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~~~ Ramana Rao's INFORMATION FLOW ~~~ Issue #5 ~~ Sept. 2002 ~~~

"What are all these documents doing for us? While each has
its unique place and role, all of them together are helping
us make and maintain the world. What else could they be
doing, for world-making is what we humans do. We create the
material, social, symbolic, and spiritual environments we
inhabit: we build cities; we tell stories; we manufacture
goods; we develop knowledge of the world and ourselves; we
fashion individual and group identities and ideologies. In
short, we create culture.

"The world-making, or culture-making, business is an immense
effort, ever ongoing. Without it we would be lost: nowhere,
nothing. And documents are our partners in the enterprise.
We fashion them to take on some of the work: to help us exert
power and control, maintain relationships, acquire and
preserve knowledge. There is hardly a dimension of life in
which these sorcerer's apprentices don't figure: in business,
in science and the arts, in religion, in the administrative
practices that support nearly all our organizations, in the
management of our private lives. Virtually all the cultural
institutions and practices that help us make order, that help
us bring meaning, and intellibility to our lives, draw
heavily on documents for support."

-- David Levy, Scrolling Forward, 2001

~~~ IN THIS ISSUE ~~~ September 2002 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Thoughts on Scrolling Forward
* Article on Categorization, Extraction, and Visualization
* Book Links

~~~ Thoughts on Scrolling Forward ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the last year, as Inxight has entered a new phase, and I, a
new role, I'm coming out of a tunnel of sorts, as it seems lots
of people are right now. This new period is causing me to return
to old thoughts that have fallen victim to six years in the yoke
of operational roles.

I was in the habit of reading various industry rags and magazines
regularly. I would carry a few week's issues on long flights and
riffle through them, ripping out pages and capturing quick notes.
Thus, I floated in the sea of current thoughts and happenings,
attuning to drifts and flows of ideas and temperatures.

As if popping out of a dream, recently I realized I've let stuff
that comes across my transom take over too much attention. It's
too easy to believe that the new is important and fall prey to
the monster of Keeping Up, at least, if you're decidedly non-Zen,
like me.

Two books that I read a dozen years ago, Richard Saul Wurman's
Information Anxiety, and Mastering the Information Age by Michael
J. McCarthy [links below] had simple answers on dealing with
information overload. Even then, before the first HTTP GET was
issued somewhere near the Matterhorn, information overload was a

Both books advised, with an implied tip of the hat to Bacon, to
watch your information diet. How did I lose my way?

And now, the stacks of trade rags are going straight to the trash
can (okay it's been a bit harder than that for me). Replacing
them are a stream of nutritious calories from the Amazon.

My diet plan is paying off already. I've just finished a book by
David Levy, who I knew many years ago at PARC, called Scrolling
Forward [link below]. As the subtitle, Making Sense of Documents
in the Digital Age, suggests, this book examines the rich role
that documents play within society.

Starting from a simple definition of documents as "talking
things," Levy explains how they act as our social delegates, in
particular, speaking for us in social settings. This broad
perspective offers insights into how documents participate in the
functioning of culture, and consequently, what might or might not
happen across technology shifts.

One such insight is that each kind of document, each document
genre, like a receipt or a personal letter or a book, performs a
certain kind of job within society. As with human jobs like
doorman, police officer, or flight attendant, we all possess
nuanced knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of each
document type. Levy points out how we gain this knowledge of
human jobs and document genres from years of living and practice
in our culture. So it isn't suprising to find that society is
disoriented as new genres appear with the arrival of new

Whether about the history of documents and related technologies
or how humans interact and interpret documents, Levy's accounts
provide valuable design perspective. It's unlikely that the
concept of document or the mechanisms by which they operate or
the surrounding social realities are going away any time soon.

Levy's book pursues issues that often come up in discussions on
new forms of information access including those I've had with
readers. For example, a reader asked me, "If you don't know
anything about a topic, how do you know if the information you
have found is valid?" I abstractly waved:

you have to decide what constitutes a trustworthy source ...
nobody has time to become an expert on a topic to decide
whether something is valid on their own

Seems straightfoward enough, but Levy looks much more closely at
concerns of trust and quality across the transition to new
technologies and genres arising from them.

He tracks these concerns in a number of examples including email
and our changing expectations about CC and BCC fields; scholarly
publishing on the web; and most amusingly in a personal story of
a visit to a physician who seeks information related to the visit
on three web sites before Levy's very attentive eyes.

These examples each illustrate how "monkeying with trust is a
serious business." In particular, they illustrate how new
technologies, new genres, and our expectations of them coevolve,
and how we are naturally at "dis-ease" until we can settle into
new social configurations including them.

Levy doesn stop here! He goes on to make connections between
documents and our deepest existential needs as humans. As I
said, I knew Levy at PARC, and so leaving the text, I know that
he has pursued his understanding of documents for his entire
career. I was struck deeply by how he has managed to make a book
that so well "speaks for him," and reveals so much of what he has

And he does this in a way that is personal and deeply authentic
and approachable. The book left me with a question which may be
most interesting without an answer. Why don't more authors
produce just one book and put their whole heart into it?

Let me know what you think if you end up reading the book. Or
even if you don't, as always, I'd like to hear what you think!

~~~ Categorization, Extraction, and Visualization ~~~~~~~~~~

Last month, I took one slice at how software might support
multiple angles of access. I've written an article draft that
takes another. Starting from perspectives on the problem faced
by companies in taking advantage of their content, and on
potential solutions, I describe these new techologies and how
they may enrichen the information access experience.

~> http://www.ramanarao.com/articles/2002-09-richtech.pdf

~~~ Book Links ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age
~> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1559705531

Information Anxiety
~> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0789724103

Mastering the Information Age: A Course in Working Smarter, Thinking
Better, and Learning Faster
~> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/087477537X

These two books were my favorites non-academic books around
1990. Though, I'd have to partially agree with a connection
who said Information Anxiety causes Information Anxiety, the
first edition describes the condition of information overload
well and pointed the way to the solution. Mastering the
Information Age is less wellknown, and more clearly of the
self-help genre. Taking a quick look recently, I can't
readily see what tips I've heard or read in the years since
that weren't in this book.

ClueTrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
~> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0738204315

I bought this book awhile ago, but it almost suffered the end
of the book as usual, when I lost it in a pile. The New Me
read it this summer. No real surprises, after all, I have
"floated in a sea of current thoughts and happenings." With
127 reviews on Amazon, what can I add? "See all customer
reviews," sort by "Most Helpful First", and browse the first
10-30 reviews, in 1-3 minutes. You'll get a bimodal picture
which pretty well mirrors how I felt spending three enjoyable
hours with the book.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
~> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0738204315

Another book that I've just gotten to. In this case, I'm more
deeply satisfied with the time spent reading. This book has
gotten even more attention than ClueTrain with 230 Amazon
customer reviews, and it's still 217 in sales ranking. It
like Idea Virus like Anatomy of Buzz explore thoroughly the
concepts of viral and word of mouth marketing. Perhaps more
on this later.

Ramana Rao is Founder and CTO of Inxight Software, Inc.
Copyright (c) 2002 Ramana Rao. All rights reserved.
You may forward this issue in its entirety.

See: http://www.ramanarao.com
Send: rao .. @ .. inxight.com
Archive: http://www.ramanarao.com/informationflow/archive/
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