Jorge Arango – Information Gardens

Jorge Arango – Information Gardens

My guest in this episode is Jorge Arango, a consultant, author, speaker, and educator and host of The Informed Life, a podcast that explores how people organize information to get things done on which I was a guest.

Jorge is the co-author of the famous “polar bear book”, Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, that he wrote with Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville. More recently he published Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places.

We talked about organising information, personal knowledge management systems and why gardens are the best metaphor for working with complexity.


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

Andy Polaine 00:09

Welcome to Power of 10, a podcast about design operating at many levels zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation, head on to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer and writer.

My guest today is Jorge Arango, a consultant, author, speaker and educator and host of the informed life, a podcast that explores how people organise information to get things done, and which was also a guest. Jorge is the co-author of the famous Polar Bear book Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond that CO wrote with Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. More recently, he published Living in information: responsible design for digital places. Jorge, welcome to Power of Ten.

Jorge Arango 00:54

A pleasure to be here Andy, big fan of the show.

Andy Polaine 00:57

Befriending austere. Now, we’ve had a few conversations that have, you know, spun off in all these kind of interconnected directions. And you know, as an organising information guy, you probably have some thoughts on where to start. But I guess I would like to start chronologically in a way and ask you how you’re interested in this field, developed in the first place.

Jorge Arango 01:17

My background has two threads that became unexpectedly woven, inter woven with each other. One thread was computers, which I was exposed to at a very young age, I like to say that people have our vintage and I think that you and I are more or less age peers. I like to think that people of our vintage are part of the first generation that grew up with computers as playthings. Yeah. And I was very fortunate to be exposed to computers that are at a very early age. And the other thread is architecture, which is what I studied at university, which has gone on to really inform my worldview, in many ways, and what happened to me is that I graduated, just at the time when the World Wide Web was about to come on the scene. And when the web happened, I essentially left my career in architecture, to devote myself to making things online. And it was returned to this childhood interest, if not outright obsession with computers. And I became very interested in how we structure information spaces. So if you think of architects as being designers who structure spaces for us to do certain things. In the physical world, people who design websites, apps and other digital systems are in a sense, designing spaces where we get certain things done, we pay our bills, we learn we we do all of these things. So that’s, that’s my background. And it’s how I essentially came to do what I do now,

Andy Polaine 03:16

where was the sort of first time when you started kind of combining those things professionally there.


The first time was before, like I said, before the web, I was, I was studying architecture. And again, I’m saying so much about my age. In this conversation,

Andy Polaine 03:32

we must be very similar. I was 50 this year. So


there you go. So very similar age. I was a student and architecture student at a time when architects would still draw plans and such by hand. But that period was just about to end you could see computers already taking over. And when I was in university, we started using computers for 3d modelling and such. And my interest in computers had never waned, really. But I hadn’t been as obsessive about them as I had been in my, in my youth and in my early teens. But it was really through the emergence of the computer as a tool for architectural practice that I got involved with computing again. And using computers to model 3d spaces is where the two worlds initially collided for me, which is very interesting to me to see what’s been happening over the last few years with things like virtual reality and augmented reality and how computer modelling of 3d spaces has, for example, taken over the movies. We’re having, I was having a discussion on on one of the social networks a couple of days ago about a new Universal Studios theme park that’s opening in Beijing. And I was saying that I think I wonder to what degree those the experience of those movie making theme parks He says relevant now that all movie making happens in computers, right? Like, it’s like visiting their sets and stuff is not as interesting when it’s all green screens.

Andy Polaine 05:10

Yeah, well, it’s weird you visit a kind of facsimile or a kind of a sort of made up version of the set. That it would be it’s like, you know, you build the set in the computer, and then someone has to build it in real life. Not for the movie, but for the theme park. Right?

Jorge Arango 05:25

Well, that’s, that’s absolutely right. Movies are one of the ways in which we tell stories and engage in like mythologizing. Right. And these theme parks give us the opportunity to go experience the mythology to somehow participate in the shared experience of inhabiting these places. Yeah,

