To do great work with knowledge, one needs to focus on it. Deep work often involves integrating multiple information resources. The human brain has limited mental capacity (such as working memory). It evolved to be easily diverted by new information. Focusing requires more than turning off external notifications. Merely searching for information is distracting. For instance, consult an email app and you might notice an email, web page, file or other information that diverts your attention.
Whereas searching on a device may seem like an instantaneous and effortless process, in fact it involves multiple physical and mental steps that consume limited mental resources (such as working memory) and contribute to fatigue. Moreover, switching task modes, in itself, “breaks our rhythm”, as Seth Godin.
Ubiquitous links would support contextual computing
David Sparks has developed an attentional concept of contextual computing. He has argued that links can support contextual computing by avoiding “intermediate stops” in information retrieval:
I think a lot of people are underutilizing links. Lately, I have been working with contextual computing and the idea that you can go from idea to action on your computer with the least amount of friction. For example, if you need to access your task list for a specific project and open your task manager, you will be immediately exposed to much more than that particular project’s task list. You will see your daily list, your flags, and a host of other unrelated data that can distract and divert you from the reason you went to your task manager to begin with. This is even worse with infinite bucket apps like email and your web browser.
It is far better to jump straight from thought (I want to see the shrink ray project) to execution (looking at the shrink ray project) without the intervening steps of navigating through an app. This eliminates the possibility of distraction. So the trick is to find ways not to open apps, but specific data sets within apps to avoid further distraction.
If links were ubiquitously available, you could get well formed links (with URL and title) to any persistent information resource you can access. It could be any file, document, email, task or other information resource, whether it is persistently stored on your computing device, the cloud or the web. That way, you could paste the link wherever you need it, and software utilities might present you apposite links where and when you need them. Links to relevant information within and between apps would help you remain on task.
Examples of the cognitive benefits of links
Here are just a few types of cases in which ubiquitous linking would improve cognitive productivity.
Many people create task lists for their day and projects. Tasks often involve information resources. It is useful to be able to link to those resources directly in one’s project and task lists. For example, one might write “read
<this document>“, “review
<this video presentation>“, “read
<this email>“, “finish writing
<this document>“, “fix a bug in
<this source code file in my locally checked out git folder>“. Often a specific resource can represent the entire task without need for a verb. Either way, it is easier to stay in context if one can click on a link to the resource, rather than have to search for it.
Time tracking and billing
Often, a link to a particular resource (file, e-book, etc.) is a very specific description of work done. Being able to quickly capture a link to that resource and paste it into one’s time tracking document or billing app, or have the time tracking software do that automatically, would be very helpful.
Delving and note-taking
When delving information — whether it is reading a document (ebook, web page, PDF, or other), listening to a podcast or audio book, watching a video or attending a meeting, or deeply processing any other type of information — it is often important to take notes about it. You should not be limited to taking notes within the particular app in which you are delving. Apps for delving are not optimized for note-taking. The note-taking app could be a text editor, an outliner, a diagramming app, a mind-mapping app, an information manager, or other software of your choosing.
You need to be able to quickly navigate between the original information resource and your notes about it. This means you need to be able to capture a link from the delved information and a link to your notes. You also need to be able to paste these links wherever you need them.
Creating new information resources
Whatever you are creating — a paper, video, or any other type of resource — you are likely to integrate several resources of information. This, again, means you need to be able to capture links to these resources, whether they are on the web or on your local device. You need to be able to link your project information (drafts, outlines, project plan, folders, etc.) to each other and to ancillary sources (ebooks, emails, PDFs, etc.) The goal is the same: to be able to navigate quickly between related information without needing to search for it.
Psychology of contextual computing
While the specific mechanisms by which hyperlinks can improve cognitive productivity remain to be elucidated in cognitive psychology, it may be helpful to note here some integrative theoretical concepts from psychology in which contextual computing may be grounded.
Expert performance often involves rapidly encoding, storing and retrieving information from long-term memory – functioning as if the information had been retrieved from working memory. Ericsson & Kintsch (1995) refer to this as “long-term working” memory. Delaney (2018); Gobet & Simon (1996) and Gobet (2000) describe a related concept, which they call “memory templates”. Regardless of the specific model, being able to rapidly access information for a task is characteristic of human expertise. This ability frees up limited working memory, enabling executive functions to engage in deliberation, problem solving, reflection and guiding physical action. Appositely positioned hyperlinks presumably perform a similar function, enabling users to rapidly access the information they need and maintain their mental context.
Another important theoretical perspective is the mental governance theory of human consciousness (Donald, 2001), the scope of which goes well beyond narrow realms of expertise. Donald’s theory posits three forms of basic awareness: sensory binding, short-term control, and intermediate and long-term governance. Intermediate governance bridges sensory and working memory to longer-term memory. It is a slower form of working memory that maintains mental context, which enables knowledge work over periods of minutes and hours (Donald, 2004).
Arguably, aptly placed hyperlinks to pertinent information provide technical supports for intermediate governance, enabling users to bypass physical search. Donald expounded upon the basic principle of information technology extending consciousness:
For instance, if we sit in front of a computer, the screen becomes a temporary external working memory field. Anything we display in it is processed in consciousness, and the viewer is locked into an interactive loop with the display while creating, writing or thinking. This changes the traditional function of the brain’s biological working memory system. (Donald, 2004 p. 57)
We claim that ubiquitous linking capabilities would tighten this loop, making it easier to rapidly integrate manifold information — whether retrieved from the web, local storage or elsewhere — into short-term and intermediate consciousness.
Beaudoin, Pudło & Hyniewska (2020) argued that theoretical and applied psychology require an integrative design-oriented understanding of humans as autonomous agents. Following Aaron Sloman’s seminal work on emotions, they claimed that the human mind-brain is suffused with reactive processes, which monitor the internal and external environment in parallel. These monitors can trigger insistent motivators that can perturb executive functions. Top-down (“meta-management”) control of deliberative processes is evolutionarily recent and brittle; hence the need for technology to insulate executive functions during deep work. This provides a theoretical framework for understanding distractibility, focus and by extension the potential cognitive benefits of hyperlinks.
As cognitively engaged people age, they tend to accumulate semantic memory and external information sources — enabling them to bring more knowledge to bear on problems they need to address. Indexing information is critical to retrieval. However, aging adversely affects working memory, episodic memory, prospective memory, executive functions and the ability to learn knowledge. We are increasingly vulnerable to distraction as we search for previously collected information. Cued recall is generally easier than free recall. In sum, hyperlinks might compensate for problems of aging and help one leverage its benefits, by enabling rapid access to electronic information that one’s accumulated semantic memory can help one utilize.
This document proposed cognitive productivity benefits of ubiquitous linking, which can help people do their best work.
We hope this will help knowledge workers better understand their implicit need for software that supports contextual computing in general, and ubiquitous hyperlinking in particular. We also hope this explanation will help software developers understand the importance of making the information in their apps linkable. We also hope researchers will investigate the psychology of hyperlinked contextual computing from an integrative design-oriented perspective.
The technical requirements of linking are described here on this website.
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