Geeks and the Dijalog Lifestyle

February 18, 2004

Kendall Grant Clark

Editor's Note: XML is well on its way to becoming a mature, ubiquitous technology. The pace of standardization has not slowed, but the time where applications took a back seat to new core technologies is coming to an end. At we want to focus more on the application space, particularly personal information management, a vibrant area of XML application development. To that end, today Kendall Clark begins a new column, "Hacking the Library", which will focus on problems of personal information, especially those related to the digital media lifestyle.

So you read, which makes you at least a beta, if not an alpha geek. You've dabbled in information architecture, plumbed the mysteries of HTTP content negotiation algorithms, bobbed-and-weaved through the arcaneries of W3C XML Schema, RELAX NG, and even a bit of RDF. Chances are good then that you are living, to some greater or lesser degree, what the tech punditry likes to call the "digital media lifestyle". Your disks are awash with MP3; the artifacts of your digicam-embellished vacations; hundreds of video clips taken from the Web; GarageBand tracks finished and half-finished; and that 7-minute movie you made with friends in Prague last year... you know the one.

Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple Computer are betting the farm on the fact that we -- "knowledge workers" and "creatives" in addition to geeks -- are going to embrace the digital media lifestyle. And they're probably right; at least, having seen how my very young nieces and nephews handle the PS2, the Xbox, and my PowerBook, I'm not going to bet against them.

But there's something about this seamless, weightless vision of the pure digital media lifestyle that doesn't seem right to me. I have to do little more than look around my tiny apartment to figure out what's wrong with this attractive, yet ultimately misguided marketing plan masquerading as an ideal.

I turned 35 last week; I'm not new to the media -- digital or analog -- lifestyle. I didn't just start my personal media collection. I've been working on it since before I knew I was working on it, starting when I was 11 years old, when my parents bought me the collected works of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- Tarzan and John Carter, Warlord of Mars! I arranged the volumes along a shelf just above my bed, like so many soldiers in a line, carefully keeping them in order: first the Tarzan books, in numerical order, then the John Carter books, also carefully in order.

My point is that I will never have a pure digital media lifestyle because my personal media collection will never be pure. It will always be a mixed collection, part digital and part analog. As I look around my tiny apartment, I realize that I have more physical books -- somewhere north of 3,500 -- than I have songs in my iTunes Library. I have more CDs -- somewhere just south of 500 -- than I have video clips on all my hard drives. While I only have a few dozen DVDs, I seem to be acquiring new ones at a steady rate.

Even if I never buy another new CD again -- iTunes and the Apple Music Store have made that a real possibility -- I've never seen an eBook reader I wanted to tuck under my arm when I head to the Kebab House around the corner. The simple truth is that, as a 35 year old bibliophile with a bit of disposable income, I like books (and other physical artifacts). I like the heft and weight of them on my chest as I read myself into the dark night. I like the smell of new ink on new paper, of old ink on old paper.

I suspect -- well, I know -- that I'm not alone in this. Geeks and knowledge workers and creatives of a certain age will, like me, never live a pure digital media lifestyle because who's gonna throw away all that stuff? Who would want to?

You see, I have a folk theory about all of this, one which I'm not particularly interested in proving or disproving, since it is a rather comforting fiction. My theory is that, given our evolutionary past, humans have in their nature a tendency to collect lots of things which are similar but distinct; and that tendency includes an urge to order those collections according to some ordering scheme.

We do this in part because such collections offer us a means of ordering our own histories; for some of us, our media collections are props for the narrative, the lived drama, of our lives. I cherish my copy of Ali Farka Toure's Talking Timbuktu not only because I love the music, but also because the physical artifact, which is the carrier and preserver of the music, reminds me of a particular episode in my life, one which is bittersweet with memory and meaning.

Note what I've just done while writing this paragraph. I could see my CD rack across the room; I could make out the Ali Farka Toure album cover I wanted to tell you about, but I couldn't remember the exact title. Is it Talking Timbuktu or something else? But -- because I am a lazy geek -- instead of setting down the Powerbook, walking over to the CD rack, and reading the cover... Instead of interacting with the physical thing as a physical thing, I popped open a new Firefox tab and asked Google about Ali Farka Toure albums.

That's the curious space I and others like me inhabit today: Digital, but not purely digital; analog, but not only analog. We live in the space between these two, in the space carved out by their now haphazard, now principled mixture. It is a space worthy, or so I like to think, of its own name. I have taken to calling it "dijalog", that is, "digital plus analog". We're all -- at least all of us of a certain age -- dijaloggers now.

None of us is throwing away personal media collections in order to live the pure, weightless digital media lifestyle. For us that would make as little sense as refusing to live in the digital world at all. And culture, our culture in particular, offers a myriad of possibilities for ordering schemes, an almost too rich panoply of traditions and, within those traditions, of schemes for ordering collections of things which are similar but distinct. For geeks there's something inherently fun about exploring these possibilities of ordering and re-ordering.

When I realized all of this sometime over the recently departed Christmas holiday, I realized two other things almost immediately.

First, geeks, many of whom are living the dijalog lifestyle, like to hack their stuff, especially when their stuff has this quality of being orderable sets or collections of similar but distinct things.

Second, while geeks have lots of tools -- programming languages, data storage mechanisms, exchange formats, and global message passing systems of various kinds -- for managing their personal dijalog collections, we tend to be a bit weak on the details of ordering schemes.

In other words, we're geeks; we're not library or information scientists. But these -- computer and library science -- are kissing cousin fields, parasitic and dependent on one another in important, deep ways. Geeks can learn information and library science easily enough, but especially if they have a real, hackable motivation for doing so. I'm suggesting in this column what I intend to prove in future columns, namely, that the dijalog lifestyle, which is the one most of us are actually living, is uniquely suited to the confluence of geek hackery and certains parts of library science.

That's why I'm calling this series of columns Hacking the Library, because I want to share some of the library science tricks I've picked up in my own efforts to manage my dijalog lifestyle, and I want a motivation to learn new ones and share them with you. Thus, in the coming months, audience willing and if the creek don't rise, I'll be talking about things like

  • personal libraries as information problems, or why you need a spatial arrangement and information query scheme;
  • how to choose an ordering scheme for your media collection;
  • how to implement the Library of Congress at home;
  • how to use weblogs as a way to catalogue and categorize personal information;
  • how to use big-time metadata standards and techniques, like Dublin Core and faceted metadata, to manage dijalog artifacts;
  • how to manage non-textual artifacts like photos, videos, and music files;
  • why RDF and other Semantic Web technologies are ideal for dijalog management;
  • open source library frameworks, so you can make sure you get back the things that you lend;
  • how personal libraries can be spokes in the Digital Hub;
  • distributed collection management.

Many of these subjects will be technical -- either code or ontologies or service interfaces or in some other, library science kind of way -- while others will be more conceptual. But in every case I'll be looking to use the range of XML and related technologies that you expect to find here. And since this is a new kind of column for, I encourage you to get in touch with me ( ) or with Edd Dumbill ( ) if you have suggestions or comments, questions or concerns.