Andy Polaine 05:46

it is kind of fascinating how much of that has crept in, and then it sort of becomes this novel thing where movies as one we did all the effects practically, you know, we’d actually blew things up and we met recently has been a thing where, you know, they drove for Tom Cruise film, they drove a train off of a cliff and actually did it, instead of it, you know, the beginnings of visual effects was the other way around that the novel thing was to have kind of done it as a as an effect, not as a kind of practical effect. So we could talk about film for ages, actually, because that’s, you know, I started filming, that’s where I kind of, I wanted to be a film director and visual effects were initially my thing, it’s been interesting for me to see Unreal Engine actually has been used now as a kind of visual effects backdrop thing, so and it’s to do with the resolution of screens as well. So they have these huge screens that are acting as the kind of matte painting or the backgrounds, what would have been the kind of set flat, the things that kind of a fake in a background was painted on a little bit of kind of set, you know, in the foreground, basically, then the camera is react, as you probably know, this, right, the camera is then set up with a VR head on it so that the computer knows where it is in space and is adjusting the background so the camera can move around, and the background also moves around. And it’s just amazing, because there’s a huge screen over the top or lighting over the top, and then the sides and there’s okay, right and it can we have it like nighttime now or a sunset. And the whole thing kind of just switches around is quite remarkable. And because of the depth of field, you just don’t see the the background just looks real. It blurs and


yeah, the first time I heard about that was with the production of the Mandalorian. Exactly. Yeah, it’s a famous one. Yeah. It might seem like we’re going down a tangent, but really, this is about placemaking. Right, like you’re creating a, an environment. Yeah, that is going to serve as a context for in the case of the movies for a particular story to unfold. In the case of our work, and daily life. It’s where things happen, it’s where we live out our lives, right. And the places are, where we interact with each other, where we accomplish the things that we set out to accomplish. And we can structure them purposefully to help us do that or not, right?

Andy Polaine 08:07

Yeah. And we’ve all had this experience, I think for I’ve worked remotely for quite a long time. But and you probably have done as well. But I think you know the rest of world in the last few years, I’ve just experienced what it means to be literally living in information, or it’s a quite the title of your book of all of a sudden, you know, it was I mean, I think it’s been fascinating to see that all the usual excuses of why you can’t do stuff. You know, suddenly, if you kind of fell away and watch people engage. In my early days, or doing sort of remote workshops, there was an awful lot of stuff, if this is how you use mural on mirror. This is how you kind of set up zoom, don’t forget where you are. Now everyone knows that stuff, social etiquette of being on mute. And all of those kinds of things have. And I recently did a thing and there was like an icebreaker exercise. And I was expecting to have to explain things a bit more. And everyone just, you know, cracked into the straightaway. Because they’re just so used to it. And I really, always fascinated about the way that technology goes through this arc where you know, it’s this different thing, then it’s a little bit clunky, doesn’t really quite yet fit with how we interact as humans. And then we develop, I think etiquette around it as the way I’m thinking I like to think about it. I still think one of the things I’ve written about this before, one of the things that’s a little bit strange, like say with a zoom conversation, or video call is how you say goodbye, it doesn’t have the same, it’s a little bit awkward because you don’t ever do that in real life. You don’t so just it’s not like a screen comes down between you two. And then suddenly you’re not connected anymore, you would walk to the door and say goodbye. And then you know, and all that stuff and turn your back to each other and stuff. But you know, I mostly think back to the early days of the telephone and kind of the how people got used to actually telephoning and how to kind of say hello and how to say goodbye and stuff. And so it’s been fascinating to watch that become more every day, I think in the last couple of years. Yeah.


And I’m sure that the early days of the automobile for example. There wouldn’t be all of the standards that we take for granted now, like I’m thinking of like driving on one side of the road, right? Like, that’s something that had to emerge. And I don’t know the history of this, it might be that it was imposed from the top down. But I would imagine that, for practical reasons, people must self organise to keep themselves from getting into jams. Yeah. In the case of traffic, quite literal jams,

Andy Polaine 10:26

right. So, in your book, you were talking about living in information? What’s the kind of when I was when did you write it? Or it came out? I think 2018. Right. So it’s a it’s quite a few years. Now. There’s always this thing, especially with a book like that, where you’re sort of capturing a moment in time, what’s the kind of general thesis of the book? And how is your sort of thesis or thinking about that evolved? Since you wrote it? You know, what would you love to have written or added into it or change?


The genesis of the book is the northern hemisphere summer and fall of 2016, which was a period of political uncertainty and turmoil. It’s when Brexit happened in the UK. And then the election in the US, which was very polarised, very contentious. And if you followed, especially if you followed the mainstream media, I think that the result was unexpected, and surprising to a lot of people. And there was a perception at the time. This was happening in no small part, because we had moved all these key civic conversations and also our news gathering. We had moved it to the spaces that are monetized by selling our attention. And that seemed to me to be incompatible with having transparent and even keeled conversations about policy, you know, about the things that make us society tick. So that was the genesis of that what has changed since then? I think that people have become much more aware of this issue. Like there’s even a Netflix documentary series, which I haven’t seen, which one, I think it’s called the social dilemma. Ah, that’s right. Yeah. Which, which deals with these types of issues? Right, the conversation has become a lot more mainstream. I think that there’s been research that’s come to the fore both for and against this position. Since I wrote the book, I still believe that the core argument of the book is sound, which is that the incentive structures that drive the places where we engage in conversation will influence the form that that conversation takes. And I don’t know that we have made much progress since then, in that regard,

