Tools Etc.

Seth: Your Factories, Refineries and Tools is brilliant, but it may be built on a fallacy. Aren’t you asking for the development of a piece of computer software to solve a problem that is best solved outside the computer? You say it yourself:

So in the real world we have some great brainstorming tools. Whiteboards are my favorite, but cheap tablets of paper, giant sheets of poster paper, and groups of gathered people are all fantastic for different purposes (and different people). The basic limitation of the computer interface (relative to these other tools) is a deficiency in physical interface.

So why not stick with those real world brainstorming tools? Our brains have evolved over some 3 million years or so to interact with information in a three-dimensional world, with physical and spatial clues playing an important role in the cognitive process. That’s why the pad and pencil, and the whiteboard, work. An attempt to replace this may be doomed to failure.

See, for example, Gladwell’s argument in The Social Life of Paper (I think we’ve talked about this before, Seth?). “Paper,” Gladwell writes, “enables a certain kind of thinking.”

The case for paper is made most eloquently in “The Myth of the Paperless Office” (M.I.T.; $24.95), by two social scientists, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper. They begin their book with an account of a study they conducted at the International Monetary Fund, in Washington, D.C. Economists at the I.M.F. spend most of their time writing reports on complicated economic questions, work that would seem to be perfectly suited to sitting in front of a computer. Nonetheless, the I.M.F. is awash in paper, and Sellen and Harper wanted to find out why. Their answer is that the business of writing reports — at least at the I.M.F — is an intensely collaborative process, involving the professional judgments and contributions of many people. The economists bring drafts of reports to conference rooms, spread out the relevant pages, and negotiate changes with one other. They go back to their offices and jot down comments in the margin, taking advantage of the freedom offered by the informality of the handwritten note. Then they deliver the annotated draft to the author in person, taking him, page by page, through the suggested changes. At the end of the process, the author spreads out all the pages with comments on his desk and starts to enter them on the computer — moving the pages around as he works, organizing and reorganizing, saving and discarding.

Without paper, this kind of collaborative, iterative work process would be much more difficult. According to Sellen and Harper, paper has a unique set of “affordances” — that is, qualities that permit specific kinds of uses. Paper is tangible: we can pick up a document, flip through it, read little bits here and there, and quickly get a sense of it. (In another study on reading habits, Sellen and Harper observed that in the workplace, people almost never read a document sequentially, from beginning to end, the way they would read a novel.) Paper is spatially flexible, meaning that we can spread it out and arrange it in the way that suits us best. And it’s tailorable: we can easily annotate it, and scribble on it as we read, without altering the original text. Digital documents, of course, have their own affordances. They can be easily searched, shared, stored, accessed remotely, and linked to other relevant material. But they lack the affordances that really matter to a group of people working together on a report. Sellen and Harper write:

Computers are terrific tools for the actual typing of words, and for searching through vast quantities of text. But let’s be cautious in assuming that makes them useful for actual deep cognitive interaction with the resulting information.