Episodes

Beck Tench on Tinderbox

"When everything has to be super fast and easy to find, our actual experience of using it can be potentially poorer if we value things besides being productive and fast."

My guest today is Beck Tench. Beck is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Washington. This role requires that she deal with a lot of information, and in this show,​ we talk about how she makes sense of it all. We also discuss the subject of her Ph.D.​ itself, which is both fascinating and highly relevant.

Listen to the full conversation

Show notes

Read the full transcript

Beck: Thanks for having me on the show, Jorge. So I’m a PhD student at the Information School at the University of Washington. I’m in my third year, so I’m about halfway through. I’m studying… Basically, most PhD students have a Venn diagram that kind of charts with their studying. My Venn diagram is public space, contemplative practice, and technology. So I’m interested in where those three overlap, mostly. Maybe say it in a sentence: I’m interested in how we can design spaces and technologies that facilitate contemplative practices or just contemplative experiences. And by contemplative, I mean essentially being present to life in that moment. Spaces that will help us be present, slow down and notice the world. But there’s also this flavor of being lovingly present as part of it. It’s not just hyper-focus and attention-driven. It is also considering compassion, basically.

Jorge: That is fascinating. I am super intrigued by this Venn diagram because in some ways our current technologies are doing the opposite of leading us to contemplation.

Beck: Yes.

Jorge: Can you tell us a bit more about how through your work you are addressing that?

Beck: Yeah. One way that I’m addressing it is I’m holding open the possibility that what I’m studying will help me be optimistic and useful with technology and I will use technology in a space to facilitate an experience. But I’m also holding open the idea that we may need to minimize or replace technology in order for us to be present. So I really have no idea and maybe it’s both in different different situations and maybe one after the other, something like that. I’m trying my very best not to be a hater of the the sort of really unfair ways that some people are using technology and I’m very concerned in some ways about that and I read a lot about it. I have lots of thoughts that we can dive into about that. But for the shorter answer, I would just say I don’t know which direction I’ll go with regards to that technology circle, will it be plus technology or will be minus technology.

Jorge: I think that this is an issue that a lot of us are dealing with; trying to establish a good balance where we get the best from technology, but also don’t let it take us over. Right?

Beck: Yeah, I mean something that is really unfair about the way that a lot of this technology that we use is incentivized to let’s say is that it’s not incentivized to do good by us. And I could see a world where that’s actually not the case, where we look at the experience of using a technology as not solely to make us productive, or solely to make us fast, but to rather honor the fact that we’re human beings alive and we have families and friends and all these relationships and that technology is actually built to honor and acknowledge and help us experience that. It’s not necessarily a positive, wonderful feeling all the time. Life is sometimes really hard. Technology can be really hard to use, really frustrating and all these sorts of things. But to realize that a human is using it and that that human has a very precious life and the time that we’re spending using it is imbued with that… If we could build with that in mind, I think that we wouldn’t necessarily build things that just solely make us fast and productive, which is basically how most of it is these days or we just get mesmerized but we’re not necessarily engaged and we’re maximizing our attention there.

Jorge: When you say productive and fast that resonates with me. This idea that somehow technologies are pitched to us as ways of making us more effective, and what I’m hearing you say is that they could also… perhaps I’m reading into it, but that search for effectiveness can drive us away from other people and perhaps there is a way for these things to also bring us closer together.

Beck: That’s absolutely something that I think is possible and I also just think that… I hope we’ll actually get to talk about this with information management. That information management when it’s — let’s just call it really fast and productive — loses something in terms of our own personal relationship to the information in our own personal relationship to our learning. When everything has to be super fast and easy to find and all of those sorts of things, our actual experience of using it can be potentially poorer if we value things besides being productive and fast.

Jorge: Yeah, they’re going to be such a thing as over optimizing right?

Beck: Over-optimize our lives until we die. It’s like we know there’s an end to this. Where we are we going so quickly?

