place worth dwelling in?

This question of speed in urbanism extends to the web. We jump from link to link and scroll through endless feeds. The speed limit? None in sight. So we ask a similar question as above – if we add friction to these web experiences, would we find the platforms worth dwelling in?

It is a question that Cal Newport asks in his New Yorker piece “Can 'Indie' Social Media Save Us?” (source). His answer is one of caution:

Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale. For one thing, the IndieWeb lacks the carefully engineered addictiveness that helped fuel the rise of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This addictiveness has kept people returning to their devices even when they know there are better uses for their time; remove the addiction, and you might lose the users.

[...]

Social media has reshaped our culture, and this has convinced us that it is fundamentally appealing. Strip away its most manipulative elements, though, and we may find that it’s less rewarding than it seems.

Speed is part of the appeal. A thrill comes over as you move through the space, wondering what photo or article could appear around the bend. However, as Richard Sennett said, with that speed comes a lack of understanding. Ignorance is bliss. But once that veil is lifted, will the knowledge be even more blissful?

So then a different question forms – how do we create a web worth dwelling in? Many are working towards this end, bringing forth ideas that increase meaningful friction, slow the experience down, and foster spaces for thoughtfully dwelling on the web.

May it be a question we continue to dwell on.

Over the past week I visited a family member who possesses a unique collection – antique tools spanning from the early 19th to 20th centuries. There even might have been one about 400 years old. With each tool he told us what it was used for. Some looked like they could still accomplish their function.

I stood awestruck. Such a wall of tools stood in stark contrast to the application folder on my laptop. Would I be able to show my grandchildren those digital tools years later? Or would the only thing I could share are the by-products? Posts, charts, emails, graphs, articles, all printed out and placed in a binder?

But think about it – the tools are not what we focus on.

We pay attention to the photo album rather than the camera that took the photos. Thomas Jefferson's polygraph is proudly displayed at Monticello. The tool does not work any longer. The copies of letters made from it? Historians use them to archive Jefferson's correspondence.

Tools must be built to last. But what by-products can last beyond the tool's obsolescence?