/ Gradient Tagging

This is an article length version of the author’s presentation with Lukas Zimmer at BiB IV, which is also available as slides (PDF).

Abstract

Content has become flighty. Information is increasingly created and accessed digitally, and digital information is by default non-static—it’s collections of Boolean values, presented in a certain constellation every time it’s called upon, subject to the specific environment into which it’s being rendered. Gone are the bound entities we still know as “books” and “documents,” although we still tend to call these new digital containers by the very same names. In the Age of Books, the publishing process was pretty straightforward: An author gathered information from various sources—mostly other books and documents—and bound it between pages 1 and x. The publisher packaged those pages and distributed them to an audience of readers, who at least had a clear incentive to read them from beginning to end. The general context was defined by blurbs, forewords, and reference lists; the context of each chapter was defined by the index; and the context of any given sentence within the publication was defined by the ones that came before and after. As this anchoring staticity has given way to liquid bits, forever re-rendered within new reading environments, the author’s intended context is, if not completely gone, at least seriously compromised.

Of course, we’ve come up with numerous methods for creating new, ever relevant, and instantly adjustable contexts (infoviz, feeds, hyperlinks). But these new indexes are technical shortcuts, disregarding the conceptual and subjective values that enriched static, physical publications: graphical diagrams are generated based on a computer’s logical interpretation of information; aggregators and twitter feeds are (generally) continually changing collections of stand-alone pieces of content; the hyperlink was made for jumping, not connecting.

AWARENESS of LIMITATIONS

The computer understands its shortcomings well, but we tend to ignore them more often than not; we trust the narrowing of search filters almost as we trust the scopes of our senses, and we consider the acts of liking and sharing as person-to-person communication. In no way should these tools be disregarded, labeled bad or wrong, but they should be seen for what they are: tools. They should be transparent enough for the understanding of their functionality to require no further dismantling. As the carpenter knows his hammer, the electrician knows his transistor, and the chemist knows his catalyst, so should everyone who wields these new tools understand their construction and their impact. As is the case for all tools, they were created with a purpose. The ethos in the digital world is efficiency, and the dominating purpose is that of making money. Likes, shares, and algorithmically tailored lists didn’t become the de facto mode of communication and organization because there was no other way, but because those techniques allow for efficient targeting and dispersal of advertising. Accepting the produce of these tools, then, as anything else than the sums of their algorithms and intentions, will undoubtedly wear on our intellect. We’re starting to see the seriously negative impact of glucose syrup upon our physical health, and it’s just a matter of time until we realize that the unreflective stilling of our hunger for knowledge and connectivity through in vitro lists and social media comes at a price to our mental fitness.

DEFINITE BLUR

By admitting that a dismembering of information into data is stifling our further use of it, and that the butchering tools we use to access and transfer information were created with an ulterior motive, we’re forced to realize that in order to keep growing as individuals and as a society, we need to allow for the uncertainty of ideas to linger in our data stores. We’re not saying that fogginess and inconclusiveness should wreak havoc in the world of structured data, but that (a) a certain measure of both Blur and certainty complement each other to constitute qualified information, ripe for the processing by human minds and (b) this same Blur, both in creation and dissemination of information, creates a stimulating friction, acting for the mind much like the weights in a gym do for the body. The forcing of additional context and nuance into contributed and shared information requires more effort, but we should be wary of the price we’ll pay for mental slackery.

TAGGING

Of course, considering the current limitations of computational logic, any efforts toward digital re-contextualization of information need to be phased in a way that allows for both man and machine to follow along. To date, probably the most promising piece of technology for conceptually contextualizing content in digital form is the simple tag. Tagging something up means putting it in a certain container, clustering it with other things in a way that makes each single piece gain in richness by every new piece being attributed the same tag. It’s an incredibly easy way to organize things and still allow for great flexibility—as opposed to with straight, hierarchical categorization, a piece of content can be tagged in multiple ways, and every tag can be applied to multiple pieces of content. Many-to-many as opposed to one-to-many. But there are two main problems with tags:

  1. Tags are word-containers, which, just like full texts themselves, suffer from translation issues and cultural and subjective connotations.
  2. Although tags allow us to move way beyond the Magical Number 7, as with all things multiplied, there comes a point when we reach critical inflation. Our minds can no longer make sense of the sheer amount of tag words, and we need to start using machines to do our sorting and evaluation—essentially our thinking—for us.

To remedy these shortcomings, we tend to digitally catalog things in ways that make sense to the machine, in order to simplify and objectivize. In doing so, we succumb to a logic based on numerology, devoid of any emotional—for lack of a better word—flavor, which we know is a critical ingredient throughout all of human communication, evaluation, decision making, and knowledge building.

We believe, however, that there are options. If we are prepared to sacrifice some of the definitiveness of written language and binaries for a pinch of definite blur, our possibilities for complex organization open up.

GRADIENT TAGGING

Fairly early in the making of Lines, we started looking for ways to navigate the complex text trees we created in our development environment. As the plethora of Hello Worlds and Lorem ipsums gradually gave way to more nuanced messages, we realized we needed something as simple as a tag, but as precise as the thoughts behind the written words. A piece of information can be tagged as “Important” or as related to “Writing Technology,” but that doesn’t do justice to the difference between the first and the second pieces of information with these same tags. The traditional way to solve this is to create more and more precise tags, which wasn’t an option for us, since it would make the Lines structures even more complex.

So, drawing from previous projects and experiments, we turned two-dimensional-visual and then reduced those two dimensions to one, leaving us with Gradient Tagging. A word with a slider, allowing you to pass a meta value with each tagging. As simple as this sounds, the penny finally dropped when we added the functionality to the Lines interface: by displaying several gradient tags simultaneously, we not only get a tag list, but we add up their one-dimensional properties to form an n-dimensional space. A space for visualizing very complex relations and rich context.

PROLOGUE

At the time of writing, several new implementations of Gradient Tagging are in the pipeline, and we’re looking forward to the reactions and discussions they will encourage. Until then, Lines is online and freely available for those interested.

We aren’t saying that Gradient Tagging is the solution, but it’s a suggestion. We believe it really makes information traversal a lot richer and helps in transporting part of the richness and meaning we usually strip away when we go digital. But foremost it is meant as fuel to a discourse. A step in a direction of consciousness, of awareness of the complexities of life and the even more complex process of translating them into digital form. We are not saying that we shouldn’t embrace the computer and the screen, but we’re saying that we shouldn’t let them think for us.