Jorge: Can you tell me about the “public space” circle in the Venn diagram? Because I can totally see the overlap between contemplative practice and technology, but I’m very curious about this.

Beck: So we can think about what comes up to mind when we think of the word “contemplative.” Maybe that is quiet and peaceful, maybe it’s sacred. Maybe it’s actually rhythmic and there’s dancing or singing. There’s all sorts of ways to contemplate. And I think that so far we relegate spaces for contemplation to be kind of religious spaces or very special places that we don’t necessarily go very often. And what I’m interested in is how do we make our everyday space — you know, the grocery store line, the bus, our office, living room — eligible to be present and not necessarily just sanctify these spaces. But look at all the ways that we experience space. Now, there’s a lot of research in something called restorative space, which is essentially nature. There are people who study restorative space in urban spaces, but most of the people who have theories about what makes space restorative point to nature as kind of this magic area for us to just sort of be restored. And there’s lots of theories as to why that is. And I’m interested in how do we make a choice to stop working, stop being productive and take care of ourselves and experience space contemplatively, which means just being aware and being lovingly aware, and what are the features of that that helped us come back to that, and even share it with others. And when we go to those places or when we go to those moments, if those places are just regular everyday places, what do we do while we’re in them? And so I’m specifically calling that “public space” because I want it to be very everyday. I don’t want it to be super special. And I also think that the public — we — need to be given spaces like that. We need to have spaces like that available to us in easy access.

Jorge: When you say “public space” what I’m hearing is everyday spaces, the spaces of our lives, as opposed to this idea of going somewhere special, be it nature or be it a “sacred space,” right? This is more about opening the everyday up for contemplation.

Beck: That’s right.

Jorge: I remember reading at one point about a practitioner of Zen Buddhism who was in a hotel room during World War II as the city was being heavily bombarded. And this person was using the sound of the explosions to meditate somehow. You know, this notion that you don’t have to be in a monastery, the world provides you enough fodder for reflection.​

Beck: That’s a beautiful, beautiful application of what I just said.

Jorge: So I’m super excited about your research and this area. I mean, I drew the Venn diagram as you were explaining it, and it seems super enticing. I didn’t know that this was your focus, which is great that it’s coming out. It’s such a fascinating and relevant field for us to talk about. The reason actually that you’re on the show today is because you published a series of videos on YouTube that caught my attention. D o you want to tell us about those, what they’re about?

Beck: So right now as I said, I’m right in the middle of my Ph.D program. And right in the middle of the program is this thing called the general exam, which is, basically, a massive literature review. Literature review being a term that means, “you go and learn everything there is to already know.” It’s not like a dissertation, where you ask a new question and try to find out a new answer, but rather you see for what you’re interested in what have people already figured out. And so for me, that Venn diagram comes into play because what I’m studying is, what do we know about restorative spaces? And what do we know about the ways that we’ve so far tried to make technology mindful or restorative or calming or slow. And so I’m reading all about those things and then a committee of professors will send me, when I’m done reading that, a series of questions. I’ll answer those questions over a couple of weeks, and then I will be kind of through one of the gates of PhD life. So, before I came to back to school, I was a designer and I designed exhibits and digital experiences for science museums among some other things. But that was basically my big career. And I have a design process. I know how to do something big and scary like the general exam if it was a design problem. I have a process I can go through and not have to have any answers, but I can go through the process and get to an answer. And I feel really, really confident in that process and I’ve honed it over years. But I don’t have an academic process and so, when somebody throws a question like, “Okay, in a few months, we’re going to give you some really hard questions. You need to read thousands of pages of literature and answer them.” I have no idea what to do about that. Like, how do I remember what I’ve read? How do I find out when I need to answer some questions? All of those things just feelso​o mysterious to me. It would be like someone saying, “hey go to invent a really cool game on this platform and then like amazing…” Well, I have no idea where I would even start. But I do have an idea because I have a design process, don’t have an academic process. So, I set out to really develop a process for reading, annotating, referencing, and synthesizing all those things. And I tried a ton of different approaches. Every single note taking software; most reading platforms; all the different ways that we type words in and write things. I’ve just tried every app I feel like there is. And I settled on a philosophy of note-taking called Zettelkasten. And at first, I was using The Archive, which is sort of a branch of Notational Velocity. If you’ve heard of that one, it’s like a very streamlined but elegant note-taking, completely text-based tool. It’s a great, great piece of software, The Archive. But then, I discovered Tinderbox and realized that I could have a visual layer to my to my note-taking and to my Zettelkasten. We’ll explain what all this stuff is.

