Notes are conversations across time

Notes are conversations across time. I think this is more than just a poetic analogy. It is a shift in perspective that can be grounded in cybernetics theory, particularly Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory, and it yields a number of surprising design insights.

We often talk about knowledge as if it is a storable commodity. We gain, gather, and transfer knowledge, share knowledge artifacts, build knowledge graphs.

Conversation Theory takes another view. It sees knowledge as conversational. Knowledge exists subjectively in our minds, and is constructed through conversation with others.

As we converse, each of us constructs our own subjective model. I serialize my subjective understanding into a message. You receive this message, interpret it, update your subjective understanding, and then respond by serializing your own message, which I receive...

This conversational process has a circular shape. It’s a cybernetic feedback loop, both within participants, and between participants.

Each turn of the loop offers additional input for each participant to update their subjective model. The loop stops when participants mutually decide they have converged toward a close enough shared understanding. Conversation is a method for converging on eventually consistent states among distributed peers.

Conversation can be about diverging too. Instead of trying to converge on a shared understanding, a conversation can be about getting lost in the land of ideas.

Each participant has a different subjective model of the world. We can draw from our differing subjective understandings to knock conversation out of convergence.

The crucial requirement is for the self to allow the other to “speak back” and to accommodate the unexpected so that self affects other, and other affects self. Avoiding requisite variety, both get partially “out of control” in a mix of positive and negative feedback, thus conversing along non-determinable trajectories to arrive and previously unknown destinations.

Fischer, Herr (eds.), 2019, “Design Cybernetics”

Riffing. No one knows where the conversation will end up. You’re surprising each other. You see this type of creative scenius between band members playing jazz, or among designers collaborating on a project.

We could even define the creative act in Conversation Theory terms: creativity is a circular conversation that arrives at an unexpected destination.

Ok, so here’s where this gets weird. Conversations don’t just happen between people. They can happen between all kinds of systems.

“A conversation between a self and various possible kinds of other such as a pen and paper, a person, an imagined person, computer soft- and hardware, physical models, and so on.” Fischer, Herr (eds.), 2019, “Design Cybernetics”

A conversation can happen between yourself and your memory of another. Or between yourself and a model of a system.

A conversation can happen between yourself and a pencil and paper. “There is the person who draws, and the other, yet the same, person who looks.” My pencil loops once, my mind loops three times. Perhaps this causes me to fruitfully trip over my ideas, to see them from a different angle, creating a subject-object shift. Who wrote this?

A conversation can happen between yourself and yourself, across time, through the notes your past self took for your future self. An autopoietic system where information time travels between your future and past self in a meaningful cybernetic loop.

Tools for Thought—and software in general—are often evaluated in terms of features and screens. Does it have tags, or backlinks, or graph view, or search, or… This is an understanding of tools that anchors on the object-level.

Cybernetics shifts our focus away from objects, and toward the flow of information between objects. Design through the lens of Conversation Theory is not about features and screens. Design is the making and breaking of cybernetic feedback loops.

Facebook gets this. So does YouTube, Twitter, and every other algorithmically driven app that constructs feedback loops around you. They know feedback loops are nonlinear, and force of will is only linear.

But we can construct our own loops, too. We can construct conversational feedback loops that help us learn a language, or give us programmable memory. We can construct conversational feedback loops that program creativity, or garden ideas from the bottom-up, or evolve ideas spontaneously.

This is the lens through which I am designing Subconscious. I’m mid-way through prototyping the core features, and it feels like nothing—like the tiniest little app—because all of the design is in the feedback loops, not the features. Feedback loops are invisible to the eye.