| by Flemming Funch|
I have a persistent vision of a multi-dimensional information storage system. It flashes before my eyes frequently. I dream about it at night. I'm missing it many times each day. The world needs it.
In my dream vision it seems rather simple. A virtual space with an arbitrary number of dimensions. There is always an obvious place to put something, or you just make the place on the fly, and you can find it again along any of the available dimensions. You can add a new dimension whenever you need one. A dimension can be regarded as a storage bin, a category, a trait, a degree of freedom, whatever suits you at the moment. It all seems simple and obvious. You just make connections between the things that ought to be connected.
But if I sit down and try to make a computer program to implement it, or even if I just try to diagram it really well, I quickly get lost, and it suddenly seems to be an impossible problem to wrap one's mind around. A universal database structure that will represent any kind of structure at any scale, in an efficient manner.
I call this thing OrgSpace. A space for organizing. A space that organizes things. Org might also stand for Organic, implying that it is a fluid, evolving, alive kind of thing, rather than a dead, mechanical thing. That would be the name of the program, the name of the underlying scheme, and the name the place you put things. I trademarked it, as it might be used as a produce name or company name. I've created several incarnations of the OrgSpace program. They mostly add up to ways of storing different kinds of data in folders, with the key capability of being able to put one item into several folders at the same time. But none of my implementations are quite IT.
When I mention my vision of a multi-dimensional storage place to people, many people have suggestions of some program that they think would do it. But none of them are quite right. There's The Brain which shows a mind-map of information one can zoom around in. There's MindModel, which lets you define your own characteristics for items as you store them. There are the many implementations of a Wiki-Wiki, which is a system where a group of people easily can create webpages on the fly and link them to each other, and store information wherever they see fit. It's all great stuff. But still not quite IT. The closest thing appears to be ZigZag thought up by Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext. I don't yet understand it well enough to see if it fits what I'm talking about, and there are no implementations of it that actually seem to do anything useful.
I want something that works kind of like how a computer is imagined to work in many science fiction settings. You say: "Computer, give me a list of people who came to my house on Thursday the 5th" and it gives you a list, and you say "Which ones of those wear size 8 1/2 shoes?" and you say "List their phone numbers" or "OK, list all the e-mail messages I've exchanged with that particular person". In other words, you can enter it from any angle, from any dimension, and your data is stored in such a way that it is relatively easy to search and list things along any of the available dimensions, and you can switch to another dimension whenever you feel like it.
When I have a piece of data to store, I'd want it to be a no-brainer, so that any possible type of information can be easily stored, and there'd be only a very minimal requirement of being aware of data structures and field lengths and indexes and that kind of thing. There should never be a situation where I say "Damn, there's no place for that. I need to redesign my folder hierarchy". It should take a few seconds to store anything. So, if I have a piece of paper with my daughter's social security number, I'd quickly find a place for it. If I have a name of a movie I'd like to watch, or a name of a wine I like, or an appointment for next Friday, or the recipe for chocolate mousse, I should be able to store these within a few seconds without fearing that I'll never find them again. I should be able to store them in enough different dimensions at the same time, that there will be a whole bunch of ways of finding them again. They'll be stored by time, place, person, subjects, categories, type, etc. including links to other items. So, if I got the recipe from my Aunt Gerda, that should be easy to remember. If I got the wine I liked at a certain restaurant, I should be able to record that in a meaningful way in a few seconds. I don't mean just writing it down, I mean storing the structure of relationships. So, I should be able to come along later and easily find any kind of items related to that restaurant. And in a more structured way than just searching for the name, like in Google.
The thing is also that we all already live in a much more multi-dimensional world than we did just a few years ago. But we still act in many ways as if we're living in the same old 3 or 4 dimensional world. Our organizational structure isn't really supporting the world we actually live in. I work for people I don't see. Many of my friends I never see. My information and my entertainment comes from many different places at the same time. I can write to thousands of people at the same time. The things I do contain many simultaneous layers. Lots of things in my world relate to each other, but not in a simple linear manner. Years ago I could keep track of my information by having a filing cabinet with drawers in, with folders with labels on, and I would put a piece of paper in the appropriate folder. With a few exceptions, such as bills, such a system completely doesn't work for me nowadays. If I put something in such a folder and put a subject title on it, I will probably never see it again. Because chances are that I will be searching for it under a quite different heading the next time I need it.
We could say that a traditional filing system is maybe 1 and 1/2 dimensions. It it a bunch of categories, and it has a hierarchy where some categories are inside other categories, but still an item can only be stored in one place, unless I photocopy it. I'd need at least 6 or 7 dimensions to stay sane. Preferably many more.
We need information structures that approximate the actual structures of our lives. They need to have enough dimensions. A filing cabinet doesn't do it. A day planner doesn't do it. A few hundred post-it notes don't do it. Google doesn't do it either.
Smart people who work on web standards are trying to create a Semantic Web. That means that the world wide web would be more structured, so it is easier to represent and organize meaning. Something better than just looking for occurrances of certain words. A semantic web might be able to tell you which words are names of people and which ones are names of companies. It might contain structures for what are the standard things people want to know about cars, and you might search more methodically through those, as if it were a database.
That's some of what what I'm talking about. But I don't understand most of the technology involved in the semantic web. It involves various standards based on XML - Extensible Markup Language - which is just a simple method of structuring data. The standards built on top of that are about agreeing on what those structures are, and how they are exchanged and organized and indexed. I think.
I'm not sure if those projects really cover what I'm personally looking for. I suspect not, but they might help, if I just understood them.
I'd be happy if somebody would just go and invent it and give it to me. I just have the sneaking suspicion that it hasn't been invented yet.
A lot of people walk around being rather overwhelmed by their lives, unable to keep track of even the things that are important to them. Most of us exhibit something like Attention Deficit Disorder. Things we know and feel strongly about one day can easily be forgotten the next day, just because a new load of information gets dumped on us, and we don't know what to do with all of it, we keep a rather short attention span.
I assume our minds and our brains will evolve, so that we're more able to deal with the world. But it seems like that's going to take some time before we catch up. If we do. The world is accelerating. Anyway, in the meantime, until we're able to think holographically in 16 dimensions, and be quite calm about it, or until we have universal telepathy, we could use some assistance in organizing our information. Computers are obvious tools for that. They just need some much better underlying metaphors than those of file folders and desktops and windows.