Jorge: Yeah. I’m very curious, because you’ve brought up a few terms here that I’d like to unpack.

Beck: Yeah.

Jorge: Why don’t we start with Zettelkasten?

Beck: Sure. So Zettelkasten is a German word that… I think the most direct translation is “slip box,” where “slip” is a slip of paper. So it’s basically, a concept where you write ideas — single ideas — on index cards, and you sort them in boxes based on a very elaborate, unique identifying naming scheme. T here’s a whole world of Zettelkasten, but I think that the essential parts that I have kept are that, instead of reading an article and writing a summary of it — a reading note — where I would summarize and ask myself some questions and list out some quotes, let’s say. Instead of doing that, I now distill every kind of insight and observation I make while reading into individual notes, into individual slips, and I put those together in infinite ways. So if I’m reading an article and I have one idea from the article, which is let’s say that… I’m reading about neurofeedback right now because a lot of the mindfulness devices are using neurofeedback as a way to train people’s brains to calm down. So I’m reading about neurofeedback and I’m having to learn like, how exactly does the brain work that we can measure it via electricity on these sensors that these devices have, for example. So I learn a little detail about that. I put that one detail in a note and then I learn another detail. Let’s say that neurofeedback is also really good for PTSD, and maybe I’ll make that a separate note. And so I have all these different notes that stem from one reading. And then I can connect those notes to each other and to future readings. The thing about is it’ll cost in is that the note is alive for the rest of its life as long as you’re using it. So let’s say in a year, I read another article about neurofeedback or maybe there’s an advancement another feedback. I go and I edit that note that I just made and I make it more robust. So the notes just live. When I make a note about some reading, I’m making a note for my future self — let’s say 10 years from now — who wants to remember what I read about that single point. So t hat’s sort of at least one view of what a Zettelkasten is.

Jorge: The way you’re describing it, it sounds to me like it’s not necessarily tied to any one technology. It’s something that you could potentially do with index cards.

Beck: Absolutely. And what’s so lovely about the folks that created The Archive, who were kind of a real hub of information about Zettelkasten, is that they put all the information out there and they said, “Here’s one solution, the one that we made. But really you could do this with anything.” And that’s to their credit and to its flexibility.

Jorge: So you said that you’re implementing this way of note-taking/ processing of information using a tool called Tinderbox, right?

Beck: That’s right.

Jorge: T hat is the thing that first drew my attention to your videos. Tinderbox is a tool that I’m familiar with, but for the benefit of our listeners, could you explain what it does and how you’re using it to implement this approach?