Andy Polaine 13:09

it wasn’t really adequately thought about in the first place. I guess that’s the, you know, the most obvious one is that is that thing of kind of extremist views on all posts on Facebook get the most engagement and thus, the most advertising dollars for Facebook. And you know, it’s structurally set up that way all the time. While kind of, you know, Mark Zuckerberg saying, you know, we’ve got the largest amount of experts, you know, tackling this information, but they’ve just they’ve got a far larger amount of experts tackling how to make that engagement pay. So is this keynotes a never ending? Well, it’s something can never be kind of finished unless you completely restructure it. So I guess that’s, you know, probably the example that most people will think of. It’s interesting. You mentioned the social dilemma. I started watching it, I just wanted to kind of punch everyone, I have to say on it, because there was mostly men sort of there saying, Yeah, you know, we just didn’t really kind of think anyone was gonna use it this way. And I was really shocked. And and I just, I had this kind of response to it of how could you possibly not have at least gone through the exercise of thinking, how might someone use this nefariously? You know, because that seems to be a fundamental, it’s my favourite critique tactic with my students is, you know, they’ve got a service concept in front of them. And they’re saying, Well, you know, what happens if I do this? And what happens if I do that? How about if I break this? And then they’re like, oh, but we don’t think people would do that. But of course, someone will. And it’s a very good way of stress testing these ephemeral things that would, you know, in Bali, in architecture, actual architecture, and also in industrial design. That’s what you do you make a prototype, not just because it’s sort of a nice thing to look at, but you make a prototype to put it through to smash it up and to see where it breaks and stuff, right, see if it’s dangerous, but the kind of digital tools and services out there and platforms didn’t really go through that.


And it’s ironic because prototyping in digital spaces so much easier than prototyping in, you know, physical stuff, right? Yeah, much cheaper to run cheaper, it scales much faster. And surprisingly, also, digital requires a systems mindset. Like you have to understand how all these things fit together in order to build these things. So it’s surprising to your point, it’s surprising that the people who make these things don’t engage in second and third order thinking when they build them. It’s equivalent,

Andy Polaine 15:25

though, I think, to you know, watchmaker understanding how all the cogs and and springs and parts fit together, but not really interested in what does it mean, when people can have can carry around a device that tells the time all the time, how does that shape our daily rhythms and so on. And, you know, famously, as you I’m sure, you know, you know, the watch was a kind of artefact of the railroad. Because once you have things running on the schedule, then people have to know, they can’t just say, Oh, I’ll be there at noon, nor when the sun is in the sky, you have to know exactly what the time is in order to catch the train and the rest of it. So that kind of system side of it, I don’t think, comes in that much at all. Yeah, and now, you know, I guess our lack of teaching that in school, our lack of kind of thinking in that way, both economically and also kind of in the workplace, you know, leads to all the other problems, like sustainability and climate change and the rest of air.


And I’m thinking one, one other thing that has evolved for me since I wrote the book. And it’s not that it’s new. For me, it’s something it’s been part of my thinking for a long time, but I’ve just been kind of leaning into it is the notion that there are information environments, which is the phrase that I use in the book, and it’s a phrase that comes from the information architecture community, as far as I’m aware, it might be had been used earlier, but that’s where I became aware of it. And there are information environments that are designed for public use for public discussion, as we’re talking about here. And you have to be very mindful of those, obviously, the effects of creating a system that allows people to have discussions at at the level of an entire society is there’s tremendous power there. But these systems can also be used personally, at a personal level, right? Yeah. And you and I have both talked about this metaphor of the garden, which is such a great, such a great metaphor. And it’s one that for me, resonates greatly, it first resonated with me through the work of Brian Eno, who I know you’re also you’re also familiar with, yeah. And the reason that I got attracted to he knows usage is that he contrasted architecture with gardening, right? He said that there’s this this notion that in architecture, that what you’re doing is you’re structuring a system from the top down, you’re saying, Well, this is how it should be. And I’m going to put the conditions in place that are going to serve this particular set of needs. This this programme, and I am the expert. And I know how to do this, I’ve been trained to do this. So I’m going to bring my expertise to bear on this problem space. And then the people who use the system will be the beneficiaries of that hard earned knowledge. And that’s one worldview right, of how these systems get designed. Yeah. But, you know, contrast that approach, what he calls the architectural approach with gardening, which is the notion that you structure the system, not with the intent of making it right from the get go, but with the intent of setting up the conditions that will make it possible for the system to evolve into something that meets the needs of the gardener or the society or what have you, right, yeah, yeah, so it’s this kind of top down versus bottom up approach.

