Thanks to Julian Bond for his response to last Thursday’s Outliners post, which pointed me to his essay from 2004 on outlining, “Outliners Considered Harmful.” (The title, I should point out for those of you who are not steeped in programming lore, is a nod to a tradition in that literature dating back to software pioneer Edsger Dijsktra’s 1968 paper “Goto Statement Considered Harmful.”)
When you use a tool that encourages you to think in terms of hierarchies, everything looks like a hierarchy. Unfortunately the world is much much messier than that. Almost everything is actually a mesh not a hierarchy. And when hierachies do exist in the data, it’s very likely that you will find 2 or more inherent hierarchies that are orthogonal and in most real world situations it’s more like 10…. I suspect that the move towards anarchic tagging in systems like del.cio.us and Flickr are driven by this tension between mesh and hierarchy as well though I haven’t seen it expressed like this. Tag driven systems look horribly uncontrolled to hierarchy people. But they actually reflect the real world much better than hierarchies….So in a nutshell, Outliners are harmful because they lead to hierarchy thinking. And hierarchy thinking is harmful because it leads to political hierarchies. And all of this is harmful because the world is actually mess(h)y and not structured into elegant trees.
I’m reasonably familiar with this argument. For one thing, it’s part of a discussion I closely followed while researching my book at OSAF. During some of the early work on Chandler, its designer, Mimi Yin, inspired by Christopher Alexander’s celebrated essay “A City Is Not A Tree,” tried to figure out a structure for personal-information management software that privileged “semi-lattices” (what Bond calls “meshes”) over hierarchies and trees. (Clay Shirky’s 2004 post on the Alexander essay is worth rereading.)
I’m also familiar with it because it is a theme that David Weinberger has been pursuing over the last several years — a pursuit that is culminating in the publication next year of his book, Everything is Miscellaneous, which, he tells us, he has recently completed, and which I’m eagerly awaiting.
The thing is, I’m not actually a particularly hierarchical thinker. My love of outlining is less a matter of obsession with rank and structure than an appreciation of flexibility. I don’t especially care that outlines are built around parent and child nodes neatly arrayed in tree structures; what matters is that outlines give me easy handles to move chunks of loosely structured information around, and they let me quickly zoom from a low-altitude view to a high-altitude overview and back.
All of which may explain why I still love Ecco Pro so much. For one thing, Ecco doesn’t force you to follow the outline structure rigidly; you can drag nodes pretty much anywhere you want. Even more important, each Ecco outline can also be fitted with “columns” — really, versatile tags or categories (they can be free text or checkbox or dropdown or date) that provide exactly the sort of cross-meshing or semi-latticing that Bond rightly reminds us we need. You get the best of two worlds — outlining structure and free-form mesh-i-ness. And it’s very easy to adapt to the David Allen “Getting Things Done” method for those who’ve been bitten by that bug.
I’ll stop raving now: Ecco is old, unsupported and probably has no future. Still, it’s rock-solid, and free, and it continues to serve me better than anything else I’ve found. As for the “Outliners make your brain too hierarchical” line, it might hold for some of the simpler outlining tools out there, but I really don’t think it applies to a program this versatile and fluid.