Bringing ideas into your Orbit

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts here, I’ve spent these last few months building infrastructure which I hope will help me (and others!) explore a wider set of ideas around systems like the mnemonic medium. In some real sense, it feels like I’m building my research lab!

One strange thing about building a system like this is that I have only a hazy picture of what I’m actually building. I build the thing to see, so that I can build the thing, and so on. My conception of the core structure is constantly evolving, and what follows is all extremely speculative! But I thought you all might enjoy hearing about how I’m thinking about it right now.

Computer operating systems have come with a predictable set of personal information management tools for decades: an address book, a calendar, an e-mail client, some basic note-taking function, files and folders, etc. These are structured differently from siloed “apps,” which typically aim to subsume some workflow from start to finish. This basic OS software is more general-purpose, each both a tool and a service, connected throughout the OS via API-powered integrations. You add an event to your calendar from an email, autocomplete a contact’s name within a chat app, save and open files to the same folder from many apps, and so on. More recently, we’ve come to expect these functions to seamlessly sync everywhere and to communicate with various web services.

What if there were an “OS-level” spaced repetition system (SRS)? What if, rather than living “inside an app’s shoebox”, as in Anki and other existing tools, prompts were framed more like files in folders—readable and writable throughout the system and by other services across the web?

Web articles could surface interleaved prompts, written by the author as in the mnemonic medium or perhaps by readers as on Genius / Hypothesis. You’d fluidly import these prompts as you read, just as your browser forms a history as you read.

Your PDF and e-book reader’s annotations could naturally be surfaced in this centralized SRS, rather than remaining siloed in some inaccessible sidebar.

Just as modern operating systems may create tentative calendar events or contacts based on chat messages or emails, the system may create tentative SRS prompts based on links you’ve bookmarked or phrases you’ve searched for repeatedly.

When you jot notes in your daily meetings, you could tag key insights with a special tag to surface them to this system—perhaps a future word processor’s formatting bar would include buttons for bold, italic, underline… and “to be reviewed.” I’ve built this kind of “personal mnemonic medium” for myself, and I’ve been using it for the last four months. I haven’t spoken about it much yet because it’s very odd, and I don’t understand it. But it’s fascinating, and—I think—promising.

But all these ideas become much more interesting once you think of SRS as useful for much more than memorization.

With the final chapter of Quantum Country, we’ve experimented with using spaced repetition prompts to help readers apply what they’ve learned, in addition to remembering what they’ve learned. In our personal Anki practice, Michael Nielsen and I have been experimenting for several years with using these interactions to prompt synthesis and reflection. Over the last year, I’ve been experimenting with using these interactions to support incremental creative work and for my reading queue.

For example, you can raise your smart watch today and say: “remind me to write about my idea that SRS could be framed as an OS-level service.” That’s a one-time reminder. But with this OS-level SRS, you could raise your watch and say: “remember to reflect: what novel contexts might benefit from an OS-level SRS service?” That would create not a one-time “to-do” but a prompt for repeated reflection over time. 

This all calls for a broader perspective on spaced repetition systems. The typical image is of flashcards, used to memorize things, marked as correct or incorrect. But a more general framing is: with an SRS, you can arrange to repeatedly engage with some task over time, and the timeline can evolve with your actions. Some instantiations of this…

  • memory: repeating recall questions; intervals expand/contract exponentially with success/failure
  • procedural fluency: repeating short exercises with many variants; intervals expand/contract exponentially with success/failure
  • writing prompts: repeating questions, inklings, and stems accumulate written responses over months; mark prompts as “fruitful” or “not fruitful” to expand/contract intervals
  • habit formation: repeating short reflection prompts, possibly changing according to sequence, applied to your daily experiences; intervals expand by default but can be slowed
  • reading queue: a queue of PDFs, tabs, books constantly revolves; if you ignore an item for a while, it’ll depart for a week, then a month, etc; say “I’ve read enough of that for now” and it’ll come back in a few days; say “not now” to an item, and it’ll depart for a few weeks, then a few months, etc…
  • email inboxes, task queues, personal communication, etc

Central to what I’m imagining here is a daily practice habit somewhat akin to meditation: you open this thing up and engage with whatever microtasks it presents. You’ll work on your memory, maybe do some self-authorship with reflection questions, do some quick physics problems, some quick writing, etc. Then ten minutes later, the train arrives, you board, and that’s it for the day. The next day’s different.

In summary, this system is about giving you a way to bring ideas into your orbit. When something seems interesting, you can tie a string to it and throw it up in a lazy arc. It’ll swing back around at some point, but you’re not terribly concerned with when. You’ll give its string more or less slack over time. Floating above your head, then, is an ever-shifting constellation of inklings, facts, questions, prompts, obsessions. Every day you stare up at the slice of sky above you and respond to what’s there.

So at least for now, I’m calling this system Orbit.

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Your thoughts and comments are very welcome! As always, I’d like to thank you all for your generous support of my work. 

I’d also like to mark a milestone: as of a couple weeks ago, your collective support now covers half of my mortgage! A year ago I honestly expected Patreon to be something of a token support mechanism, but thanks to you all, this now makes a meaningful difference in my life. Of course, I’m still in the red here, so this is not on its own a sustainable source of support, but it does help push out the timeframe for seeking other funding sources—which in turn, helps me focus on the actual work with minimal distortions. Thank you for that.

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