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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Computers :From a Dignified Dumb Butler To Being TheTool for Thought

(Via NYTimes) Steven Johnson is the author of the book "Mind Wide Open." writes about new software tools that are closer to thinking on your behalf and are beginning to be widely available. Excerpts with heavy edits and comments:

Modern day writers would often ask the question –How did yesteryear writers manage to publish with the help of typewriters. Today, word processors let us create sentences easily our hard drives are better suited for storing and retrieving documents than file cabinets. But writers don't normally rely on the computer for the more subtle arts of inspiration and association.. The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn't yet changed the way we think. Changing the way we think, of course, was the cardinal objective of many early computer visionaries like Vannevar Bush and Howard Rheingold.

2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality thanks to the release of nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents; and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in a few seconds. Together there comes a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way writers work as the original word processors did. Steven Johnson writes,"The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me. Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I'm trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it's now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I've forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn't know I was looking for. In practice this works like this - I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I'd then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head - I'd forgotten about the chimpanzee connection -- and I'd select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me"

In the traditional way of exploring your files, the computer is like a dutiful, but dumb, butler: the evolution is from searching to exploring or brainstorming . The fuzziness of the results is part of what makes the software so powerful. These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search engine failing of excessive specificity: searching for "dog"and missing all the articles that have only "canine" in them. Modern indexing software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create almost lyrical connections between ideas . They're associative tools ultimately. They don't do cause-and-effect as well.So they're ideally suited for books organized around ideas rather than single narrative threads: There's a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library. When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated - particularly when you'd long ago forgotten about them - there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.

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Sadagopan's Weblog on Emerging Technologies, Trends,Thoughts, Ideas & Cyberworld
"All views expressed are my personal views are not related in any way to my employer"