Beck: Sure. So Tinderbox, if you haven’t heard of it, is not surprising. It’s sort of an esoteric tool. And it looks weird, kind of. It’s hard to describe. I think it’s actually a wonderful example of the kind of way we would want to build technology if we were to build it contemplatively. Because the thing about Tinderbox that the creator of it, Mark Bernstein, he won’t tell you how to use it. So I have to kind of respect that and say, this is how I’m using it. But to describe what Tinderbox is and what it can be used for is kind of an impossible task, because its own creator won’t do that. As I understand the real essence of Tinderbox is a note. So it’s a note-taking tool. Everything that you do in Tinderbox revolves around notes that you take. But that note that you take can be plotted and visualized and referenced and all these things and lots of different views. So you can have a map view of the note, where you make a concept map or some sort of visual plane. You can have a timeline view of the note, where the note appears on the timeline in relation to other notes that you have. You could have an outline view of the note. You can have just your regular text box in a text editor view of the note. And so there are all these different ways to basically see and manipulate and relate — connect between — the notes that you’re taking. Which is exactly what was missing from the software picture. I tried all the mind mapping software. I tried all of the really nice editing software, all that stuff. But nothing brought together outlining and mapping and connecting. And in Tinderbox you can also “alias” notes. So basically, one note has the same content, but it can be across all sorts of different areas, and if you update it in one place at updates everywhere else, so I’m able to create multiple visual maps of my notes. So I have a been a longtime concept mapper. I think it’s a great way to like challenge and force yourself to synthesize information. You have to conceptually map it out. So what I started doing is I would come across a theory or an idea, and I would create a concept map about it. And Tinderbox allowed me to create those concept maps as just part of the core set of features. And then what I think was just the the stroke of insight that I had about Tinderbox and Zettelkasten was that each node in the concept map that I made could then be a Zettel; could be something that is a part of this larger reference thing. So I started making these very elaborate concept maps so that I could remember. So let’s take a concept map like persuasive technology, BJ Fog’s contribution to the problem that we’re all faced with today, which is that were addicted to our devices. So how does that work? Well, basically his theory has three parts where you have motivation, you have ability, and there’s a trigger. And if you’re above a certain threshold, you have the right motivation and the right ability, that trigger will trigger a behavior. If you don’t have enough motivation, or if you don’t have enough skill set, then that trigger won’t work. Or if you have the motivation in the skill set, and the trigger doesn’t happen, then you’ll never trip into the behavior. And so, he uses these leverages that are just like really unfair. And he calls it out, you know, we can alter motivation and a human by scaring them, like threatening them. Or we can give them hope, or we can make something painful or pleasurable .Or we can promise social isolation and rejection, or we could we could promise social acceptance. And when we do these things, that will motivate people to do what we want them to do. So I’m map all of this out in a concept map so that I understand the relationship of that. And me just telling you about that, my brain was remembering visually what I have mapped out in Tinderbox. And for each one of those nodes, let’s say motivation or trigger, I have a Zettel that tells me exactly what that means. And then it also hyperlinks. It has use a Wiki link to BJ Fogg and to the article I read and any other articles that might mention it, so that I can jump to those things across my Tinderbox. It seems interesting to say it out loud. I’m imagining your podcast listeners probably feeling like, “what is she talking about?” And so it probably would help to see a video or at least look at what one of these concept maps mean to anchor in like what this experience is like. But it works beautifully, because I’m able to synthesize by taking the note itself. And then, when I go to write about it, or I’m trying to remember it, I have this this real nice visual that I can work with and it also has function I can jump to other places and I can search and those sorts of things. It’s really working well for me. The nut to crack with this General exam problem and certainly with the dissertation and with the scholarship I do once I have the PHD is: that’s a ton of information that I’m going through. I’ve done the reading note thing and it doesn’t work. I don’t remember it, you know. And so I feel like I actually am taking up more of the stuff because of this.

Jorge: Yeah, it’s a tool that encourages nonlinear thinking and exploration about subjects. Right?

Beck: Yes.

Jorge: I also love the way that you described Mr. Bernstein’s positioning of Tinderbox in the market, because it is something of a cipher in that it’s a tool that can be turned into many different tools. The way that I’ve taken to describing it to people is that it is to information management as Photoshop is to image manipulation. You can use Photoshop for all sorts of different things: for tweaking photographs, for painting, for creating graphic artifacts for a website or what have you. And Photoshop doesn’t really dictate how you’re supposed to use it, not as much as other tools for sure.

