Published in
Senior Project
2/17/2020

Semilattice: Documenting the Progress

Problem, Intent, and Concepts

Problem

Christopher Alexander, Architectural Intelligence

1. We’re living in a world with increasingly complex problems sitting within a growing ecosystem of of social, cultural, or informational pressures.

Some examples: economic equality -> AI-powered crime prediction solutions -> Palantir/Clearview.ai; climate crisis -> traffic congestion -> ride-sharing services; political extremism -> deterioration of public social space -> Facebook

2. Many of these “wicked problems” are entangled with digital technology, and it made me reflect on its desired role in our world.

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think; Douglas Engelbart, Improve our Ability to Improve

3. I was fascinated with the promise of computing to extend humans’ ability to process and use knowledge.

Alan Kay, User Interface: A Personal View; model is inspired by Hugh Dubberly’s SECI model and took analogy of researchers’ synthesis process

4. I want to examine how computers today help us “collect information, create knowledge, manipulate and share it,” because tools we create shape ourselves. I made a WIP model to represent the process of knowledge creation.

5. I found web browsers one of the tools in today’s computers that are most insufficient at “processing and using knowledge.” The main critique is: the archaic IA metaphors (pages, tabs, bookmarks, history (of links)) prevent people from comprehending information when the web has expanded itself massively.

6. The relationship between “comprehension,” “collection,” and “interpretation” still needs to be untangled here. To correlate with the model, people use web browsers to collect information. One could argue that the silo-ed consumption-ready experience in web browsers is sufficient for “previewing” information before they’re collected elsewhere. But my assumption is that providing affordances to let people interpret web-based content could help us comprehend better.

7. From here, I aimed to find ways to help people comprehend digital information better in web browsers.

Inspirations

  • Project Xanadu: the parallel comparison of documents shows the power of visual thinking. (I learned about Jerome Bruner’s mentalities of thinking from Bret Victor’s work, including……)
  • DynamicLand: if information is tangible and ready for manipulation and experimentation to its fullest.
  • LiquidText and MarginNote: excellent examples of active reading. When I look at them, I can’t help but think if the similar affordances could be provided to web browsing.
  • WebMemex: a project with a very similar intent, seems discontinued unfortunately. It mentioned fighting back the ephemerality of digital information by making personal archiving more accessible.
  • Muse: an excellent example of creating affordances for people to develop ideas in a digital scrapbook-like environment.

Intent

Design new metaphors for web browsers that encourage thinking and creating new ideas.

Concepts

Right now I’m designing the fundamental elements in the paradigm. I made a very scrappy proof of concept to demonstrate the following ideas:

  • Creating excerpts and multi-media cards to support active reading
  • Visuospatial connection between pages and cards
  • Automatic grouping and manual clustering pages and cards to visualize relationships and support the thinking process

Here is a use case from my own experience as a student: researching the future of transportation and looking for design ideas.

To start, I might want to search for a relevant keyword. It is the beginning of my exploration.

Clicking on a link opens a new page connected visually to show the trace of discovery. I might stumble upon something not so interesting and go back to the search results.

Clicking on another link took me to another article, which turned out to be really insightful. A paragraph is very well-written and reminds me of a new research direction. I can take it out as an excerpt and write a note related to the paragraph.

I want to learn more about the context of this page: who wrote this? Following the hyperlink led me to the main page of Greenfield Labs, where I found another quote inspiring for a different design direction. As I expand my area of exploration, my previous traces are automatically collapsed, showing my thoughts and highlights: what I think is more important than what I see.

I started a couple of new searches related to that thought by creating new nodes from the note card I created earlier. The first two aren’t really interesting, so I put them away. Clicking on the “history” button would reveal my traces. The last search led me to an interesting article by the Washington Post. The car design of this image is interesting, and it said it’s by IDEO. There’s no hyperlink here, how can I find more information about this project?

I highlighted this image and wrote down my thoughts about space usage of vehicles. The connected search led me to IDEO’s original project. As I look back at where I am compared to where I started, my trace of thought is represented as the visual traces of exploration in the space. What’s unimportant is left out, what’s important is visible in a glance.

As I continue my research, I can organize pages and cards into subgroups to reflect hierarchy of topics. I can manually connect between pages, cards, and groups to reflect my logical reasoning. I can break the original hierarchy of pages and cards and reorganize them to reflect my "understanding."

See also

On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future

Semilattice, pt. 1

Semilattice, pt. 2

Feedback Highlights

  • The design direction as a knowledge-creation-system assumes people are inherently incentivized to seek truth, instead of falling into certain beliefs. A more promising direction might be supporting groups who are directly incentivized to make better decisions. 

Next steps

  • Reframing problem moments: supporting objective-based exploratory research in web browsing
  • Build a workshop-like low-fi prototype to test the core concept