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Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
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Finders, keepers? The present and future perfect in support of personal information management
William Jones, 2004 , (Paper URL)
Friday, October 21, 2005

First Monday is a vibrant peer-reviewed electronic journal that focuses on the Internet the interactions and it engenders between humans and technology. This paper by William Jones (co-director of the Keeping Found Things Found project along with Harry Bruce) examines information overload as a signal detection task. For each "piece" of information we come across, we must decide whether or not to keep it or toss it. Two kinds of mistakes are possible: we can keep things that we shouldn't have or we can toss things we should have kept. Personal Information Management is all about reducing the costs of these mistakes.

The obvious costs of a keeping mistake (i.e., of keeping something you never use) are going down: storage is cheaper every year, computers are faster, etc. But those physical constraints are bounded by our human ones. As Herbert Simon said:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

(and remember, this was in 1971. He didn't even have a cell phone or instant messaging!). In particular, the more stuff we keep, the more difficult it may be to find what we really need right now and we may even forget that we ever had it -- out of sight, out of mind.

Alternately, if the costs of a losing mistake were zero, then we could keep nothing. This only works if we can also find what we want again as easily as we could have it we had kept it. It also requires that the information "out there" doesn't degrade or disappear. Secondly, the information out there may be hard to find -- my categories aren't shared by the rest of creation so my search strategies may fail. Lastly, it is impossible to find things I forget to look for! Keeping nothing overlooks the fact that what we keep provides reminders of our tasks and projects.

Given that we can reduce costs of keeping and losing mistakes but not remove them, what strategies can we adopt going forward? More and better tools are part of the answer but also part of the problem: each tool tends to create new information federations all of which must be maintained. Keeping things simple is clearly a good idea as is teaching organizational skills to young, old and in between. The problems here are mirrored in the tensions between folksonomies and ontologies: ontologies (can) provide clean classifications amenable to logic but require up front development and have difficulties adapting to a rapidly changing world. Folksonomies (or even persononomies -- now there's a word!) are inexpensive, bottom-up and flexible but may be harder to share and harder to use for automation and reasoning.

This paper, and the work it references, are fascinating and important. Everyone talks about continuous partial attention and information management, but it's time someone started doing something about it!

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Copyright -- Gary Warren King, 2004 - 2006