Andy Polaine 18:57

So I think it’s probably significant, that musician kind of comes at it from that angle, as well, because I think working in music, or composing music, or or this creation of quite a lot of kind of artistic artefacts is much more of a, you people like to think it’s a masterful act of creation from the top down, but it’s much more of a kind of feeling out of, you know, what is here and trying to sort of draw out some aspects was kind of clip back others. So I’m not surprised that, you know, took that kind of view,


but not all musicians, right. And he’s talked about the classical Western musical forms. This notion that Beethoven goes off and composes a symphony, which gets articulated in a set of documents that the orchestra then goes to perform. And the idea behind those documents is to capture as precisely as possible the intent of the composer, right? Yeah. And when you perform the symphony, you’re trying to hew as closely as possible to the vision of the Creator. And if you contrast that with If jazz, for example, where the musicians are working within a structure for sure, but it’s a structure that allows for improvisation, happy accidents, riffing, you know, and in ideal conditions, a new thing will emerge every time that you’re listening to it. And in some ways, listening to a recording is kind of like going against the grain of what music actually is. Oh, what it is. Yeah, exactly. Right.

Andy Polaine 20:33

I have some recordings of I’m a saxophone in Well, I’m not really anymore. But I used to be a saxophonist, now, some recordings of Charlie Parker sessions, and also some John Coltrane sessions, where you get the outtakes as well, you get multiple takes of it. And it’s very fascinating because, well, first, it was very fascinating. Two reasons. One, because there’s a bit where some someone was recording when Charlie Parker was, was practising. And it’s, I mean, it’s obviously very good, but it’s kind of also he’s making loads of mistakes. And he’s, he’s kind of in slows down. And in practice, you know, and you hear this person who you, you only in a recording here, this snapshot of this kind of moments of brilliance, the polished version, but actually to hear him getting there was really kind of fascinating, and quite heartening, but also, you know, in particularly someone like John Coltrane, and his kind of, you know, sheets of sound and stuff to hear the different takes. And it’s like I’m going to tonight, throwing down the clay on the kind of potter’s wheel each time is that one came out pretty well, let’s use that one. But there has been multiple other versions of it, that they could have chosen for whatever reason, you know, it’s always really great. And it same week, we talked about film, you know, there’s all these, it’s always really fascinated me, the, you know, deleted scenes or the bits, these moments when the director in the sort of commentary saying this scene was fantastic, really beautiful bit of acting, you can tell they’re sort of enjoying being able to show it finally, and then they just say, but you know, ultimately, it didn’t really drive the story along, so we had to cut it. And there’s this kind of fat Kill Your Darlings thing of an eye, you know, we’re going to get rid of this thing that is actually a kind of amazing piece of artistry, because it doesn’t drive this other piece of artistry that we’re trying to achieve.


You know, we were ragging earlier on social media. But one of the wonderful things about social media, is that the way that we would share ideas in the past was that the the ideas would have to go through this gauntlet of gatekeepers, right? Yeah, yeah. All the way up to the point where it gets published as a book or gets made into a movie or what have you. And it’s like this very formal artefact that cost a lot of money and took a lot of time and a lot of effort. And it didn’t give us as much opportunity to riff and to improvise, and to try different things. To make mistakes, right, and I have come to think of social media, I actually drew a pace layer diagram at one point with, if the listeners are familiar with pace layers, it’s notion that complex systems change are composed of things that change at different braids. So some parts of the system change faster than others. And the layers influence each other. So the faster changing layers inform slower changing layers and such. I’m not doing the concept justice. But I do a paste layer diagram that had social media and the faster changing layer. And things like books in the slower changing layers, with the idea that I see social media as a place where you can go and try out ideas that are half baked, and sketchy, and incomplete. And then you put them out into the world and iterate. You know that we’re talking about prototyping. It’s like prototyping for ideas at a very kind of granular level. And it’s been amazing for me in that area. That’s another way in which my thinking has evolved since I wrote living in information that I’m trying to find a way to fit all of the systems that we’re living with, into my own kind of production function, which is a phrase I picked up from the economist Tyler Cowen which I love this idea that we all have tools, processes, habits that allow us to do what we do, right. Yeah. And I feel much better about my own use of these systems than I did back in 2016. Because I understand them for what for what they can do for me and for my thinking much better.

