Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sequential is baaad


One of the most enlightening moments on my process of becoming computer literate was when, in Programming II, I was taught about file accesses, at that time in Cobol. We basically started learning about sequential files and we did all the boring processes that could be done with sequential files and later on the semester we were introduced to the concept of indexed files. It was like going from night to day or another way of saying it that I like better was going from the real world to the digital world. There were two great insights at the same time:
1. Sequential is baaad. Indexed is good. This is the obvious one, it's a simple matter of optimizing accesses.
2. In real world objects occupy a place in space, but this is not completely true in the digital world. In another words, in the digital world I can access a list of people at the same time by last name and by date of birth. It's the same information, it's there once but can be accessed instantly (almost) by different concepts. I believe as we get into more digital and virtual spaces in our lives we'll feel the presence of this concept more tangibly. Think about it: a virtual person could be in multiple worlds at the same time ...

It probably all seems to obvious and irrelevant. So, why is this still all relevant to me? Because there are plenty of things out there that are still essentially very sequential media and that totally bugs me. Two examples of this are videos and books. Other than the basic chapter index the idea is that you consume both a video or a book sequentially. This is a very limiting way of consuming information. When you're talking about a story, it's a little more arguably, but when it comes to consuming information it is definitely not a good option.

Particularly with books, I struggle a lot when I see digital book readers that are just a transportation of the old sequential book model to a new hardware. On the other hand I've been thinking a lot on alternatives without getting to nothing conclusive. The alternatives I though of, clearly involve hypertext, picking on the concept of summarizing and allowing the reader to drill down in the information as needed. But of course, the business of writing a book hasn't changed, the way people write books hasn't changed, so it's a whole chain that will need to be re-invented even as an economic model in order to have the book of the future.

One last thought on books, as we were discussing in a prev post, one alternative would be somewhere around wikis and blogs (in all variants). Wikis being much more powerful than blogs never became as popular. This is something I've been thinking for a long time and can't seem to find a def answer to ... I believe some of the answers are around the fact that wikis (and hypertext itself for that matter) are not flat and sequential. They're graphs and rather hierarchical. Blogs by opposition are pretty sequential. So, I wonder if there's a limitation in our minds that (untrained) they don't come with a natural capacity to deal with the non-flat non-sequential media. Maybe it's part of our evolution to little by little get into these non-flat spaces or maybe we'll find by the means of virtual technology a way to present digital information in ways that look flat even if they're not ... Not sure I'm making total sense here, just thinking out loud ;)

Anyway the subject of mixing wikis and blogs is a recurrent one around the blogsphere and I suspect an important one too ...

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