Imposing a Narrative Structure
Why is a narrative structure so important to this process?
We were looking for the bottom layer, the fundamental organizing principle, and we wondered: Should it be a tree, like in a standard file system hierarchy? Should it be hypertext, that is, a random network? Should it be a bag with no particular order at all? All those seemed wrong. Instead, it seemed that the fundamental structure of life was a good basis for building any kind of knowledge or information system.
We wanted information to be arranged the way life is arranged, and life is a narrative. There's no way to live except moment by moment. Every human being has the experience of going from one moment to the next to the next, living a timeline with a past, present and future. That's the universal skeleton key to how experience is organized and how memory is organized.
If your information is stream structured, you've got to at least consider the possibility of treating the past as something you can deal with rather than unknown territory. You've got to consider the possibility of history. You've got to consider the possibility that time passes, things change, the world evolves. You've got to consider the possibility that this is not a static world. We aren't fixed in the present, it's not always going to be this way, it didn't always used to be this way. Things change, things happen, things evolve.
Yet user interfaces have always been thought of in spatial terms, using the computer monitor to represent information.
Absolutely. Yeah, that's exactly the way they're thought of. The idea of the desktop interface with its windows and icons and so forth is, of course, an electronic version of a physical desk, which is a little piece of space, and I put stuff here and stuff there. And people think of a tree of files, I mean, a tree is an object in space, and they think of a file tree or hierarchy as a kind of quasi-spatial structure.
And as far as we're concerned, that was the inevitable way to get started in information management. It's like when people began thinking about flying: The natural way to fly was to build an artificial bird, just as the natural way to organize information on a computer was to build an electronic office with a file cabinet and a desktop. But it turned out that an artificial bird was the wrong way to make to an airplane, and that airplanes have their own rules.
And we believe that an artificial office and artificial file cabinet and artificial garbage can and desktop and so forth was an obvious first guess but not the right way for information to be organized on a computer, and that a narrative or a time stream, which makes perfect sense intellectually or cognitively, may not work in a paper office, but it does work when we have the software to make it happen.
This article was originally published on 10-10-2002
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