New directions

This post is to give people a heads up on the sorts of things I’m planning to write about here for the next little bit. And to give people the opportunity to provide feedback, if they so desire. This is pretty much the result of a long conversation I had with Brad and Jill before Thanksgiving where I was trying to articulate to them the sorts of things I was interested in and cared about. And I think I’ve boiled it down to a few areas of concentration.

Social Software
As a recent post demonstrated, the potential of social and collaborative software is one that fascinates me. I think that it will be the key to unlocking the ideas that are collectively in our heads, the tool by which we can overcome the growing specialization of science. But to do that, it’s going to require a better understanding of how people think, and how we communicate with each other. Part of this is going to be developing an understanding of context. danah’s post is just skimming the surface. Software that can help us set the context in which we’re writing makes it easier for others to understand what we are trying to communicate.

It’s an enormous problem. Hypertext is part of the answer in a crude form. When I refer to something in a blog post, I can link that idea to another post which explains it more fully. Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is to help map out my brainspace so that I can refer to it more easily. One of my major tasks in this blog over the next couple months is going to be writing out this fairly large (but currently fuzzy) structure of ideas I have in my head so that some of my other ideas make sense. I’m a little bit intimidated by the process. I have the beginnings to a bunch of posts sketched out, but they only make sense when you know that I think these other N things are related, and everything’s connected in my head, but I don’t even really know which end to tug on to start. But I have to start somewhere. So part of my commitment to write more is to just start writing some of this stuff down, and hope that the problem becomes more manageable.

But this gets away from the point here. Wouldn’t it be cool if software tracked everything I wrote and discussed, and was able to develop this structure of ideas itself? And then was able to translate other ideas into this structure? I know this is beyond science fiction at this point, but one of the things I love about good conversations and good books is that “Aha!” moment when something clicks into place in my head, and a new relationship in my internal idea database is forged. I’d love it if somebody talking to me could leverage my internal idea structure to make it more obvious where their ideas fit in. It would be one step short of telepathy.

So, yeah. That’s my ultimate goal. Which is probably impossible. But I feel like there are probably baby steps in and around the area of social software which will move towards that goal. So I’m hoping to think and write about such things as I think of them.

Critical thinking skills and education
I mentioned this in the links post, but I think that one of the greatest problems facing this country right now is the lack of critical thinking skills. People don’t know how to evaluate information. They choose based on feelings or what somebody told them. And there’s a place for that, certainly. But I think that we could do so much more to help people learn to function in an environment of information overload. It’s a matter of understanding how to process information, how to choose who to believe and who not, etc.

An added benefit of tackling this is that it handles the message problem of politics from the other direction. Rather than trying to convince politicians not to promise the moon in order to get elected, it changes the electorate to one that will ask the right questions, examine the tradeoffs and hopefully demand politicians that will respond to their needs. It’s trying to figure out how to teach the 40% of Americans that believe that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11 that they can’t necessarily trust everything that the government (or Fox News) tells them.

Again, this is a really hard problem. I’m not sure where you even start. It involves education reform, clearly. But reforming implies a new plan. I think that some work needs to be done on how we move forward from a fact-based education system to a discovery-based system. I don’t need to know anything myself any more. Google has it all. What matters is being able to look at the results of a Google query (or a library search or the nightly news) and evaluate which of the multitude of results is relevant and reliable. How do you teach that skill?

Politics is obviously an issue much on my mind. I want to do something to help change the direction that this country is heading. I want to make a difference. I don’t really know how, though. I think that stories and narrative is part of it. It’s developing more consistent stories to get the message out. It’s figuring out what stories will resonate. For now, I’ll probably restrict myself to commenting on politics when it suits me, and maybe spend some time thinking about how to develop a message on particular issues.

I want to continue thinking about stories. I doubt I’ll ever collect these thoughts into a book or anything, but it’s definitely one of the unifying concepts of my brain right now. I’m seeing everything as stories, from product pitches to politics. Every effective message has a story to convey it, as the parables of Jesus demonstrate. So some thoughts that I’d like to pursue are what makes a good story, and how can we turn messages we care about into good stories that will propagate themselves?

Wrap up
So those are the major directions I currently have mapped out. If I could figure out how to turn any of these into a career, that’d be something to pursue. For now, I plan on keeping my day job, thinking about this stuff when I can, and writing about it here. Thanks for coming along on the journey.