On how we Research, Learn, and Create meaning

I am increasingly preoccupied with how we Research, Learn, and Create meaning – with a view to how we affect the world.

We are ostensibly very engaged with information, ideas and expression, but how well are we reflecting on this activity? And how much are we taking advantage of the possibilities to improve?

We have access to more information than ever, and receive much of it in real-time, but how much are we learning? We have access to more means of expression than ever before, and greater potential audiences. But how much – and how well – are we expressing ourselves?

I have become aware that many people, even academics, are struggling with these challenges but there isn’t a strong narrative about them, in the academic, in wider intellectual circles, or more broadly.

But these challenges, and this potential, is not new. Thinkers and doers from US WW2 era scientific adviser Vannevar Bush to computer-human interaction pioneer Doug Engelbart were imagining and prototyping visions 75 years ago. US computer scientist Ted Nelson was inventing hypertext systems in the 1960 and, in the late 1980s, a British computer scientist was addressing some of these challenges with another hypertext system we now know as the World Wide Web.

I posit that there are three important challenges here: How we research; How we make information and ideas into learning; and How we make sense of this learning and express ourselves.

But these are only challenges for people who want to know and to learn; who want to find information that will undermine their worldview, and be challenged intellectually; and who want to express their understanding and thinking to others.

You don’t want to read this now

You don’t want to read this now. Do you? It’s a bit interesting, but you’re busy. Perhaps it will be more meaningful to you at another time, when you may think it will answer a question you have, or help you think about a problem.

If so, what you are going to do about it? What is your strategy in this situation?

However, perhaps you are feeling quite engaged in which case, read on.

Challenges and themes

Challenge 1: Collaborative Research

We have a challenge of how we research and ‘find’ information and ideas when we need them and how we structure information and ideas to create meaning, in a way that can accelerate our learning.

To this end, I propose we need to develop better models of, and approaches to, research which are based on the solidarity of communities of fellow learners assisting each others’ research. As well, we need to thoughtfully leverage the power of new methods and tools others have developed for us.

I will tag my work on this theme #CollaborativeResearch

I have tended to pursue this by posting about my research on social media and in professional networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, sometimes Twitter) and asking for suggestions and insights.

Similarly, I try to contribute well-referenced information and ideas in response to others’ requests, directly, and on social media, and in discussion and event fora. Where something I come across fits the research theme of a colleague I will sometimes share it with them, or tag them in a social media post about it. I also make a point of documenting discussions and events and, where they are public, sharing this accordingly.

Oddly, we used to have more (digital) tools and models for collaborative research. We still have mailing lists, typically used in academic and researcher silos; and fora such as Stack Overflow, Reddit and Quora. Twitter, of course. And the more recent additions of the Zoom chat window, and mass messaging apps Telegram, Signal and the grandaddy, WhatsApp. But we used to have social media platforms such as Delicious, Upcoming.org and Lanyrd which were designed around collaborative research.

The most interesting recent development is tools such as Obsidian, and Roam Research, a new ‘note-taking tool for networked thought’ (which I recently gave a talk about at IxDA London) [[Speaking: IxDA London: Interaction design of Roam Research]].

Challenge 2: Augmented Knowledge

Building on Collaborative Research, we also have a challenge about how we ‘take in’ information and ideas (reading, listening, watching) and how we familiarise ourselves with this information and these ideas – how we learn – so we can recall and apply them in discourse and in our work. This is the area of thinking about how we listen, how we read, how we reflect, and how we synthesise.

I will tag my work on this theme #AugmentedKnowledge

I have tended to do this via facilitating collective reading and discussion. In the noughties, I started the [[Innovation Reading Circle]] to encourage people to read and critique books around digital innovation and society. More recently I have helped establish the [[The Hannah Arendt Study Group]] to read and discuss the works of a key twentieth-century political thinker. I have also been active in the development of the [[Roam Book Club]], which is a global community of people experimenting with reading and knowledge in the context of using a tool for thinking, [[Roam Research]].

Most recently I also co-hosted a [[Seminar on Effective Reading and Note-taking, with Frank Furedi]], and emeritus professor who has through his reading, writing, and writing about reading, produced wonderful insights.

As is that other form of explanation: teaching. As physicist [[Richard Feynman]] had it “If you want to master something, teach it”.

There are many digital models for augmenting knowledge (many derived from the analogue), such as the used of tags, ‘spaced repetition’, cross-referencing and bi-directional linking, and ‘artificial intelligence’ style associations made by fuzzy searches and other algorithmic methods. Digital tools also have the serendipitous affordances of the analogue, such as finding something unexpected as one browses files, or searches for information.

As such, I am also planning to offer training and workshops on how we can better use our digital tools to be more productive in our research and knowledge development.

Challenge 3: Cooperative Creation

Building on Collaborative Research and Augmented Knowledge, we have a challenge of how we build on this information and these ideas to make sense of the world and to create new ideas, and express this in a way that might shape (how we act) on the world. This might take the form of the written, the spoken, the visual (graphic, video), some combination of them, or something more esoteric, such as a timeline.

Expression is a form of thinking as it forces one to confront whether one understands an issue and can explain it to someone else. As [[E.M. Forster]] observed: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’. Of course, informed debate about ideas is another way we engage our knowledge and express ourselves.

I will tag my work on this theme #CooperativeCreation

My vision here is to create a semi-public cooperative of writers and creators working on similar themes who. This community would help each other be better at expressing themselves, give critical feedback, and be an enthusiast for the (good) work that people create. It may be related to the cohorts contributing to Collaborative Research and to Augmented Knowledge.


I would value feedback from colleagues on whether these are real problems and opportunities and whether my approach to them is valuable or viable. Likewise, examples of approaches or initiative which are addressing any of them.


Published by Nico Macdonald

Communication, facilitation and consultancy around design and technology

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