Is tagging physical enough?

December 31, 2008

The Persistence of Memory (Dali)

How do we remember? How much of our memory is linked to places, times and people?

Dominic O’Brien was the first World Memory Champion, and holds is in the Guinness Book of Records for memorising and recalling 54 shuffled packs of playing cards. Who better to explain one of the more common mnemonic techniques of placing the elements to be remembered along a journey and then to imagine yourself physically walking it. In his own words (about a shopping list):

“To remember the list, “place” each item of shopping at individual stages along a familiar journey – it may be around your house, down to the shops, or a bus route.

For these singularly boring items to become memorable, you are going to have to exxagerate them, creating bizarre mental images at each stage of the journey. Imagine an enormous, gulping fish flapping around your bedroom, or for example, covering the duvet with its slimy scales. Or picture a bath full of margarine, every time you turn on the taps, more warm margarine comes oozing out!

Later on, when you need to remember the list, you are going to “walk” around the journey, moving from stage to stage and recalling each object as you go. The journey provides order, linking items together. Your imagination makes each one memorable.”

From his book, How to Develop Perfect Memory (read it on Scribd).

Even better is this video.

The making of memory

This kind of technique is not recent. Steven Rose is a leader in the study of memory, and in his book the Making of Memory tells a story about how the opportunity to train it (mnemnotechnics) was first recognised:

“Within western culture, there is a clear history of this mnemotechnic tradition, running back to Greek times, though the written record of the method is not Greek but Roman, and first appears in De Oratore, a famous text on the art of rhetoric – that is, of argument and debate – by the Roman politician and writer Cicero. In it, Cicero attributes the discovery of the rules of memory to a poet, Simonides, who seems to have been active around 477BCE.

The Simonides story appears and reappears throughout Roman, medieval and Renaissance texts. In its basic form it tells how, at a banquet given by a Thessalonian nobleman, Scopas, Simonides was commissioned to chant a lyric poem in honour of his host. When he performed it, however, he also included praise of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas told the poet he would only pay him half the sum agreed for the performance and that he should claim the rest from the gods. A little later Simonides received a message that two young men were waiting outside to see him. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and his guests and so mangling the corpses that their relatives could not identify them for burial. The two young men were the gods Castor and Pollux, and they had thus rewarded Simonides by saving his life, and Scopas apparently got his comeuppance for meanness. But – and this is the crucial bit of the story – by remembering the sequence of the places at which they had been sitting at the table, Simonides was able to identify the bodies at the banquet for the relatives.

This experience, as Cicero tells the story, suggested to Simonides the principles of the art of memory of which he was said to be the inventor, for he noted that it was through remembering the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies. The key to a good memory is thus the orderly arrangement of the objects to be remembered.”

From The Making of Memory.

He goes on to describe how this culminated in the Renaissance with the popularisation of “memory theatres” – literally theatres in which you would imagine yourself on stage with the elements you were trying to remember in the audience.

“By the time of the Renaissance, the memory theatre was turned from a symbolic device, a piece of mental furniture, into an actual construct. In the sixteenth century, and to the disapproval of more rationalist philosophers such as Erasmus, the Venetian Giulio Camillo actually built a wooden theatre crowded with statues which he offered to kings and potentates as a marvellous, almost magical, device for memorizing. “

It’s well worth reading the the entire chapter, which I managed to find excerpted here. As often, Wikipedia also has some useful insights.

The breaking of memory

So why mention all this?

If there is one thing these techniques all rely on it is giving a context to the thing being remembered.

And that is exactly what is lacking from one of the big leaps of the web: tagging. The danger of tagging as a way of remembering is that it breaks all our thoughts into tiny snippets which are devoid of context. Normally, we make sense of the world by constantly updating our inner mental map of the people, places and things around us. We also surround ourselves with our crutches, of which the humble notebook is a perfect example. It stores information on a chronology, which we are good at quickly running through. On top of that, it somehow captures a surprising amount that can later jog our memory: the pen we were using, the messyness of the writing (were we at a desk or out and about?) or simply the random doodles in the margin. The main aspect of these crutches: they have a structure we can envision and navigate.

The problem comes when we throw information into something with an unstable, emergent structure like I use and love but am keenly aware that I sometimes prefer to dump links into a note, draft blog post or e-mail it to myself because I know that whilst aggregates it won’t necessarily help me to get it in order.

