Informatic Synergy

I took some much-needed vacation time not long ago, and came back to a superbly synergistic situation. I’m going to be doing some exciting things at DSI, which is good news for me. And, since it will mean a much better chance of keeping me around, it’s very good news for my employers. (I had actually begun seriously thinking about whether it’s really worth it to continue dealing with my boredom there. Even in the face of a significant raise, boredom is death, and is intolerable.)

My favorite thing in the world is “The Click.” It’s even better than cookies or pretty girls.

That sounds kind of obscure, but everyone knows what it means when used in context. When things “click.” Synergy. When it seems that the universe mysteriously “responds” to our thoughts.

The “universe” doesn’t actually respond to us, of course - we respond to one another. Synergy is a combination of focus, luck, and “instant karma.”

Focus

The more you’re focused on some x, the more likely it is that something relating to x will grab your attention. This is a brilliant survival mechanism which allows humans to wade through an ocean of data each day without getting lost (a la Rainman.)

Luck

A lot of synergy is simply being in the right place at the right time. This is usually random, and outside of our control - it is just plain dumb luck. (The “Forrest Effect” - great things sometimes happen around utterly un-remarkable people.)

Instant Karma

Nothing “mystical” about it. A good employee works hard and doesn’t screw over his coworkers. As a result, they all have good things to say about him, and he gets a promotion. A bad manager doesn’t treat good employees well, and they move on to greener pastures, leaving him with a shoddy department. Instant Karma is what happens because of the things we take for granted. It’s the rewards and punishments that we don’t expect, but can completely understand in retrospect.

Focus also plays into Instant Karma. The more you are focused on x, the more likely that you’ll talk about x, and become skilled at things relating to x, and thus the more likely it is that someone looking for an x specialist will come to you. Focus on the things that you love, learn about them, speak about them, cultivate your skills, and you will find yourself in a position where you are doing what you love.

This just recently happened in my life. This is a pretty long and tangential post, and I haven’t taken the time to paginate it. Hold onto your hats, it’s a wild ride.

(b2)Evolution of the PostWeb Concept

While I was away, I started work on a new “linking” system in b2evolution. Parts of this idea was concieved independently by Francois PLANQUE and me around the same time, and out of the discussion arose a flowering of ideas better than what either of us had imagined.

Instead of simply having a date-ordered list of posts (as useful as that is for many applications,) allow the admin to create “links” between posts. Each link has a source post, a destination post, a title, a “reverse title,” and a link type. Some types of links are bi-directional (like “spouse” or “sibling,”) and others are not (like “parent/child”, “husband/wife,” or “country/citizen.”) The “title” is what shows on the source post, leading to the destination post. The “reverse title” is what shows on the destination post, leading back to the source post.

When displaying a PostWeb, one link is selected to be used as the “navigational linktype.”

  • When no post is selected, links to the “root” or “entry” posts are shown.
  • When an entry post is selected (by clicking on a link,) more detail about that post is shown, along with links to the “child” posts (posts that are linked to from the currently selected post) and some short text about the destination.
  • When a child post is selected, all of the parent posts (posts that link to that post) are shown, along with more detail about the post that is selected, and links to the children.
  • Other link types may be used to move about the network laterally.

In short, instead of a rigid tree structure, the user is presented with a landscape of information, and a helpful guide to draw them towards the information that we want them to receive, and present it in the way that they need to receive it. If we extend the functionality to track the links that are travelled, we can then evaluate our pathways to gradually make our information landscape more amenable to the needs of our audience.

Even using the term “audience” isn’t quite appropriate! The concept of information as “structures,” to be “presented” to a passive “audience” is a throwback to legacy technologies. That accurately describes the situation of print, radio, and television media, but electronic media is more about interacting than presenting. If one lesson can be gained from the proliferation of New Media, it’s that a dialogue is more fun and useful than a monologue. It feels good to get the information we want in a manner that we can understand; it is stifling and annoying to get information that we don’t need, or in a manner that is not comprehensive. When we feel like the information we receive is responsive to the information we give, we are more willing to “play along”, and even enjoy doing so. We begin to feel like we are the focus of the interaction, without the burden of being in the drivers’ seat. Telling someone what we want feels like an exercize in time-wasting if we don’t think that they’ll be able to deliver, but wading through information that doesn’t apply to our situation is torturous!

In other words,
A friendly idiot is slightly less annoying than a deaf expert.

