Cath Catherine Styles admin 1 cath@sembl.net

Lines become thought-space

More thoughts on interface design… and fun with animated GIFs :)

Imagine that you’re looking at a large, complex network of connected nodes. As you hover over any line between two nodes, it draws the two nodes together, then splits and expands into a single thought-space enclosing its two seeds, thus:

Perpetual animated GIF showing two connected nodes, where the connecting line transitions into a circular bubble

A thought-space emerges from a line

On click, the single thought-space would enlarge so you could consider the two seed nodes and the descriptive resemblance in the centre.

…..

If you hover instead over a single node – say, one with three connections – you see a trio of connected thought-spaces emerge, like petals on a flower.

Perpetual animated GIF of a node connected to three others, where the connecting lines transition into circular bubbles

A trio of thought-spaces

Again, on click the view would enlarge.

…..

Once I’d animated those hand-drawn sketches, I thought my thinking about interface design would stop – at least until we’re actually building this baby. But no. Neurons kept firing; I developed a strong desire to visualise this thinking space in the simplest way, a line resoloving into a circle – or a circle-like pod thing.

So I fired up Processing and the online reference, and retrieved my neglected Processing textbook. It took me ages of fiddling and wondering why it was looking so skew-if to recall that the y axis starts at the top. Anyway, here it is – for your cognitive pleasure, the first born-digital animation of Sembl think-space – a pod:

A line transforms into a circle-like pod

It’d be way better if it faded gently out and then back to the line; as it is, it’s like a mouth that snaps shut just when you think it’s safe to explore :) But for now I’m spent.*

* Spent and yet, seeing a flip-book in my future…

Sketching data structure & interface

Thinking about how in Sembl, the lines that connect things are not lines but, actually, circuits – because they are always already mutual, originating from and applying equally to both things – I started to imagine how the network of aggregated game data would look, and how you could interact with it to explore both the whole and its parts.

Pencil drawing of four ways of representing a network diagram, with the words 'A line resolves into a circle.'

In Sembl, node-connecting lines are actually circuits.

Lines between things could be spring-like. On hover, they could draw the two things closer and resolve into a circular facet or disc, perpendicular to the connecting line. You could click to enlarge the posited semblance.

In the next sketch I’m wondering if the data structure could really be this simple. Each semblance is linked to (its rating and) two things, which in turn have title/s and persistent identifiers (PIs).

Pencil drawing showing a resemblance and its rating between two things represented by their title/s and a persistent identifier

A resemblance and its rating are at the centre of two items comprising title/s and a link to their location.

The data is generated in the game and editable via a wiki, so we are also likely to capture metadata about who created it (username or IP address), and possibly also when, where etc – but those few fields form the foundation.

Preview of fonts Archer and Verlag Condensed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones

Typographic design

What fonts to use for the name of the game, and in it?

Preview of fonts Archer and Verlag Condensed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones

I *love* this Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ typeface, Archer. Look at that ‘C’!

What a lovely game name/heading Archer Book would make: gorgeously classic-yet-futuristic. With Verlag Condensed as a complementary contrast for in-game body text.

On group size and complexity

Sembl works for lots of different sized groups. We reckon that playing in a team of two to four is ideal. Any fewer and the ideas might not flow freely; any more and you might have too little time with your hands on the device :)

Below you can see board designs for three, four, five and six teams. (So a single Sembl game can involve 6 to 24 players – and we can host multiple games simultaneously.) Each team starts with seed content occupying a coloured spot. In most boards, you have your own seed node to work from, but with the board for younger players – the last one, below – you share with another team. Numbers indicate which round of play that node becomes available.

In all of these designs, I’ve attempted to make the game enjoyably resolvable in an hour of play. Round 1 is always a warm-up. You’re not competing for the place on the board, you just need to find one thing that resembles your seed node, and explain how.

In Round 2, each node in contention is linked to two of the Round 1 nodes. With the simple board for four teams, that pattern continues into the final round. With the other boards, Round 3 requires you to find fewer nodes with more connections.

In Round 3 of a six-team game, you compete for two nodes, each of which is linked to three prior nodes. With the other boards, the aim of Round 3 is to occupy a single node, which is linked to either three, four or five others in accordance with the number of teams playing.

I’m fascinated by how the dynamic of the play shifts according to the number of nodes in contention (relative to the number of teams playing), and the number of prior nodes these nodes link to. The board for five teams is probably the most challenging. Not only are you competing with four other teams for a single node, your node must link to five prior nodes. It might push the limits of what’s achievable within the hour – or perhaps the peculiar pressure of such a game will inspire wondrous thinking!

