The Rhythms of Information

“People wouldn’t need to take ‘vacations’ away from their devices if they can simply learn to co-exist with them peacefully on a day-to-day basis. For that to happen, however, our devices must be designed in a such a way that allows people to integrate technology into their lives in the matter of a ritual or routine, rather than as an ‘addiction’.”

— Ryan Tanaka, “The Rhythms of Information: Flow-Pacing and Spacetime

Okay, IRL readers. I’ve waited this long, but it’s time for you to start reading Ribbonfarm posts. They’re long, chewy, and philosophical, but they’re also technical and engineering-ish. In other words, they’re hard. It’s okay if you put off reading them for 10 weeks, as I did with today’s link according to my logs. But I am sure glad I got to it eventually, because this one is for you.

Venkat, the proprietor of Ribbonfarm, has bloggers-in-residence who write 4-6 posts in a year, and the post I’m linking today comes from Ryan Tanaka. Says his bio at the top of the post, “For every article that he writes, Ryan also improvises a live musical piece as means of organizing his ideas.” Unsurprisingly, the composition also makes an ideal soundtrack for reading the post, so go ahead and start playing it now. I’m listening again as I write.

Tanaka’s post proposes that the early phases of information technology got us used to relating to information as static. For example (my example, not his), when querying the web for information, we’ve learned to type a text query into a search box, which results in a list of objects we relate to as “pages.” Those “pages” are static, discrete, locatable things that “contain” the information we seek.

But as real-time messages and data proliferate, and as they gain spatial dimensions and begin to literally move through the world, treating information as static no longer works. Tanaka proposes that we think of information as flowing. He then goes through a bunch of insights techies can gain from disciplines who already measure information as flow over time (including music).

But the part that really made me think of you was the section bearing out the implications of this shift for the people interacting with information technologies in ordinary ways every day. There are so many other quotations I want to share with you that I’m going to have to make sacrifices for the sake of brevity, but here are just a few:

“Rituals and routines being a form of rhythm in itself, the integration of technology into our daily life will require its devices to have internal rhythms of its own.”

Awwww yeah.

“For technology to integrate itself into people’s lives as rituals rather than addictions, these concepts have to be built into both its engineering and design, a few steps further than what content itself can provide. What tech companies can do is to simply create platforms that better mirror the ways in which its users see and experience the world itself – by time, space, pacing, and flow.”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. He even makes some specific proposals that I’ve dreamed about and wrote about in In Real Life:

“Most websites now don’t even make a distinction between night and day, even though they exist as a basic part of human existence — such gestures could go a long way towards humanizing the web experience in ways that can’t be achieved by visual content alone.”

Right?? I propose just such a gesture for Facebook in the chapter about Shabbat in the book.

Anyway, I included all these quotations so you’ll know that this long article that starts off talking about sewage treatment engineering is actually aimed squarely at you and me. Go read it and return with new thoughts!

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