Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Full text search and digital prostheses: new email, new mind

I'm preparing to do an internal corporate presentation on email management in the world of full text search (Windows Search 4.0, specifically).

It's a fun topic. I'll get to revise my Beating Email and GTD with full text search posts for one. More importantly, I get to think about how the purpose of my email has changed.

It used to be I sent email to the person on the To: line, and maybe to a small, carefully selected, group on the CC line.

That's still true, but there's a new recipient for every email -- my future self. The message is an encapsulated bit of knowledge about people, time, subject, body and, sometimes, tags. The subject line describes the message and tasks for my recipients, but it also supports future retrieval and interpretation.

I've been doing this for years now, and I'm getting better at writing for the current and future audiences. I put in a small amount of extra context -- maybe not necessary for the moment, but invaluable for far future interpretation. Every subject line is considered in terms of future selection. "Tomorrow" becomes a specific date, keywords are worked into the description, I clean up mail threads to make them more useful on retrieval, I make subject lines unique. Every month I add a new tweak of one kind or another.

So now my email is still a message, but it's also a post into multi-GB knowledge base. It's becoming a core part of my memory.

That's where the curious bit happens. I said I've been doing this for a while.

It's changing the way my mind works. A lot of what used to reside in my head now lives only in the repository. My head is full of pointers, references, retrieval strategies, tags and fragments, but it's not so solid as it was. When I have the repository I have a far better memory than I've ever had, but when I don't have it I feel partly disabled.

Maybe I'm more susceptible to this than most -- I've always had an associative graph memory rather than a structured hierarchy. I suspect I'm not alone in my increasing reliance on digital prostheses however.

New abilities, but also new dependencies.


PS. Thanks to Jon U for stimulating my thoughts on this topic.

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