A dialogic order of knowledge

This post is a provocation, triggered by Mike Bergman‘s clear and interesting talk on the semantic web in use. It follows some earlier, fuzzier thinking of my own on Sembl and linked data. I now understand where Sembl fits in relation to the semantic web. The answer is that it doesn’t, not really, because Sembl triples are quintessentially different to RDF triples. Different and, I contend, better.

Here’s the problem – just reiterating here, for people who are unfamiliar with ‘the semantic web’. We made a beautiful web, huge and full of knowledge, but it’s too big for humans to use well. We need machines to process the bulk data so we can extract the most relevant gems of knowledge. But for machines to understand the whole web of human knowledge, they need the parts to be arranged in a more orderly way. Is this thing the same as that? If not, what’s the relationship between the two? Machines fail to articulate the parts, and humans are never sure we’ve got the best part of the big picture.

What we need is an authority file for What Each Entity Is and How It Relates to Other Entities; an agreed way to inform machines of the complex variations and dynamics of human knowledge.

Semantic web proponents have succeeded in creating an agreed process for defining and agreeing on What Each Entity Is. Mike Bergman describes the use of URIs to identify data as the semantic web’s ‘crowning achievement’. But the second part of the challenge – How Each Entity Relates to Others – is critical, and tricky. And the current approach – build and/or mash up and apply ontologies, vocabularies, thesauruses, schemas and taxonomies – feels labour-intensive and ineffective.

The web is about as non-linear and dynamic a system of knowledge as you can get, yet we try to describe it in terms of the sum of its components.

What if we’re going the wrong way in our mission to understand things in relation to other things? What if the basic building block of the semantic web structure, the triple, is sub-optimal? At the very least, it is insufficient. Consider:

This entity
[subject]

has this relationship to
[predicate]

that entity
[object].

Let’s face it: triples are reductive and authoritarian. Always starting with the subject and ending with the object, they seek out and cultivate otherness. Whatever the part in the middle is, the subject gets to co-opt the object into a relationship that is always already from the subject’s perspective. Sometimes the subject’s defined relationship to the object is consensual. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. The thing is, even if you carefully pass all your triples through the complex regulatory system they necessitate, you can never be sure you’ve got the relationships right. And if they are validated at one point in time, they may later need updating.

In short: triples are intended to impose order, but they tend to create conflict.

Triples are not evil. Often the predicate is unifying, a form of equivalence, something along the lines of ‘is the same as’. Too often, according to Mike, who lamented the ‘SameAs’ relationship’s overuse. He also showed us a list of various terms for defining the near-identity of different entities – my personal favourite is ‘somewhatSameAs':

A list of terms for 'almost the same as'

Different ways to describe near-identity

Evidently there is a reconciliatory bent among the seekers of the semantic web, a force resisting the oppositional stretch of the triple :)

And… therein lies an answer to the problem of imposing order without generating disagreement.

Instead of trying to map the complete tangle of relationships, we could focus on crafting resemblance. We could ditch the one-way triple in favour of a mutual one:

This thing
[subject]

shares this resemblance with
[predicate]

This thing
[subject].

Resemblance is by nature imprecise, but because its perspective is mutual, it is never wrong. The spectrum of resemblance runs from fairly uninteresting (eg a glass and a bowl both have a round rim) to the startling, insightful, poetic. And whether humans like the resemblances or not, every single one will help the machines to understand – whether they are written in ‘proper English’, vernacular, or any other language.

Resemblance is a very human approach to structuring knowledge. It is generative rather than reductive, and it is intrinsically attractive – both conceptually, in the sense of drawing two entities closer together, and emotionally, in the sense that it feels better to seek similarity than to define difference. We are naturally dialled-in to similarities and patterns. And this capacity is extremely useful for seeing how the parts relate to the whole. Which is, I recall, the mission of the semantic web.

Obviously, there will still be difference. In fact, it turns out that to identify sameness is to explore difference. As soon as you find a resemblance between two things, a difference pops up. Intriguingly, difference seems to make more sense, and be more palatable, in the context of resemblance. It’s kind of beautiful.

To create an online version of the Sembl game – a Sembl Web – we will need to use stable URIs or to create them if they don’t exist. By default, I’d like to link Sembl entities to Wikimedia. But can we hack the RDF triple and forget the vocabularies and ontologies?

Freed from having to define and structure all the possible relationships in advance, we could invest energy in exploring the territory of relatedness at our leisure, and begin to work out a pattern language for them. We’d be building a knowledge system based on consensus instead of authority.

Wikipedia changed how we create and access shared knowledge. Sembl could change how we create and access shared knowledge of how it all fits together.

