Matt Webb recently gave a talk at Web Directions North 2008 about movement as a metaphor for thinking about the Web. The slides take awhile to get through properly but it’s worth the effort. Some interesting points:
The meat of what Matt is getting at with his movement metaphor is contained in two systems he refers to in the talk. The first is the internal combustion engine:
To my mind, this is a more beautiful Rube Goldberg machine: the internal combustion engine.
Intake, compression, power, exhaust.
So what’s happening here. It needs a spark to get going, just like a message-board community online. And then it keeps cycling, and almost as a side-effect it outputs mechanical motion which goes to the wheels. But another side-effect of the process is that the motion also provides the intake stroke to start the cycle again. It’s self-perpetuating, just you use the energy from breakfast to go and make dinner, and you use the energy from supper to go and get breakfast again.
And the second is David Allen’s Getting Things Done:
The cleverness of GTD is not that it’s a system for achieving tasks. It’s that it’s a system for keeping you motivated to run the system for achieving tasks. It helps you start. It gives you reasons to continue. It helps you start again with a blank slate if you get overwhelmed, you know, to get back on the wagon.
It contains small and big rewards.
What’s more, it has a catchy name which advertises itself, and it’s easy to grasp too so when you tell your friends about it they remember it. So it’s a system that contains its own growth cycle too. Very clever.
A hardware API is like a software API for hardware (duh). Matt and his partner are working on a radio for the BBC which has a hardware API. For example, they’re planning on having different parts for the radio that hook together using magnets, much like Apple’s MagSafe power connector.
Snap is a proposal for syndicating actions. Instead of using RSS for passive input (news reading, blog reading, etc.), Snap imagines using an RSS-esque reader for doing things (purchasing books, managing todo lists, posting to blogs, etc.) without using a proper browser. Matt wrote a whole bunch more on Snap here.
But my main takeaway from Matt’s talk is his process for thinking about, describing, and explaining things. He uses idea scaffolding and metaphor.
So one of the way I work, being not-a-designer, is to use a lot of metaphors. Metaphors are a great sort of idea scaffolding.
I start by saying, as the Web is to cities, so weblogs are to Catalhoyok. Or, so this online social music website is to the London underground system. Or, so this repository of scientific papers is to Borges’ infinite library.
You know, so you make the analogy and then extend the metaphor. The consequence would be this, the consequence would be that. It’s a way to provoke creative thinking.
I’ve observed that there’s much resistance in contemporary society to simply trying out ideas to see if they work. It seems more important to many people to know who they are and what they believe. New ideas are either accepted or rejected and then those choices are vigorously defended. If it’s going to help you figure something out, why not look at a problem from every possible angle? Working on kottke.org is a big part of my process of idea scaffolding. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with everything I link to1 but reading articles and then describing them to others is a good way to continually wonder, “Gosh, isn’t it interesting to think about the world this way?”
 I often get email from people saying that a particular idea expressed in some article that I’ve linked to is wrong and that I should alert my readers or remove the link. To which my response is a lusty hell no. What’s the big deal? It’s just an idea; it’s not going to hurt you. ↩