Beck: That’s a beautiful analogy for Tinderbox. Because I’ve I feel like if I didn’t have Photoshop I would be missing an arm or something. I really know that tool well, and it is very similar. Once you have a grasp of how to use something you feel truly empowered to do things that you may see and be like, “how could I get from this completely blank slate to that with just this tool?” And yet, you can. And similarly, as a novice you arrive at the startup screen for Photoshop or the startup screen for Tinderbox and you’re just like, “What am I even supposed to do here? This is so confusing!” But they’re both very, very powerful. I think that’s a great connection.

Jorge: This is one of the reasons why I appreciate your video so much. Because I remember when I first got into Tinderbox, and this was over a decade ago; this is a this is an old tool. This is a tool that comes from pre-Mac OS — and it’s a Mac-based, I should mention — and it’s a tool that comes from before even Mac OS X. It’s a kind of an old-school Mac tool. And I remember first coming to it and feeling just as you’re describing, somewhat overwhelmed. It’s like, “Well, I don’t even know where to start!” And many of the introductory tutorials out there tend to assume that you already know a lot about the tool. And your videos are very comprehensive and kind of take it from the beginning, almost, which is I think a real service to folks. Because it’s a tool that does need someone to sit with you and show you what it can do before you can have a revelation about how it could apply to you, somehow.

Beck: That’s exactly right. And I had just scoured the internet for tutorials and agree that that space between, “Okay, I can actually create a note,” and that “Aha!” moment of, “What does that mean for me?” That space in the tutorial of Tinderbox realm is missing.

Jorge: Yeah.

Beck: There were some videos by Steven Zeoli. He has a blog, “Welcome to Sherwood.” And he had a few really basic use case examples of how he was using Tinderbox. And it helped me understand some of the features like agents and adornments. There’s all this language of Tinderbox. And I had that moment of, “Well, that’s how I could use it.” Once you have that, then you can start playing. And also to be fair, I think one of the reasons why my videos are interesting is because my use is not particularly sophisticated. And so it’s intellectually really useful — and maybe there’s some sophistication around my relationship to what is in the notes — but how I’m actually employing the features of Tinderbox is like first or second grade, you know. And yet there’s so much you can do at just that level. And I think that’s what people are being… It was resonating with people is that they’re like, “Oh, I can use this too! I don’t have to program and do all of these things that people who are producing tutorials about Tinderbox are doing.” Maybe in the future I will go to a point where I want to go through all of my Zettels and in some sophisticated way grab some and play with them and I’ll need to program this or that. And when I get there, I’ll make a video about that. But like right now I’m really in that place of making maps, making them beautiful. Using drawing and images and connecting things and creative ways. And there’s a lot of benefit just to that level of use.

Jorge: O ne of the other things that your videos do is highlight one of the more powerful aspects of Tinderbox, which is the fact that it allows you to capture complex information without prescribed structure. And it allows you to discover what the structure is that is kind of inherent in that, and let the structure emerge.

Beck: That’s right.

Jorge: Which is it’s really peculiar and particular. I don’t know of any other tools quite like it. Now, when I reached out to you and you agreed to be on the show, you mentioned that you did not want to give the impression that you’ve kind of got it all figured out somehow, right? So if the use of a tool like Tinderbox is something that, frankly, takes a lifetime to develop mastery over. Acknowledging that even as cool and as masterful as your videos are, you are still discovering what the tool can do and where you can take it. Do you have a sense of what next steps are for you or where there are gaps in your process that you would like to address?

