Digital Expression

I was talking with a couple of PhD students. One who does work in maritime archaeology was talking about her frustrations with writing her current chapter. She said she was having a hard time with the fact that in each chapter she started to bring in too much stuff- there were too many connections- and she was having a hard time with the fact that chapters always have to be linear- so B follows A and C follows B, in logical order.

I asked her if she had ever used mind-mapping software to help. She said no. The other PhD student who was sitting there suggested that she not use mind-mapping, but rather that she use a graphing software which creates networks in all directions between your ideas as opposed to restricting you to single tree of ideas that is then disconnected from other trees.

The archaeologist said ‘come on, that makes more sense, you don’t really think in this linear way’.

It occurred to me how true that statement is; you don’t think in a linear way- the progression of a 100,000 word PhD thesis will have to act as a tour guide through ideas, taking you along the way to the right sites at the right time. But all the sites might have connections with each other.

Now, humans have been telling stories for mellenia. We have been telling stories to our children and grandchildren, to our students, and to our community verbally for God knows how long. Thousands of years ago, we started writing stories on rocks, and then eventually on scribes of Papyrus. Obviously, a story- a linear progression of ideas- is a good format for transmitting knowledge and ideas. But knowledge transmission doesn’t always follow a linear path- for example, listen closely to how someone tells you a story- it’s rare that it really goes from A, to B, to C in a logical way- usually it meanders a little, and the meander is often an important part of the logic of the communication. And some people argue that communicating things in a logical, linear progression is actually not the best means of communicating about a complex, interconnected world.

I am quite interested in systems thinking as an approach to the world. I first began to think about linear logic when I was an undergraduate student studying intercultural communication for business, and I was really inspired by one paper we had to read about different approaches to communication. The Western world’s communication is shaped like an arrow- the ideas move in one direction, whereas this is not universal and other cultures have a variety of different approaches. For example, it’s common among Native American cultures to use a circular logic. Having lived in Alaska and worked for a Native Company, I can say I can understand this, although it’s not something that is easy to explain as cultural things often are not. The point is that Native stories are often not quite the same as European stories, although they are both communicating their message.

When I started to learn about systems thinking, I got very excited about this approach. I guess it’s probably because I studied environmental science, environmental archaeology and environmental economics at an interdisciplinary university that I became really aware of how linked things are in the world, and how much things exist only in their surroundings, especially in the context of something like the environment.

The Open University’s Learning Space has a page dedicated to Systems Thinking in Education, where there is a big image of what looks like a neural network-several topics linking with each other. Systems Thinking as a Languagediscusses how the way we use language relates to notions of linearity and interconnectedness.

Okay, I will finally get to the point. As of now, we publish things in a very linear format. But how is that changing or going to change with increasing digitisation?

Ten years ago, you would read a newspaper and you would read story (and it might say ‘look at this place for more information, but the story was there and contained) but now, you read a newspaper article online and there are constant links in the text- to explain what or who they are talking about, to relate to another article, to give more information in case you want it. Just look at the homepage for the New York Times, it’s not the same as the front page of a print newspaper.

In academia, increasingly articles are being linked in text. On blogs, people commonly refer to other blogs or other sources of information very freely and in a way that is much more integrated with the post than a citation in a paper. When I share Google Docs with the Exeter Cascade Team, I often link different Google Docs to each other, to show that each Google Doc relates to the others and to simplify where the different, related information can be found.

I think that what I am trying to say is well illustrated by looking at PowerPoint and Prezi. Many agree that Prezi is the presentation tool of the future. Why? It allows more connection, more ideas within ideas, more freedom than the PowerPoint which says 1,2,3, now 4, oh let’s look for another minute at the graph on 2, 5, 6, 7…Prezi, I think, works more in the way that I think. It allows me to express that more adequately. I can still draw a path through the presentation, of course, but it’s set up in a way that doesn’t assume that what I have to say is in essence linear.

So I started to wonder about my friend the archaeologist’s frustration. In the future- say, 50, 100 years, or less, from now, will writing still be expected to follow the same format? Will PhD theses of the future include links and connections-will ‘chapters’ become ‘ideas’ which are not placed in order, but rather shown as a package? I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that publications, including academic ones, will look different in the future. Publishing is always changing. Print publishing changed from being something that only a small few could produce to something that could be mass produced yet was still selective because of economics, to something that is growing less dominant to online.

Anyways, just a little ponderance.

2 comments to Digital Expression

  • Nikki, I think this blog post really sums up some of the radical disruptions that digital technology can bring about – and really, as we were discussing in the office today, I think 5 years is a more realistic timescale than 50. Writing is a technology we have taken for granted as essential for communicating serious, socially valuable ideas, but we are already finding new forms for doing that, only a few decades into the digital revolution. I think there will always be a place for the linearity of print (and don’t forget that page numbering, indexes etc introduced non-linear forms of access to the codex from the outset) – it performs a lot of thinking and communication tasks very well and we are hardly likely to uninvent it. Among our interns, I am particularly excited about Amy’s work on writing and its reinvention.

  • Interesting stuff, Nikki – and thanks for the links. 🙂

    In terms of our fascination with causation (especially the print media) I’d highly recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. It’s a worldview-changing book I wish I’d read earlier in life!

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