Andy Polaine 24:51

So this neatly brings us on to the idea of you know, personal knowledge systems or information gardens. You and I have been kind of going back and forth at little bit as well about an app called obsidian. And I have to kind of rewind a little bit. So for people who kind of write in writers have done this for a very long time, the idea of kind of, you know, a day, was it called? Is it a book, the way you kind of write down stuff that you’ve learned about in the day? It’s got another name, I know, I can’t think of you will know it, probably a commonplace book. Yeah, a commonplace book, thank you. But also, you know, if you’re doing research, and if you’re, you’re trying to capture all the stuff and capture your notes and your ideas about things, I mean, lots of different ways of doing famously zettelkasten, which in German, it means a box of notes, etc, is like a slip of paper, like an index card or a slip of paper. And I’ve used lots of different tools, I’ve tried to remain kind of plain text for a long time and keep my own, keep my own my own data, I had a differences, I used to use a thing called envy, Alt, and then NVR chose to do this anyway, obsidian allows you to it’s basically we write everything in plain text, and it’s in Markdown. And then you’re able to kind of wiki link it together. But it’s got a few other kind of powerful things around because there’s big plug in infrastructure to or community around it, people writing these plugins to do sort of cool things about how you start to see the hidden connections between the information. And I saw you wrote about it the other day, as well as you’re using it. So tell me a little bit about why you do this, and have your kind of own information garden and what you see it is, and how you sort of go about thinking about it.


I spoke earlier about my obsession with computers from a very early age. And that obsession started with video games with computers as entertainment. And it became evident at some point, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when but it became evident to me that they were useful for more than that, right. Like, I knew, I knew that that things like, like, VC Calc, and, you know, spreadsheets and stuff like that existed and that people are using these things for uses other than playing games. But computers are obviously much more than that. And there’s this analogy that Steve Jobs made famous, this notion that computers are bicycles for the mind, yeah, that they allow us to do things that we would not be able to do before, in much the same way that a bicycle allows us to leverage our body’s energy very powerfully, right. And the thing with tools like obsidian is that that analogy about computers being bicycles for the mind, think about all the types of different bicycles there are right so you can put them on a spectrum. And in one end of the spectrum, you have Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure if you’ve seen that movie,

Andy Polaine 27:43

right? Isn’t one of those little guys weirdly up and down and stuff? I can’t remember


it. I forget the name of it. But it’s like a 1950s style, big, bulky flashy bicycle. Like I saw chopper type thing. Yeah. And it’s an it’s kind of tacky looking and kind of fun. And, you know, and it’s clearly a bicycle that’s been designed to draw attention to itself and to, to be entertaining, right? Yeah. And in the, in the opposite end of the spectrum, you might have the sort of bicycle that someone who is competing in the Tour de France with us, right, yeah, those are all bicycles, but they’re very different from each other. Right. And they’re designed with different purposes in mind. And I think that for people who live during the time that we’re living in having access to these amazing tools, we have, I was gonna say responsibility, but I don’t know that it’s a responsibility. It’s more like we have the ability, the wherewithal to decide which type of bicycle we want to use, what is our relationship going to be to these technologies that are a part of our reality. And we can choose to employ them to entertain us, to help us wile away the time and to do some basic things like I don’t know, transfer money in our bank accounts, or keep in touch with, with our friends and family, stuff like that. Yeah. But these things also give us the ability to greatly expand our knowledge, and to live richer, more fuller, more meaningful lives. And I am very interested in using them for that purpose for the purpose of living a better life, which for me, means the life of the mind, but the life of the mind, as it helps me act more skillfully in the world. So it’s not like philosophising for the purpose of, I don’t know, sounding clever or what have you. It’s, it’s becoming informed so that we can act more skillfully. We were talking earlier about politics. Right, there’s so much chatter happening about political stuff that comes from a position of reaction reaction to what you read in the media reaction to what you hear other people saying, versus becoming truly informed about the subject. And studying the history of what happened here, what led to these conditions, and it’s possible to do so much more so than it’s ever been for humans on this planet. You know, we have these amazing technologies, we have the internet, we have the internet in our pocket, for heaven’s sake, you know, and we, we take it for granted. And I don’t want to take it for granted, I want to be very intentional in how I grow as an individual by being augmented by these technologies. So that’s, that’s how I see it.

