Sunday, January 30, 2005


An interesting essay in the Times about some new software that indexes your files and searches by association. The author of the article, Steven Johnson, already uses it and discusses the potential it has for changing the way we write. If you've ever taken a writing class and did different idea generation exercises, it seems to work like clustering except it's the computer doing the work of association, not you:

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I'd then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head -- I'd forgotten about the chimpanzee connection -- and I'd select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.
Kind of cool, but it makes me nervous too. Except for a calculator, I don't like my machines to do my thinking for me. I can see how it can come in handy though for finding those notes from that book you read a decade ago, or if you keep a journal on your computer it will be great to help you find the entry you made three years ago where you copied down a great quote about an eclipse. The big downfall of this new software is, of course, the information has to be on your computer to find it. I have all my journals in paper notebooks, I have several different idea notebooks, I have a couple different commonplace notebooks and if I take notes while reading, it usually ends up in the margins of the book or, you guessed it, in a notebook. It occurs to me that I could simply be a sort of dinosaur on its way to extinction. I love my computer but I don't need it. I made it through college as an English major with a single line display word processing typewriter. I couldn't afford a computer. Not until I was in grad school did I get a computer. I've had a computer ever since but I've never felt compelled to digitize my entire life--I like my notebooks. It wasn't even until the summer of last year that it occurred to me that keeping little scraps of paper with book titles I am interested in reading in a shoebox was silly. Now I have a tidy fiction list and nonfiction list on my computer and no more shoebox. We rely on computers so much already, it worries me to think that writers might start using their computers to help them think. It's only a short step from there it seems to me until they help us write too. I think there is a novel here--writer's computer takes over--by Stephen King and his G5 Mac.