Sunday, December 10, 2006

Choices in creating maps from others' email

The main point of this blog is to talk about the idea of knowledge art from the perspective of actual practice, not to pontificate or make grand claims. Or at least, if I do pontificate, to have it emerge from and be grounded in instances of practice. This post is meant to be an example of what I should be doing most of the time.

A few minutes ago I constructed two maps in Compendium based on an ongoing discussion from the Compendium Institute yahoogroup. The discussion concerns options for a shared/collaborative of the software. The maps themselves are here. Some observations on the making of these maps follows.

Even making these, which were completely based on content that others (e.g. Ron Wheeler, Dick Karpinski, Jack Paulus) had created, and were just simple argument maps, involved making aesthetic and ethical decisions on the fly. Aesthetic, because I had to decide how much of which email entry to put in what kind of node, and how to link it to the others, among other choices; ethical, because I made decisions on how to represent the speech of other people, in ways which may or may not convey their intent, not to mention possibly influence how other people would see and understand their comments. Whether or not I (or any practitioner) am aware of these as ethical choices, whether or not I want to take on the responsibility that making representational choices is an ethical act, to me it remains that it unavoidably is one.

Except for Dick Karpinski's entry, which was (helpfully in this context) already laid out in a clear IBIS format, the others did not in all cases lend themselves to 1:1 rendering as questions, answers, pros and cons, easily and clearly linkable. This is almost always the case in real life, trying to map discussions as they occur (Jeff Conklin writes about this masterfully in his Dialog Mapping book). The mapper needs to make on-the-fly decisions about how to represent the conversation, trying to stay both faithful to the intent and meaning of the person who made the statement, and to the conceptual framework the mapper is trying to use to structure the conversation coherently and usefully (in this case, the framework was IBIS). For example, the original email had a number of clearly stated, distinct requirements, which could easily be mapped (though this itself was a choice I made, not given in the material) as Answers to an (implicit) Question node.

e.g. the original email had statements like:

"1. User can add and access files and documents
2. Works without installing software on client
3. Nodes and links have intuitive, easy-to-find tags one can link to
to arrive at that particular node or link via web"

I copied all this into the Detail of a Question node in Compendium, separated each numbered paragraph with an empty line, clicked the "Convert page text into nodes" button, which created separate Note nodes linked back to the Question. I changed the node types of all of them to Answer, tagged each with a "requirement" tag, then deleted the text from the Detail of the original Question and changed its label to "Basic requirements?". This was implicit and an interpretative choice on my part, since there was no such question in the original email (the way Ron had prefaced it was "This is the original list:"). I cleaned up the new requirements nodes some, making sure the labels were clear, but then had to figure out how to incorporate the comments/arguments in subsequent emails into this map.

Some of this was straightforward and did not require much representational decision-making on my part (e.g. Ron helpfully tied his argumentation back to the numbered requirements in his email, with statements like "7) Is a basic Compendium function. Vote +1"). Some was not so straightforward, such as portions of Jack's subsequent email ("I am comfortable with the compendium client and could see it working in that tool but we, as members of this list, are a self-selected sample that do not represent the average user, an average user that would benefit greatly from such a tool."). This was fairly clearly a comment on requirement #5 ("5. No software need be installed on the client machine."), but possibly also #2 ("2. Works without installing software on client"). I could have decided to combine #5 and #2 into one node, but that would have messed up the replying comments/arguments Ron had made, not to mention imposing my own interpretation on the original text. Also, since Ron had later commented on Jack's points, I needed to choose a way to represent that chain, which I did as a Con node pointing to the Pro node I had made from Jack's comment.

There were a ton of other such choices made in the less than 10 minutes it took me to construct the maps, make web and XML exports, put them up on the Compendium Institute website, and create an index page to point to the exports (all of which also comprised a number of choices). I wanted to do all this very quickly so that I would get back to the writing I have to do (the weekend is ebbing away rapidly), so I did not belabor the choices and spend a lot of time tweaking and perfecting. My hope is that someone else will take the XML and rework it in a better form -- in fact, that has been the hope I've had with almost all the Compendium work I've put up on the web in various places, though it has yet to happen -- rather than trying to perfect it on my own.

I could probably spend the rest of the day just describing what I did in this short exercise of creating the maps from emails, talking about the intended audience, the trajectory I see / hope that the maps will take, the subject matter itself, my own use of Compendium and the web in this one instance and how it ties to the other work I've done and foresee doing. But that would indeed take at least the rest of the day. As Dewey says, "A lifetime would be too short to reproduce in words a single emotion" (Art as Experience). I just wanted to get at least a little of this down quickly here. To me this -- trying to make such practitioner choices primary subject matter -- is ongoing work, a huge and endless subject, that my research is pointed towards, and that I hope to engage others in.

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