A challenge to designers

As we move our lives on to the web, our tools will need to help us efortlessly capture the context of each file, photo, message and thought that we upload. The aim: to make our online tools as flexible and fast as possible while still giving them the ability to help us organise our thoughts.

To do this we will have to use every trick in the book, but here are four main themes (with the way we store photos as an example):

  1. Using technology to capture the context (some digital cameras now have built in GPS, even for consumers)
  2. Using the wisdom of the crowds to help us annotate (in the same way that Photosynth matches pictures by their contents to find where they were taken)
  3. Giving the user intuitive, fast tools to mold and organise what he enters ( is not perfect, but has some elements of this fluidity)

The winners will balance the structure we impose with the structure that emerges from the context of the elements we upload.

I can’t wait to use it!

Recommended reading:

  • The Making of Memory (Steven Rose)
  • Metaphors of Memor (Douwe Draaisma) – first chapter here

ps – It’s not all black and white, of course.


The Hoarding, coming to a screen near you.

Why do we throw good money after bad? Why do we hoard junk? Why do we keep the gym membership even though we don’t go?

The answer is loss aversion, a term introduced in 1979 by two Yale economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The essence of their finding: losing £100 affects your level of happiness much more than winning £100. In other words, you feel losses more deeply than a gain of the same value. We hate losing what we have (or think that we have).

The concept won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize (which Tversky would have shared had he been alive) – but how can it be used? Mainly by tuning how aware you and your users are  of your potential losses.

The Seinfeld Method

This trick captured the imagination of a lot of people after it was featured on Lifehacker. This is what Jerry Seinfeld told an aspiring comic when asked how he kept up the motivation to write.

“He told  me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.”

This is a great example of loss aversion: the benefit of writing another joke seems small, but as you build up the chain you give yourself something to lose – and god do we hate to lose.

This has been applied all over: even as a way of tracking open source contributions

Feel the pain

StickK uses another tool to even the balance: making you put your money where your mouth is.

“After signing up with stickK, you will be able to create a contract obliging you to achieve a specific goal within a particular time-frame. By creating a contract to meet one of your goals, you´re actually testing yourself and saying, “Hey, I can do this”. Not only are you challenging yourself, you´re also putting your reputation at stake.

This is how it works: say you want to quit smoking, practice the guitar, etc… You go to and set up a “Commitment Contract” setting out exactly what you will do, and set out a stake – it could be $10, $1000 or whatever you want. If you fail, the money is paid out to the charity of your choice. Simple.

The mechanics get quite neat. To stop StickK from giving away your hard earned cash you must report on your progress on the deadlines you’ve set up (e.g. I didn’t smoke this week). To stop you cheating, the report is then sent to a referee that you can nominate.

The site even has a special section for corporate accounts.

In its coverage of this, the Freakanomics blog linked to another nice little gadget in this line of thought – an alarm clock called SnuzNLuz that donates to your most hated charity (“Are you a butcher? Set your SnuzNLuz to donate to PETA”).

This is textbook loss aversion (the founders, Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres, are both Yale economists and researchers in this area). By getting you to focus on the potential losses they help you to do the right thing. More good coverage here.

Get others to feel it too

These two examples both show how you can use an awareness of loss aversion as a personal productivity aid, but it is much more fundamental than that. Anyone designing a business product or service should keep it in mind when trying to win over customers and give them something useful. More generally, creating a system or environment which minimizes loss aversion will make for better outcomes all around.

How can you make people treat losses with less emotion?

  • One of the biggest examples of loss aversion is people failing to sell an investment when it’s worth less than they paid (“It’ll go back up I hope”). How can you design a system that makes it easier for people to get rid of the laggards in their portfolio (i.e. make it easier to set up and stick to stop losses)?
  • Building a piece of software? You don’t have to keep every feature. How can you create an environment where a team chances removing unfocused or poorly-executed features at the risk of pissing off a small portion of users, rather than taking the certainty of leaving a mediocrity in.
  • Turns out that people don’t go to the doctor because their worries about the seriousness of their illness outweighs the perceived benefit of treatment. How can you change this perception so the ill seek treatment? (from the blog of Nudge, a book by two more behavioural economists, one of whom, Thaler, contributed significantly to the discovery of loss aversion)

How can you make the threat of losses loom larger?

  • The classic example of the gym membership. StickK puts a cash price on not going, but how can you make people internalise the damage to their health from not going? Same for smoking.

Tune what your users feel they already have and you will control what they have to lose. What have you got to lose?