Beck: Yeah. Well, that’s… I’m so glad you mentioned that just in case anyone got any sense of confidence or… I don’t know what the word would be. There’s no “shoulds” in my explanation of Tinderbox. Let’s just say that. I feel like every time I use it, I learn something more. And I think that an a gap or an issue, let’s say that I anticipate, is that the way I used it for map 1 is different than 2, 3, 4, 12… And so, I may have a problem with that in the future. Hopefully I won’t. But I could, in the sense that, for example, when I connect different notes, I do so very extemporaneously. So I I use the tool for what I need it to be used for in that moment. And if I were a little more methodical or systematic about it, I might connect notes in a way that in the future would be helpful to me. So let’s say that, for example, I map out all the people I read. And when I’m writing their little bio and I have knowledge that these two people collaborate, I will connect them and I’ll say “collaborator.” And so, in the future maybe I will be able to use that metadata that connects people to say, “Let me see all the people that collaborate,” or something like that. Maybe that would be useful to me. Well, my notes… They’re just completely random. Sometimes I say something like, “agrees.” Sometimes I’ll say something like, “example.” Sometimes I’ll say something like “E.g.” Sometimes everything is different. And so I don’t have any standards for how I connect things, which I anticipate may limit me in the future. And so then going back and fixing that stuff seems like it would be just so burdensome. And also… So right now, I have set things up basically like that Venn diagram. I have one big area called “restorative environments,” which is public space. I have one big area called “technology,” one big area called “contemplation.” And I just… If I have to rearrange that in the future, it might feel massive, you know? And within those areas I have things like methodologies and theories and results or findings. And those sorts of organizational concepts may just be completely… But that’s the thing, if I were to try to figure that out before using it, I would’ve never gotten started. And so I really am building it as I go, and in that way, there’s a lot of charm. But I think there’s gonna be a lot of infrastructural issues in a short period of time. And I don’t want to rebuild it. I think that would just be… You know how New York City is just like, “How does this work?” I think that that will probably be my Zettelkasten at one point, you know. It’s just like, “Wow, this is so complex and bubblegum and shoestring. How is she making this useful?” And it’s because I was just very present to it every time I used it. And that’s the other thing I wanted to say, is that when I finish reading an article, I’m excited to go to Tinderbox and play with what I’ve just learned. And that is just rare. Normally that sort of work is is tedium and it doesn’t feel that way. But anyway, suffice to say: lots of shortcomings, but they’re anticipated.

Jorge: When you were talking about the variance in how you refer to examples whether you use e.g or EG or X or whatever over time… The thought that came to mind is that in some way your usage of Tinderbox reflects the research that you’re doing in that it is a tool that offers the best of what technology can do for you but it also honors that you’re human.

Beck: That’s right.

Jorge: And it allows you to build these structures in an emergent way over time. And it’s going to be imperfect, right? Because it’s a reflection of who we are. We are not machines. We are not computers.

Beck: That’s right. That’s so beautiful. You’re very good at this listening thing. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And also to the point that I just made, using it as fun. You know, that’s honoring the experience of being human too, that the use of it feels valuable to me. It doesn’t feel tedious.

Jorge: I am so glad that we had the opportunity to talk about it. It is a wonderful tool. I am so into this idea of the Zettelkasten as well, and it’s something that I am looking into as a result of discovering your videos. So before we go, where can folks follow up with you? I’m going to put links to the videos on YouTube, but where can folks follow up with you?

Beck: Sure, you can contact me by going to my website, which is my name, becktench.com, and from there you can get everything else: Twitter and email and all that stuff. And I’m very hopeful that in your ​experiences of Zettelkastening and that sort of thing, that you share what you’re doing and learn too. Because I think there’s a very hungry community out there just to see multiple perspectives. And just like that lesson of “just get started” with Tinderbox, the Zettelkasten can suffer a similar fate. You just need to get started. You will figure out the shape of a note and how you’ll use it by creating them. And one of the things I did was I made Zettelkastens when I was learning about Zettelkasten, just so I could immediately apply it. So I would just recommend that kind of approach if you’re if you’re interested in getting started with that,

Jorge: That’s great, Beck. Thank you so much for for your time, your wisdom, and for the work you’re doing. I think it’s very needed in the world.

Beck: Thank you Jorge. I really appreciate it.​