Andy Polaine 30:52

Okay, so tell me what the information garden is, how do you do something new, you write your newsletter, with much more dedication than I do mind always been billed as an occasional irregular newsletter. And in fact, there’s one that I need to finish off. But you’re very kind of regular with it, you also kind of pulling together with drawing together these different threads? What’s the kind of workflow for you or kind of thought flow maybe as a better information flow, perhaps, in terms of you know, how you go about connecting these things that you find together? How do you then sort of make notes as it were about them? And why do you do it in this way?


That’s a great prompt, you talked about obsidian. And obsidian has become a part of that toolset. And we can talk about the tools in particular, but first of all talk about it at a high level, I see what I’m doing happening on two levels. On one level, it’s reactive, which is finding a way to make note of capture, annotate, keep track of things that come to my attention, which I find interesting or important, or what have you. We are exposed to so much stuff just in the in the act of like going around in our daily lives, right? If we’re working on a project, there’s all sorts of information coming at you from that project. If you open Twitter, or what have you, you’re all of a sudden, you have this firehose of stuff coming out to you. A lot of it is is just not relevant. But some of it might resonate might be important to you, he might just be interesting. And if you don’t find a way of capturing it, there’s so much coming at you. And it’s so fast that the moment will pass and you’ll likely drop it right. So that’s one level, the kind of reactive like, yeah, just trying to capture what I have coming at me. And the other is more proactive, which is, I have certain topics that I am interested in, that I am working on, at any given moment that I’m doing research for those things. And my research yields, notes, things that have resonated with me things that I want to follow up on. And again, as with the reactive stuff, if you don’t capture that stuff, there’s so much out there that it will pass, at least for me, like I don’t have a very good memory. So if I don’t capture this stuff, it gets lost. And I’ve long had systems that allow me to do that. There have been no taking applications forever. Yeah, the difference now, and I think that we are living in a special moment for this, the difference now is that there is a crop of tools in the market that make manifest some of the early visions of what computers could do for us, you know, this notion of hypertext is hypertext is not new, right, Ted Nelson, and folks like that have been writing and talking about this stuff, since at least the 1960s. But now there’s a crop of tools that make a lot of these ideas usable, you know, and make them make them easier to use. And obsidian is one of them Devon think is another. And what I do is I’m always kind of on the lookout for things, whether they come at me or whether I have sought them out. And I put them into the system, which is always evolving the this kind of personal garden. And one part of the garden has obsidian for notetaking. And the other key part of the garden for me right now is devonthink, which is kind of an everything bucket where I drop hyperlinks and PDFs and stuff like that. And it’s an app that uses artificial intelligence machine learning that sort of stuff, to suggest possible connections between items so that it might spot that a certain PDF might be relevant to you. If you are interested in the thing that you’re currently examining. It might be a web page or what have you. And all of a sudden, you can surface connections between ideas in your repository in a way that that would be difficult time consuming for you without this technological augmentation.

Andy Polaine 35:06

And so I’m interested in this part of, because we started off talking about how sort of technology influences then, when we live in information, just like architecture, you know, the famous McLuhan thing of which, you know, was was coined by his friend of, you know, we shape our tools. And thereafter they shape pass was originally set by Churchill, I believe around buildings, right, we shape our buildings, and they offer the shape pass. And this this idea that I’m using a tool, but the tool is, if not using me, it’s certainly kind of shaping my way of thinking. And I noticed that you, you know, you mentioned before, there’s a nice piece you wrote recently about a generation of people who kind of don’t really get the whole file, or folder mental model. You know, and I think it’s, you’re quoting Monica chin and the verge. And there’s a quote from her, it’s a directory structure isn’t just unintuitive to students, it’s so intuitive to professors that they have difficulty figuring out how to explain it. And I’m kind of interested in then how these tools like this, where you, you’re getting assistance, in the case of devonthink, to connect things together. But in at the same time, you’re also then revealing something like obsidian is revealing connections that you have made, but you’ve kind of made in the course of your sort of, you know, entering notes and linking things together, without explicitly sort of trying to kind of create necessarily a graft and what you’re looking for the kind of emergent things, right, and so the hence I am guessing the garden metaphor, right, where you’re, you’re sort of saying, well, over here, you know, I know it’s sunny over here. So I’m going to plant these kinds of things and or, you know, perhaps say, those kind of microclimates that have gardens or those things where you planted of one herb next to some other plant, because you know, that herb repels a certain kind of insects that normally, you know, attack that other vegetable or whatever. So it’s things like that going on. But then there’s also these kind of emergent things that happen, because obviously, plants grow, you know, based on a whole bunch of different kinds of environmental forces, so that you end up in this situation where you’re kind of seeing connections that you or connections are revealed that you hadn’t initially thought of. And I’m interested to know whether you’ve had a kind of moment like this, where, you know, there was something that you hadn’t really realised, was connected. And by the use of these tools, you had a kind of a hammer of, oh, there’s a relationship between these things,