The semantic web is big, in theory. There are over 7 billion RDF triples already, though according to Mike ‘very few’ are put to use. Sembl Web doesn’t yet exist, but when it does, it will constitute a humane generator of mutual triples – triples that:

  • are always already in use
  • bring joy to the people that create them
  • fit the dynamic non-linearity of the web

Sembl is poised to create complex, chaotic flow among disparate parts of the web. And that flow is the point. That’s what converts knowledge into understanding.

…..

Disclaimer: I’m no expert on the semantic web. If I have overlooked something critical in the above, I’d appreciate you letting me know. On the other hand, if you see value in this approach, please let me know where and how. Ie, comments appreciated!

Sources for Sembl Web

I love what Mitchell Whitelaw calls a generous interface. The traditional search box gateway to a collection is reticent, even officious, begrudging you for your lack of familiarity with the goods. By contrast, a generous interface hails the most casual passerby with a taste of the collection or – better still – the whole feast and before you know it, you’re delving in and across and between, following your nose and filling up with wonder.

Screenshot of the Flickr Commons Explorer

Mitchell Whitelaw and Sam Hinton, Flickr Commons Explorer

Unlike in the Museum game of Sembl, where players source content from the iPad’s camera, in the web-based game players will draw on the wealth of material already available online.

But finding something to resemble should not be the challenge of the game – that honour is reserved for resembling itself. An empty search box during the game would feel confronting, and counter to Sembl’s spirit of speculative exploration.

Clearly, Sembl Web needs to be hooked into some generous collection interfaces.

Happily, Canberra appears to be a hotbed of exemplar interactive GLAM dataviz work. (Hello MitchellSamPaulBen and Tim. I may be in touch :)

Sembl thinking

This page was meant to distil the act of Sembling, and the fields of theory and practice in which the general idea has emerged. (The thing called Sembl is a coalescing of an idea with a long history; an idea that has been, shall we say, hidden in plain sight.) But two years after adding some notes, a set of notes it remains. Sorry. I will get to it one day!

This post by Charles, on how Sembl is a different way of thinking, is as good a place as anywhere to start.

[cognitive dialogue / visual dialogue ]

Quantum physicist David Bohm proposes ‘a spirit of free dialogue’ as a way to explore the roots of global crises:

Key features of such a dialogue is for each person to be able to hold several points of view, in a sort of active suspension, while treating the ideas of others with something of the care and attention that are given to his or her own. Each participant is not called on to accept or reject particular points of view; rather he or she should attempt to come to understanding of what they mean.

In this way, it may be possible to hold a number of different approaches together in the mind with almost equal energy and interest. In this way an internal free dialogue is begun which can lead on to a more open external dialogue. At this stage the mind is able to engage in free play, unimpeded by rigid attachments to particular points of view. It is our suggestion that out of this freely moving dialogue can emerge something that is creatively new, for example, the perception of a new link or metaphor between very different points of view.

A form of free dialogue may well be one of the most effective ways of investigating the crisis which faces society, indeed the whole of human nature and consciousness today. Moreover, it may turn out that such a form of exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated.

Dialogue was also at the heart of the work of Martin Büber, Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. For Freire, ‘dialogue’ is:

the encounter between [people], mediated by the world, in order to name the world.

and it depends on an open co-intention among all parties:

Teachers and students, co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge.

Emily Dickinson also speaks wonderfully of the dialogic (or in her word, circuitous) path in her poem, Tell All the Truth:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

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People

Charles Cameron

Charles Cameron

Progenitor

Sembl is inspired by and continues to take direction from its progenitor, Charles Cameron, aka Magister Ludi, hipbonegamer and the vagabond monk. Charles is the best-known translator of Herman Hesse‘s ’glass bead games’ into the real world.

Read more of Charles’ story.

Dr Catherine Styles

Dr Catherine Styles

Founder / Dialogue Architect

’Hailed’ by Charles’ conceptual games in 2003, I immediately wanted to play digitally – with things and relationships filling the board as players made their moves. Years later a digital form had failed to materialise, and I realised that this game could be the very model of radical dialogue I’d imagined making as part of my late-1990s PhD on informal learning in museums. I’ve been working on Sembl since then and am ever more convinced of its relevance.

Advisors

Derek Robinson personifies the containment-eluding philosophy of Sembl, and offers expansive, erudite counsel on analogical reasoning and pattern recognition, art and technology, language and consciousness. For him, Sembl is:

the gentlest way imaginable to invite people to learn to perceive their own perceiving, their own participation in the creation or the figuration of sense.

Douglas Breitbart had an instant clear vision of the broadest, deepest application of the idea of Sembl. Catalyst and provocateur, he impelled me to go forth and realise it, step by step.