We suck at creating effective interfaces for exploring and utilizing the Internet. In particular, I want to complain about the browser. 

I spend a huge portion of my waking life and cognitive energies working in a single Chrome browser window. This browser is the interface to my work environment, my school environment, and large parts of my social environment —not to mention my general thinking/time wasting/entertainment environment. How is all this diverse and dynamic cognitive activity represented? Via a flat grey window with lots of tabs, pretty much the same way it looked back in 1998.

The Internet and the different applications it supports are obviously powerful cognitive tools, capable of supporting a wide variety of extremely complex human activities. Yet the basic “window” to this world is incredibly simplistic. The browser does not provide a complex, flexible structure to complement the complex, flexible activity of “being online”. This is a damn shame particularly because the Internet and its many environments and applications allow us to do incredibly advanced cognitive work, and yet the burden of organizing and keeping track of this complex cognitive work is left entirely to us and our naked, puny minds.

One of the most interesting ways to use the Internet in my experience is to think with the Internet- to conduct research and explore and enhance a train of thought via hyperlinked rhizome that is the Interwebs. Doing this, my browser window(s) come to look like a very flat visual representation of my stream of consciousness. I would argue that in many ways the browser window is the closest any technology has come to externalizing the flow of human thought. Written language is of course still the paradigm technology for storing and enhancing the flow of thought, but does not have the dynamic, “wormhole” characteristic that actual stream of consciousness thought does. What it lacks in complexity, written language makes up for by helping us to clarify and organize our own messy thoughts, making them easily communicable to others. In contrast, the browser’s defining affordance is allowing the stream of consciousness to expand ever outward into potentially infinitely branching thoughts.

If you google images search “too many tabs”, you see MANY instances of this phrase. Which says to me that the browsing experience has an obvious and intuitive correlation with our cognition.

Which is great! But I often find myself truly straining under the cognitive load of this interface, wishing for some or any of the powerful affordances we find in nearly any other interface- the power of written language, the power of GUI and the computer desktop– heck even the basic affordances of a physical desk. This would help us begin to approach the problem of organizing the sheer amount of material and references that are generated in the act of browsing. But much more interesting would be to take a look at the unique properties of browsing and figuring out an organizational and graphical structure that could make the volume and complexity of data generated in the act of browsing truly useful, meaningful, and communicable. That is, to truly enhance our powers of cognition not just by adding breadth and depth, but also by adding complexity and precision and meta-awareness of browser-thought.

Imagine perhaps if your browser automatically generated a graphical “tree” of your browsing history, showing different paths of thought. Each path could be labelled and perhaps even tagged, creating a visual representation of your train of thought when exploring a particular area. This tree could be stored and shared with others. It would help boost meta-cognition about your research, providing a “big picture” to help organize and structure your browsing. This big picture awareness could help to combat the tendency of hyperlinked browsing to suck you into informational wormholes, eventually losing track of your original train of thought entirely.

Overall, I think that both the Internet and the computer are obviously some of the most powerful cognitive artifacts we have ever made, and in just a few decades they have radically extended and enhanced our cognition. But we have not yet developed human-cognition-friendly interfaces for exploring these repositories. I would argue that the current state of the browser interface makes our unstructured access to these repositories almost more of a cognitive burden, giving us unlimited and unorganized access to more than a single mind can understand.

The browser is just one pressingly obvious example of a larger, systemic problem that we will need to face in the next few decades. The Internet is a massive, continuously growing area of extended cognition, yet it still exists largely as a massive “data dump”, with very limited capabilities to organize, process, and understand this data– to bring it back down to the scale of human understanding.


On a related note: “Real-Time Space-Efficient Synchronized Tree-Based Web Visualization and
Design” http://www.rowan.edu/colleges/csm/departments/computerscience/research/reports/TR2006-1.pdf

One thought on “Drinking from the firehose: extended cognition & shitty interfaces

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