Episode 99 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Mark Bernstein. Mark is a renowned hypertext researcher, author, and developer. He designed and produced Tinderbox, a deep hypertext tool for thought. This conversation explores how we can think better by using connected notes such as those enabled by Tinderbox.
Mark started by clarifying his purpose:
I write tools for writers. And by writers, I really mean thinkers: people who work with lots of information, both to understand it and to explain it to other people.
We think by making things, including notes. Mark referenced the idea of representational talkback (pdf):
An achitect, or an artist, or a writer puts something on paper and then looks at it. You look at it and then it seems different from what you had in mind and you either correct what you’ve written or you see that what you’ve written is right and correct your bad idea. That kind of representational talk-back is fundamental to all sorts of all creative process from the sciences to the arts.
The notes themselves — the “permanent record,” as Mark put it — have value per se. But that’s not the point. Instead, the notes are a medium for thinking by supporting the exploration of structural relationships from the bottom up.
Tinderbox allows us to understand complex, ambiguous subjects by letting us capture ideas before we know how they might fit together. Then, we can explore possible relations, spot patterns, raise some and downplay others, etc. — in time, the boundaries of the problem (i.e., its affordances and constraints) manifest.
At some point, we can share what we’ve learned to include others in the feedback process. Tinderbox supports this too by offering very flexible means for displaying and exporting data.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Mark how this way of working might have affected the nature of his work. He gave a fascinating answer:
I think over the years, I’ve been more open to seeing influences and directions from disparate fields and disciplines and schools of thought, because this sort of hypertextual approach to working and organizing knowledge spaces makes it more difficult to simply discard what doesn’t seem to fit directly into what you had thought, or what you would expect it to do.
I read this to mean that capturing ideas before we have set structures to fit them in exercises our ability to remain open-minded — a pre-requisite to creativity.
I’ve used Tinderbox for almost twenty years and, as I mentioned in the interview, I’m still learning new things about this powerful application. This conversation with Mark helped me see it — and my own work — in new light.