Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Following recent criticisms from concerned readers (!) about declining standards in this weblog, here are some words about search technologies as opposed to words that merely pander to them!

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review this week, writer Steven Johnson described a new toy that he's had custom-made for himself - DEVONthink, a kind of seeker-associator that trawls through an extensive archive of his own ideas plus any borrowed ones that have influenced him.

Unlike Google Deskop, DEVONthink does more than filter and retrieve your personal files, it actually brainstorms them on the fly. "There are false starts and red herrings...but there are just as many happy accidents and unexpected discoveries. Indeed the fuzziness of the results is part of what makes the software so powerful", notes Johnson who wonders who deserves the credit for the ideas that take shape through this Human-Robot collaboration: "I'm not at all confident I could have made the initial connection without the help of the software."

Tools like DEVONthink are, Johnson concludes, "ideally suited for books organised around ideas rather than single narrative threads: more 'Lives of a Cell' and 'The Tipping Point' than 'Seabiscuit'."

It seems fairly obvious to me that journalists and bloggers could make good use of such idea-triggers too, especially if the source archive of ideas is 'real time' as well as retrospective.

I have banged on in the past about how the current crop of search bots are succouring a noisy generation of analysts afraid to use their own judgement (bad-mouthed as subjectivity). DEVONthink is a step-up from your basic difference engine, but it is still essentially algorithmic in approach. Yet Steven Johnson recounts how he followed a fruitful trail suggested by the close association between the terms sewage and waste that the software identified - and it is this ability to work in sympathy with, rather than in contrast to, the fuzzy thinking of intelligent humans that marks DEVONthink out as a breakthrough tool and not another example of technology that will impose its own cognitive regime on all that make use of it.

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