Paternal Formats

byabramdemski1mo9th Jun 201933 comments

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In How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, Lion Kimbro introduces the idea of coercive vs uncoercive formats for information. [Re-named to "Paternal vs Navigable" here, at the suggestion of MakoYass.]

Paternal:

  • Stories.
  • Lesson plans; course prerequisites.
  • Videos.
  • Linear text which must be read in order. Introducing terminology and ideas once (rather than wherever they're needed), without an index or other better reference mechanisms.
  • Explaining what you're getting at only via your chain of argumentation, rather than up-front.
  • Intertwining development of many different themes (making it impossible to look for only the information you want).

Navigable:

  • Blueprints.
  • Wikis.
  • Reference manuals.
  • Hyperlinks.
  • TLDRs.
  • Tools which make it easy to quickly get an overview, such as paper abstracts or introductions which actually summarize a work (rather than teasing its conclusions or giving autobiographical context, etc).
  • Diagrams/tables/charts and other graphic elements. (The eye is free to roam to whichever part is of interest; also, these elements can often be made fairly self-explanatory, so that one doesn't have to read everything else to see what is going on.)
  • Tables of contents; outlines.
  • Chapters and sections which can be read independently.

I initially wrote the above lists as two paragraphs. Turning them into bulleted lists made them feel less paternal. The rest of this post is paternal, in that I don't separate out different topics in an easily distinguishable way.

I'm not going to claim that "less paternal" is always better. Paternal formats are often more fun to read, for example. On this spectrum, HPMOR would be more paternal than the sequences. Furthermore, you might want to present information in a paternal format if getting information in the wrong order is likely to make a person actively misunderstand a concept rather than only fail to understand. (Mere prerequisite concepts are not really a good excuse -- a wiki-style format, where prerequisite concepts are obsessively hyperlinked, works fine.)

A 'sequence' is a somewhat paternal format -- a set of posts intended to be read in a particular order. However, sequences on LW1.0 were less paternal than sequences as they exist on LW2.0. LW1.0 sequences (mostly?) listed the posts in a sequence with summaries of each post,, while LW2.0 sequences only have a summary of the entire sequence at the top, w/o a short description of each post.

A paternal format can also be better for attention management. Navigable formats can create a tendency for attention to jump all over the place and not spend enough time on any one topic.

Paternal formats seem workable for small and medium-sized chunks of information, but become unwieldy for large amounts of information. Imagine if an encyclopedia were written to be read in a sequential order.

Navigable formats often take more effort to create. Drawing a good diagram tends to take more effort than writing the information in text (though, obviously, this depends on a lot of factors). Maybe the ideal should be to move information from more-paternal to less-paternal formats: it is good to initially create a lot of content in very linear formats which have to be read from start to finish, but it is also good to eventually move things to a wiki or something like that.

Another idea is that information should just be available in as broad a variety of formats as possible.

Paternal formats seem to be better for convincing people of a target position, whereas navigable formats seem better for presenting all of the information. This would make paternal formats a symmetric weapon. This isn't entirely true -- advertisements often seem to use information-delivery strategies which I would ordinarily characterize as less paternal (such as bulleted lists, text elements that don't need to be read in a particular order, images). Maybe that's because they need to work with a low attention span.

It is possible that rigorous argument and careful analysis fits better in linear, paternal formats. So, it isn't clear which formatting style is better for healthy epistemics.

Maybe communities which share information in a manner heavily bias toward paternal formats have a greater risk of being convinced by long and overly clever arguments, whereas communities which share information heavily biased toward navigable formats suffer from overly quick impressions formed via merely glancing at a million things.

But, let's not jump to the conclusion that a healthy balance is sufficient. The ideal would be to get the advantages of both.

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