Why are we still writing linearly?

Posted: 2017-08-07 , Modified: 2017-08-07

Tags: communication



Back to Views on life.

1 Why are we still writing linearly?

I don’t learn and remember knowledge linearly.

  1. When I have to write an essay, I make an outline first, and then delete the bullet points to make it text.

  2. When I read something, I find myself making an outline of it to better understand, retain, and talk about the information.

Knowledge exists in a more “alive” form in outlines (hierarchical structures) or diagrams (graphs) or index cards. So why do we insist on translating it to linear text to communicate with other people, and then translating it out of linear text in our minds? Wouldn’t it be better to develop and use a style of communication closer to what’s in our minds?

The answer is (1) that linear has been the way it’s always been done, and (2) that as human beings we are limited to moving forward in time with one point of consciousness. (2) is the reason why stories are traditionally told linearly, and why they will mostly stay that way (of course, there are also creative alternatives) – see Webs and threads. But while threads feed our feelings, they are poor at capturing the structure in our minds. They are poor at feeding our reason. (On the dichotomy between feeling and reason: There are two types of truths in the world)

2 What makes knowledge alive?

See quote: Google books.

I’m using the word “alive” to refer to knowledge that has self-awareness. At a basic level, it’s just: how much of the structure of that knowledge can you see from the outside without actually knowing all of it. A dense tome with no index and no sectioning is not alive. Add an index and chapters and sections and exercises, and even someone who can’t read the language sees more structure to the text. Now add hyperlinks, add summaries/takeaways, make sections of it collapsible, add code snippets that you can execute, a program to generate a dependency graph of sections, various routes through the text based on what you want to get out of it, suggested lists of exercises, the ability to comment on the text and discuss in a forum with other readers, etc., and the text almost seems to develop a life of its own. (There are 2 issues here: first is the intrinsic “aliveness” of the knowledge, and second how easily the knowledge avails itself to connect up with the knowledge that you bring - ex. is it in a format that’s easy for you to annotate?) You may not need all of these, but they help.

(Making knowledge “alive” is something we have to think about when we’re writing. For example, if we have a tool to automatically draw theorem dependencies from a LaTeX document, then in order to use this tool, whenever we write a proof, we have to make sure we explicitly reference exactly the theorems that are needed for the proof.)

Interestingly, we didn’t need computers to understand that knowledge is more alive in outlines and interconnected webs. You can always make diagrams and outlines, without computers. But the study of data structures only came to be with computers, and it’s made us realize that these structures aren’t just good for computers, they’re good for us too. (More about this in the future How computers change the way we think). Technology isn’t just about concrete devices like computers, it’s about changing the way we think. We now have the technology to make the knowledge we store in our computers (or even on paper) resemble more and more the way that knowledge is stored in our minds.

3 Mimetics

It’s not just about long texts, but little bits of information, like blog posts. A good blog post offers a way for the reader to “grok” the post so that the reader can explain to someone else why it matters, like a good selfish gene. (Because that’s what they are. Our happiness is connected to the spreading of ideas that matter to us. We slave for our ideas; we are their riders.) We should write in a way that makes it easy for a reader to grok and remix what we write. There are lots of tools to this: tiddlywiki, workflow, smart hyperlinking. Open source. We have too much information. We need to pause in producing more and think about how we can produce information that is more alive.

(see also: The AI Symposium that reawakened AI, under section 8 of What I learned from Patrick Winston)