With one-way media (television, radio, print, etc.), much effort and research goes into developing methods to get around this fact. The Science of Advertising (which should be distinguished from the Witchcraft of Advertising Hacks) is geared towards getting the biggest effect from a one-way media. Narrowing down the target market, and create a variety of approaches to hit your audience like a shotgun. Many of the messages will be ignored or worse, but the goal is to make sure that the minority that hit the mark are significant enough to generate a positive ROI. With a wide enough distribution, 1% of 1% of America is still 30,000 sales.

That works great for homogenous messages like “Buy a Volvo.” Target market: upper-middle-class drivers (because they’re the people who can buy a Volvo.) They have the one ad aimed at the parents, showing how the car is safe, and protects your baby; another aimed at the aging businessman showing how it’s a symbol of prestige and wealth, and so on. However, even for such a simplistic message aimed at a pretty narrow audience, no car commercial is ever going to be nearly as effective at selling cars as a halfway decent salesman. A good salesman is responsive to the needs of the user. He delivers just the right information to the prospective buyer at the right time in the right way. He asks questions, and tailors his responses to the buyer’s needs. On top of that, he’s friendly and jovial. A good information system is more like a salesman than a commercial.

How does a web structure accomodate this?

The typical way of organizing information online is a tree structure. Like King Philip who Came Over For Great Sex, most taxonomies developed by animalus chordata mammalia primate anthropoid hominidae Homo sapiens sapiens are basically trees ;) Many attempts have been made, in all branches of information science, to come up with taxonomies that will put everything in its place “once and for all.”

Look at that. Branches of information science. Everything in its place, once and for all. These are rigid, unmoving structures. But in order to truly live in the information age, we must admit what stasists have always feared: information is dynamic, ever-changing, represented slightly differently in every brain that holds it, and expressed slightly differently by every mouth that speaks it! And yet, seemingly paradoxically, two people who understand the same thing tend to be able to relate their understanding with relative ease - contrary to the opinions of Wittgenstein and others, real communication is possible. By changing our approaches to information management and delivery, and using the technology that we have at our disposal in this new era, we are capable of more real communication than ever before.

First, though, we must chop down the trees.

Concepts depend on other concepts - but a concept typically has more than one parent, and the parents of a concept might not be “siblings” in the tree. By creating a system that models the methods that we use to store information in our minds, we can create an organic user-centric “notion network.”

This occurred to me right before my week off. I mentioned the rough beginnings of this idea to Francois, who expanded the idea and set me going in slightly different direction, all heading towards this eventual destination.

And then…

When I got back from my lovely and too-short-as-usual vacation, my project manager told me that he wanted to meet with me after work. We do hang out outside of work now and then, so this wasn’t odd, but he clearly had work-stuff to discuss. We had discussed moving me into programming this year, so I figured that it had to do with that move. That’s been kind of looking like it isn’t very realistic. There’s talk of hiring a new programmer from outside, which is really necessary. I can learn a new programming language quickly, but VB and ASP really aren’t my specialty. They would become my specialty in a short time - but that’s still that much longer before the time saved by adding me to programming makes up for the time lost by losing me from support. Thus, it becomes an even tougher sell to the rest of the managers. I’ve been quite open with the fact that, if I’m still doing the same tech support thing in December, I’m going to be looking for another job. The resume was dusted off and tweaked up. I had a cynical feeling that J wanted to tell me some line about how I was going to have to wait “just a little longer” to move.

Instead, he told me that he didn’t want to move me into programming at all. He started making the point that we really need a documentation specialist much more than another programmer, and that he has a feeling that I’d be a good choice for this job. I’ve been complaining about this for over a year now, so I definitely agreed that our KM systems are utter crap. And, if you’ve gotten this far in the story, you’ve likely figured out that I’m pretty passionate about this kind of stuff.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t as hard a sell as he’d expected :) In fact, I ended up selling him on a new idea for the troubleshooter. Instead of a full-time technical writer, I made the case for a full-fledged KM Department, with me at the head of it.

KM/Informatics is the study of automating synergy.

A good KM system provides the right information in the right amounts and the right medium at the right time to the right person. When done perfectly, it is synergistic: you want something, and just when you start to look for it, you find everything you need - sometimes even before you know that you need it!

Well, I’ve got to go back to writing up my future job description. This entry turned out to be a lot longer than I’d expected, but that’s the way things go around here more often than not :)

One Response to “Informatic Synergy”

  1. On August 9th, 2004 at 13:08:46, Graham Said:

    I’m really looking forward to testing this b2evo thingie, I can think of a couple of uses for myself, and I think it will be really quite useful with my upcoming projects.

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