It does happen, I don’t have any that comes immediately to mind. A lot of them might be too trivial to spin a good story around. Yeah, but it does happen. And it happens even without the augmentation of something like Devon think or obsidian, right? Like just the notion of putting stuff down, sets in processes feedback loop that allows your own mind to make connections, right? What these tools are doing is they are greatly expanding the scope of what the process can include, in my reaction to the McLuhan quote, is that it might contain a false duality, this notion that there are tools, and there are us, I think, is suspect, because in this case, I believe that these tools are us in the sense that they augment our minds. And our mind is not something that is contained within the little MIT meat computer that I have here on top of my shoulders. It’s it’s something that includes elements of the world around it. I’m reading this fabulous book right now called the extended mind by Annie Murphy, Paul, that talks about the various ways in which we think with our environments, with our tools with other people. And these tools are in some ways me, right, like, if you were talking about you were talking about a blog post that I published recently. And the blog post is a way for you to know what I’m thinking, you know, I’m fortunate to think of you as a friend and to be able to talk with you, over zoom like we’re doing now, I have a lot of relationships with people on the internet, where there is a relationship, but it’s not a relationship like the one we’re having where we’re talking one on one, it’s a relationship where I’m polishing something, and they’re reading it, and they get a sense of who I am through the words that I’m putting out there. And those words didn’t come just from the meat computer, you know, they came from this system that I’ve set up that includes tools like obsidian, and Devin think and these tools become part of the system, the function the process that makes these ideas manifest in the world. So I it might be worth questioning whether that’s a valid distinction.

Andy Polaine 39:51

My PhD was bouts of interactivity in play. And as I looked into it, I went deeply into the whole kind of metaphor thing as well and like often Johnson and phenomenologist view that you experience the world through your body, you don’t experience it the world through your mind, you process what your body signals to your mind. But you’re this Cartesian view of kind of, I think we’re therefore I am I’m somehow I kind of separate consciousness from my body is an illusion. And it was very important for me to kind of be thinking around metaphors and interaction, and this idea that there’s this weird moment where they collapse into each other sometimes. And lake of and Johnson in their famous book of metaphors we live by, you know, talk a lot about this with language. And they as they sort of pull apart language, you realise, you can barely speak without using metaphors. And I’ve just said, pull apart language as if language is a thing that you know, is made out of building blocks that can pull it apart, and all those kinds of stuff, we just, once you get there, like, can barely speak, because there’s so you go, hang on a second. Now, now, I’ve just used another metaphor, and even the idea of using a metaphor as if it’s a tool and all those things. And what I was interested in was with, with digital devices, and if just at that I wrote my PhD, just as the kind of iPhone was coming out, was this collapsing of metaphors, where when you pull a file, let’s say, into the wastebasket, you know, it’s, it’s a metaphor, it’s a it’s a visual metaphor, if you’re doing that, it’s not really you pulling a file in the wastebasket. But you know, when you delete that stuff, and you say, you empty the waste box, you will feel exactly the same kind of emotional response. If you’ve accidentally done that to the wrong file, as if you had actually thrown something in the bin in real life. And there’s a kind of physicality to kind of dragging into the wastebasket. Sometimes, as well, there’s all these kind of things where, as soon as touchscreens came out, some of those things collapsed. And yet, you’re still actually in kind of metaphor land. Because when I’m, you know, zooming in and out of a photo, it amazes me that I feel so intuitive, because there isn’t really anything in real life that feels like that, you would have to be a photo sort of printed on latex, and you were kind of somehow kind of stretching it, because what you’re doing is just making little pinching motions on a pane of glass. And yet it kind of feels like it’s really intuitive. So I’m always interested where the fabric of that metaphor, if you like to use it alone, is so thin that we can barely recognise it’s there. And I think that’s what people mean when they say this interface is so intuitive. And then you kind of realise how much that’s just a learned behaviour. And so that article that you mentioned, just shows that kind of generational split between people who are used to just Googling the big mess of the internet for staff and people who are used to this idea of carefully collecting and curating information and putting it in files and folders and stuff like that. And I’m kind of always interested in when these kind of new tools come out and become a kind of dominant paradigm. And at the moment, you know, we’re on the cusp of it, I feel like we’re sort of there’s a whole load of them jostling for position at the moment. But it really does shape the way you think about going about something. And I’m wondering if to go back to the nature metaphor, whether this is akin, and we were talking about this a bit before between, you know, say subsistence farming, or farming as it was in mediaeval times versus kind of industrial farming now versus a botanical garden, which serves this kind of utility function, as well as a function of beauty versus something that’s like a, you know, a, well, I sometimes drive past, you know, crops that have got, you know, fields that have got this little, little kind of steak with a sign in front of it, you know, list with some kind of gobbledygook on it, which is there, obviously, different strains of some kind of seed or something that are being tested in this very, very kind of scientific way of thinking about those things. And whether that’s kind of, that’s just the way it is, you know, that you use these different tools in different ways. Or there’s something more fundamental in the fact that we will carry around a computer in our pocket that’s connected to this vast store of information. There’s a lot there, there wasn’t a question in there.


