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Reflecting on the prefix meta-, plus Patrick Tanguay on newsletter curation & other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — October 31, 2021
Reflecting on the prefix meta-, plus Patrick Tanguay on newsletter curation & other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a weekly dose of big ideas for people who make digital things. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
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Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

Going Meta

Big news in the world of tech: this week, Facebook renamed itself Meta. Mark Zuckerberg attributed the change to a strategic shift towards building the metaverse. One can't help but note it's a typical move for companies trying to shed a negative image. That said, the name change won't affect the blue “F” app — how most people think of Facebook. Rather, Meta refers to the company that owns the blue app, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, etc.

I won't speculate about what this means for Facebook's future. Instead, I want to reflect on the prefix meta-. The dictionary offers several definitions, but the one most relevant to our interests is this:

denoting something of a higher or second-order kind: metalanguage | metonym

Thus, metawork and metadata: working on the work, data about data.

In a heavily digitalized world, we can quickly jump between them. For example, some entries in my to-do list refer to work I must complete for clients (e.g., draw a diagram), and others refer to things I must do to undertake that work (e.g., learn to use the diagramming application.) These are first-order and second-order tasks, yet they coexist in the same to-do list.

The contents of the diagram are data, which is my main focus while doing the work. But the diagram also has metadata that describes it, including its creation date, filename, location within my filesystem, tags, etc. In this case, the purpose of the metadata is to add context to the artifact so I can find and understand it more easily. As I'm working on the diagram, such metadata has limited use, but it'll be invaluable in several weeks when I revisit the artifact.

The ability to jump between levels — to go from work to metawork and back, to modify metadata alongside data — is essential if we aim to be effective in digital places. We must build awareness of (and comfort with) the fact that digital things exist on different planes simultaneously. We can tweak meta-stuff — and must do so to create effective contexts for understanding.

Upcoming Presentation

SDN DC meetup announcement

Speaking of contexts for understanding, join me on Thursday (Nov 4, 2021) for a presentation and Q&A about the impact of context-making on service design, hosted by Service Design DC.

From my blog

Why metadata matters
Don't be confused by Facebook's rebranding: metadata is an important concept you must understand and use.

Develop mastery by revisiting the basics
When you're learning a complex system, you can miss essential concepts. After a while, revisiting the basics can deepen your mastery.

Never forget a good idea again
Building habits around a simple three-step process will help you harness the power of your mind.

Also worth your attention

Three steps to tackling information overload
“The ability to focus on the things that matter while ignoring the things that don’t is a defining trait of people who achieve their dreams.” Nir Eyal on three things we can do to become “indistractible.” I don't generally like framing information as something we consume, but I still found this advice helpful. (H/t Howard Rheingold)

Embracing the hot mess
L. M. Sacasas: “What do we imagine we are doing when we are reading? How have our digital tools—the ubiquity of the search function, for example—changed the way we relate to the written word? Is there a relationship between our digital databases and the experience of the world as a hot mess? How has the digital environment transformed not only how we encounter the word, but our experience of the world itself?” (H/t Hà Phan)

Replacing glass refrigerator doors with screens
Walgreens has partnered with a startup to replace glass doors on refrigerators in their stores. With the caveat that I haven't experienced these things in person, I expect they'll diminish the usability of shopping in physical retail stores. Those glass doors afford a sense of the location and availability of products in a way that screens can't match — especially when they're clamoring for your attention.

RIP Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
His theory of flow will likely prove continually relevant.

Four essential taxonomies
Michael Andrews: “Taxonomy is a form of infrastructure, much like the undersea fiber optic cable that transmits internet traffic is.” An overview of four taxonomies that exert an important influence in our world and its future. (H/t Aaron Bradley)

BASIC framework
“Once you know what to look for, seeing the architecture of any complex system is easy.” An overview of Dan Klyn's new framework for seeing architecture.

How to fire Frank Lloyd Wright
“All I am asking for is information upon which I can base some rational decisions.” A peek into the horrorshow that is “genius” design.

The Informed Life with Patrick Tanguay

Episode 73 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with “generalist, synthesist, and curator” Patrick Tanguay. Patrick publishes one of my favorite newsletters, Sentiers, and in this interview, we dive into his process and toolset for finding, curating, and publishing content. We discussed several tools and practices that will likely be useful to you even if you don't publish a newsletter.


The Informed Life episode 73: Patrick Tanguay

Parting thought

Normally, architects render a service. They implement what other people want. This is not what I do. I like to develop the use of the building together with the client, in a process, so that as we go along we become more intelligent.

— Peter Zumthor

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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