Navigating knowledge space - The Idea Compass and Greimas Square
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Let's be Fwends #108:
Navigating knowledge space - The Idea Compass and Greimas Square
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” ~ Douglas Adams
I'm a big fan of tools that help you think, so today I'd like to introduce two thinking tools to kick-start your creativity.
It's both a bit of a deep-dive and a diverge from the usual programming, so in case that's not your cup of tea: Sorry, and please scroll down to the end of the mail to find one of the usual funny/interesting/thought provoking/weird links you're used to. :)
The Idea Compass
I picked up the idea of the Idea Compass from a Talk by Vicky Zhao and Fei-Ling Tseng which you can watch here.
I find the Idea Compass particularly useful for the contextualisation of an idea or concept into a larger body of meaning.
Here's the basic idea:
The idea compass has four directions - just like a regular compass you're used to. They just mean something else:
North - Upstream: Where does the idea come from?
West - Reinforcing: What's similar to the idea?
South - Downstream: Where does the idea lead to?
East - Transformative: What's the opposite of the idea?
If you want to apply the idea compass to see how a certain idea or concept fits into a broader picture, just explore each of the four directions by asking some questions:
First, you visit North, the Upstream of the idea. What is the origin of your idea? What gave birth to it? Is there something an magnitude larger where it fits into? (For example, the idea of "Agile" is embedded in the larger concept of "work", but also of "organisation")
Go West: What is there that reinforces your idea? Is your idea also found in other disciplines? Which other areas or disciplines could profit from your idea? (Again, in the example of Agility, we might consider the field of complexity as something that reinforces our concept of Agile work)
Look South: What is "downstream" of your idea? Where does it lead to? (Agency? Self-Empowerment?)
And finally, turn East: What is your idea lacking? What are the immediate disadvantages? But also, what could potentially supercharge your idea and transform it into something even more powerful? Thinking about Agile, it definitely puts people under more pressure and self-management puts them out of their comfort zone. Mitigating this problem, and even enhancing Agile would be making sure everyone experiences psychological safety.
The example I chose might not be the best, because it is so broad that it hardly is a singular idea. But using very specific, concrete ideas make it harder to grasp the overall concept (I think).
In any case, give it a try. If find the Idea Compass a great tool I always use when I'm not quite sure where to put a new piece into an already existing puzzle.
The Semiotic Square
The Semiotic Square - sometimes also called "Greimas Square" after one of its authors - is a great tool to explore the richer meaning of a concept. While the Idea Compass is great to contextualize a thought or idea and place it in a bigger mental construct, the Semiotic Square is useful when it comes to exploring the relationship between two concepts that are in opposition to each other.
I find it particularily useful when I tend to "home in" on one specific meaning or thing, and find it difficult to explore the space around a certain concept.
Working with the Semiotic Square blows this context wide open, and gives you many new ideas to play with.
For example, let's say we want to explore the concept of Speed. The first thing to do is to form a semiotic pairing that is in opposition to each other. Maybe "Fast/Slow".
We now take the Semiotic Square and apply it to our pairing:
~S1: Not Fast
~S2: Not Slow
The first thing you notice is that the axis between S1 and S2 is contrary to each other: Fast is the opposite of Slow, and the other way round. So, while being fast is arguably something else than being not slow, the former implies the latter. This is the relationship of Implication between S1 and ~S2, and S2 and ~S1.
What happens when you start playing around with different types of relations and negations? The obvious ones are the contradictions: Fast and Not Fast, Slow and Not Slow.
What is Fast and Not Fast at the same time? Holidays. While most people on holidays deliberately slow down, and try to be in the moment as much as possible, time still tends to fly.
On the other side of the spectrum, Physical Exercise might be something that is both Slow and not Slow at the same time. During exercise, you might get a feeling of speed, but it takes quite a bit of time to actually improve.
In any case both are examples for the essence of change in different timescales (Exercise) or perception (Holidays).
What happens when you go for complementary pairings? S1 and ~S2, S2 and ~S1:
What is Fast and Not Slow? I Race Car comes to mind; I don't think a race car could ever be or look slow. Even when at a complete standstill, it still will be an icon of speed.
On the other hand, a Glacier will never be Fast. The term "glacial speed" implies our concept of a very, very slow structure.
And then, we can also form what is called "meta-concepts", compound pairings in the form of S1 and S2, as well as ~S1 and ~S2.
What is the concept of being neither fast nor slow? Maybe something that defies the idea of speed at all? Eternity? On the other hand, what is fast and slow at the same time? The way we are thinking, at least according to Daniel Kahneman.
So, with a little playing around, we took the rather tame couple of "Fast & Slow" and broke it into a couple of interesting concepts:
- The way we perceive speed (of time) based on what we're doing (Fast and Not Fast)
- The way change plays out on different timescales (Slow and Not Slow)
- The race car, which is designed for speed and can never look slow (Fast and Not Slow)
- A glacier, which will always be the opposite of fast (Slow and Not Fast)
- Eternity, a concept that is outside of our Fast/Slow dichotomy (Not Slow, Not Fast)
- Our different ways of Thinking (Fast and Slow)
We can now use all of those concepts as stepping stones to branch our thinking out in different directions. But that is probably material for another issue of Let's be Fwends.
How Does a Mechanical Watch Work?
Bartosz Ciechanowski created a a phantastic website that shows how mechanical watches work in excruciating detail. I was aware of the fact that I don't know a lot about mechanical watches and their construction, but I wasn't aware of the amount of knowledge I did not have.
If you think mechanical watches are complicated, trust me: You have no idea how complicated they are.
That's it for this edition of Let's Be Fwends. High-fives are delayed, for when you try out one of the thinking tools I talked about here. If you do try them out, let me know how it went! 🤔