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> Association
  Cognitive Dissonance
  Not Liking Uncertainty

  Out of Sight, Out of Mind
> Rooms
  Another Mnemonic Technique
  How Associations Wear Out
  Familiarity Breeds Contempt
  You Can't Go Home Again


Imagine creating several rooms, each containing objects designed to focus one's attention in a particular way. We do this already, of course—one goes into the kitchen, sees kitchen things, and thinks about cooking. The rooms in a house, though, are mostly functional; I imagine creating other types of rooms, like the rooms in a museum, or the rooms in the Pavilion of Silence, from Lord of Light.

… there, in the center of renunciation and abandonment, withdrawal and departure, are the five rooms named Memory, Fear, Heartbreak, Dust and Despair; …

It's fun to imagine creating such places, but it's probably not something I'd do in physical reality, because it would be expensive to build and maintain, and wouldn't see all that much use. It would be a lot easier to do, though, in virtual reality. Better yet, one could think of a place not literally, as a three-dimensional model, but as, say, a recognizable environment that can carry associations.

In that sense, web sites are places, and indeed that's how we tend to think of them. (Even the name, “site”, is interesting—in English it's essentially a synonym for “place”, but the Latin cognate “situs” can be more abstract, along the lines of “situation” or “arrangement”. A well-chosen name … I wonder who chose it?) Actually, a quick introspection shows that I think of a site as a building, and of pages as rooms within it.

Speaking of rooms and association, I'm reminded of the classical mnemonic technique of constructing rooms in one's mind and populating them with objects of association. I've seen it mentioned in two works of fiction, both very good: Little, Big and Soldier of Arete. (The latter is the second of a two-book series.) The technique really works, too! I sometimes use it to make mental notes when I'm driving long distances and can't safely make notes on paper. It also serves as a way of learning how your mind associates, because you get to see which associations work and which don't.

Returning to the idea of web sites as places, there were a couple of other points I wanted to make. First, although I don't really think of urticator.net as a place, I did once make a remark about place and stability that I think is relevant. Second, I ran across an actual example of one of those other types of rooms I was imagining, a room named … well, I don't think it's mine to name. It's the Oblique Strategies Garden.

The tricky thing, it seems to me, is that a web site has to contain not only the things we'd consider to be part of a physical location but also the actions that are possible at that location. This makes it hard to construct the equivalent of an empty room, and even in a nonempty room, being constantly reminded of one's capabilities can be a distraction. I'd intended to argue that we should remove the distraction by mapping all actions to keyboard commands, thereby creating an environment immersive yet not based on a three-dimensional model, but I won't. It might be interesting to try such a thing, but it's certainly not necessary … I think we all do just fine at learning the functions of navigation areas and then not letting them intrude on our awareness.

In fact, this points out some defects of my site design. First, by presenting important information (the lists of child nodes and backlinks) in the navigation areas, the design supposes, incorrectly, that the navigation areas do intrude on your awareness. This defect makes it easy to misinterpret structural nodes as blank pages. Second, the two possible actions, moving and searching, which have roughly equal psychological weight, are not given balanced representation in the interface (cf. Huffman coding). Instead, the search capabilities are located within the hierarchy; this requires thinking of searching as motion, and is not natural.

I've just fixed that second defect by making a tree rearrangement.

* * *

I can't resist adding this bit from Terrors of Pleasure: The House.

And I wanted a house with rooms because I'd grown up in a house with rooms and I'd been living in a loft in New York City with no rooms for too long. I was beginning to have dreams of houses where you go into one room and that particular room has some character, and then this other room has a different character. You might read in one room, then go into another to eat, and yet another to sleep. Fantastic!


  See Also

  Another Mnemonic Technique
  Out of Sight, Out of Mind
  Tree Rearrangement
  You Can't Go Home Again

@ June (2000)
o August (2000)