Tool swapping and impedance mismatch
Dave Pollard asks some good questions about why we haven't developed good work-arounds for blogging limitations. And why switching from different textual or electronic communication tools to meeting in person can be so awkward.
Many years ago in 1992, I was heading to the USA to present my first paper at a workshop. I was pretty excited, both about the paper and also because it was the first time I was visiting the USA. Since Australia is a long way away from pretty much anywhere, it seemed like a good idea to fit in some visits to people along the way. One of these was David Tarditi, then working at CMU, doing a bunch of great work with Standard ML, which I was interested in. In those days, overseas phone calls were expensive from Australia, and only academics had access to them from their office. So I organised all the logistics of meeting up with David via email.
When I arrived at the airport at Pittsburgh, and got off the plane, David and I somehow recognised each other, even though he wasn't holding a sign saying “Peter Bailey“ or anything. We must have gone through some interesting mental calculations - male, early 20s, searching for someone, academic minded. I don't remember exactly what we said at first, but it was indeed slightly awkward - David probably asked me how my flight was, I probably thanked him for coming to pick me up from the airport. I do recall commenting later on how amazing it was to be able to organise all this without ever using the phone to communicate with - email was not ubiquitous in 1992, hard as that is to remember. By the end of my visit, any awkwardness between us was long gone however, as we'd got to know each other.
My take on why there is such initial awkwardness is due to the impendance mismatch between tools. Impedance mismatch refers to a situation from electrical engineering where two tranmission lines or circuits are joined together and their different impedance or resistance can cause problems like the signals reflecting or being lost to some degree. Computer science co-opted the term to refer to situations where two conceptual models were brought together and the difficulties arising in trying to connect them - such as functional and object-oriented programming.
Different textual communciation tools, such as blogs, email, and IM, while sharing a common conversational medium (text) are quite different in their application. Blogs tend to lend themselves more to a reflective style (tho they can be used in short conversation pieces, especially with comments), and have an unknown audience. Emails are more restricted - directed to a few individuals with subtle rules about who the primary reader is and who should also be in on the exchange. There is an expectation that the email will be read, but not exactly when. IM is used when immediacy is required - to other people who are online at the time, and lends itself to a very quick and rapid exchange of comments. All of them thus sit on a gradient of immediacy, and typically also of quantity of text to be written/read.
For many years, I've typed faster than I could write. However, I can talk faster than I can type. What I can't do is talk as fluently as I can write. My conversation, like almost everyone's, is littered with ums and ers, with half finished sentences, side tracks, digressions. Frankly, it's a miracle that anyone can understand me at all!
As Stephen Pinker discusses in The Language Instinct, the ability of humans to follow such conversations is remarkable, but essential, and probably genetically manufactured. And we are able to use all sorts of cues - tone of voice, hand or body gestures, immediate environmental context, past history, shared cultural understanding - to help filter out all of these barriers to understanding what the person is trying to say. Of course, this is why transcribed speeches are always cleaned up, as in a written form they would be almost unintelligble.
To my mind, the dramatically different way we communicate in person to how we communicate in text - the impedance mismatch - is why things are initially a little awkward when first we meet. We have to overcome this impedance mismatch - mapping our understanding of the person's textual conversation style with their real world embodiment, with all the slips and hesitancies.
My work day is usually filled with a number of quite different activities. At Synop, we refer to the time lost in mentally swapping between these as swap time. Much like computer operating systems, having to swap programs in and out, to give us the impression that they are all running at the same time, even though they are not. Swap time is significant, and thus expensive.
As we use different tools for communication, swap time between them becomes substantial, and again there is an impedance mismatch between every two of these tools - a different user interface, a different purpose to which we are putting them. Even if a new tool comes along which helps us do this swapping, it still becomes a new tool we have to integrate into our mental models - understanding how it works, what the techniques are for making it work. Most of us I believe are fundamentally lazy - we like to spend the least amount of time learning something, and then only to enable us to get the job done just a little bit better. Once we've invested time learning how to use one tool effectively (for example, I use Outlook for my email), we don't wish to spend an equal amount of time learning something just a little better. We don't want to invest lots of time learning something unless we really believe it's going to make a substantial difference - say 100% improvement in our efficiency or allows us to do something we've never been able to do before.
The challenge for tool builders like Synop is therefore to create tools which really are 100% more efficient or add the capability to do things we've not been able to do before at all. One of the things we hope to do with Sauce Reader is add the ability to blog directly while reading posts.
Postscript: Having written this entry, I added a category, and our current web based blogging system managed to lose the entire 45 minutes of writing into thin air. I'm looking forward to having my blog reading and writing integrated, preferably with something that autosaves anything I write every 5 or 10 minutes. Then I won't have to spend another 30 minutes re-writing the entire thing from scratch, as I did this time.