Well, there’s several threads we could pull on. There’s a metaphor, having a computer in your pocket that gives you access to a lot of the world’s information is a deeply transformational fact about the current world. I think that we don’t appreciate how weird and transformational it is, because we’re living it. Yeah. But we still don’t know really, what the effects are of doing that at scale, right, giving everyone access to all this stuff ubiquitously, and I think that it’s safe to assume that it’s a period that has a lot of turmoil. Like you can’t introduce a major change like that without expecting some kind of turmoil. And we as individuals have to determine how we engage with the world in which we live. Some people choose to reject it, right? Like they will say I want no part of this. This is so weird. This is messing with my mojo. You know what have you. I will have no part of it. I will revert Using a flip phone or no phone at all, I want nothing to do with the internet, I will only read paper based books. I mean, there’s many, many ways in which you can reject it, right? Yeah, you can embrace it, I think that we’ve been talking about embracing it, you can embrace it, you can choose to play, if you choose to play, you have to be conscious about how you’re going to be playing, and what that’s going to do to you. And I think that we have to work on ourselves at several levels on one level, we have to work on how we engage with these technologies, how we make better use of them, all this stuff that we’ve been talking about. But on another level, we have to work on how we think of ourselves as, as actors in the world. Like our mindset, right? Yeah. And I’m saying this, because this idea of the metaphors that we use is a is a great illustration of this. So one of the things that’s happening, because technology changes so fast, and it’s affecting so much change in its wake, is that the metaphors that we’ve been using for a long time have become unstable. And if you are caught in a metaphor, if you somehow feel like the metaphor is the way things are, you are going to be less able to navigate the changes that are coming at you, you’re going to be less resilient, frankly, because the metaphors are going to be changing. We you were alluding to this article about file systems, right. Yeah, that’s an example of that. And we are in the process of de-materialising a lot of our experiences, a lot of our interactions. You’ve seen this meme that goes around with the scan from the Radio Shack catalogue and all the products that the iPhone replaced, right? Yeah, yeah. When that happens, you end up with icons that represent floppy disks, meaning save right, and no one remembers what a floppy disk was. But it’s like the icon now suddenly, like contains that meaning. So my point is, we can work on our abilities of dealing with specific technologies like AI, learn, obsidian, or learn Devon think or what have you. But we must also work on our ability to change in response to those technologies. And our ability to keep our system open to new ways of being in the world, which these tools demand, right, like you can’t expect the world not to change when you’re dealing with these technologies.

Andy Polaine 47:42

With that comes the idea that, you know, you’re aware that it’s going on, that we’re part of these, the kind of interplay between the two, maybe we’re just getting on now we’re talking about age earlier, have kind of kids today don’t realise that they’re doing it, and maybe it’s the same? Or maybe the kids today like yeah, of course, you know, let’s just just there, of course, the internet is just, I’m gonna have this experience my 12 year old daughter, and are saying something the other day about, oh, no, you can’t do that. Because we’re not online. And she’s, she’s like, what does that mean? It’s like radio waves in the air or something. She doesn’t, which of course they are. But you know, she doesn’t really kind of think of the internet, she said thing was there. For her. The idea that it’s not there is like saying, because there’s no sun in the sky today. And it just starts to not make any sense. There’s loads more we could talk about. There’s a whole lot of music stuff that we could talk about, too. But we’re coming up to time, it’s been a long a very interesting conversation. I can only recommend that people subscribe to your newsletter or listen to your podcast for more the deep thinking, Where do people find you in this digital information garden that we will inhabit?


The best place is my website. It’s J So J A R A I’m also fairly active on Twitter, and I’m at Durango there. So yeah, I’d love to engage with you all on either of those.

Andy Polaine 49:10

Excellent. I’ll put it all in the show notes. Listen, thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Jorge Arango 49:14

It’s always a pleasure talking with you.

Andy Polaine 49:18

As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And as always get in touch. If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.