This is an extract of the interview transcript that David Orban conducted live on the 14 April 2020 for his Internet who Searching For The Question Live. Massimo Curatella (me!) was interviewed on Personal Knowledge Management, writing and education.
I’ve made small corrections and fixes only for the sake of clarity and brevity.
Watch the recording on:
Searching For The Question Live #26 Knowledge Management With Massimo Curatella
David introduces the show, and Max
My name is David Orban and I am very glad to have all of you following the show. Before we start, I want to remind you that even if we are live you can always watch past episodes, both on Facebook and YouTube. And on YouTube, you can also subscribe to the channel. We also have a Discord community, and I invite you to join http://davidorban.com/discord. And finally, if you find the show valuable, as well as the other content that I produce and the knowledge that I share, you are welcome to become a supporter on Patreon at https://patreon.com/davidorban
Today’s theme is knowledge management. How do you manage the information flow? What are the ways that you cope with overload? What are the best tools of knowledge management?
The guest is Massimo Curatella. Max is a designer, a facilitator, a writer and also a friend. He lives in Rome with his wife and son and we met a few years ago when he came to a meetup I organized. I have the habit of setting up impromptu meetings around themes that interest me, such as technology-driven social change, decentralization, network society. Sometimes a dozen people come, sometimes several hundred. At the Rome meeting, there were not many people but one of them was very passionate, curious and skeptical. He held the Italian edition of my book, Something New, AIs and Us, full of notes and markups. On the first page, he jotted “Sono tutte stronzate?” “Is this all bullshit?” So we evidently had to go to have a pizza and several beers. And after the event, we kept talking into the night. Since then, Massimo became the Italian Ambassador of Network Society, a collaborator on several projects, as well as the agent provocateur on many of the things that I do. For example, He was the person behind the idea that gave rise to The Context, my weekly video series alongside this one Searching For The Question Live. One of Max’s passions is knowledge management. So I thought I would invite him to the show.
Hello everybody. It’s a pleasure being here. Thank you for having me.
How to manage many interests
Let’s start talking a little bit about you. One of the things that is common to many people as a matter of fact, somebody just last week asked me for an opinion, because he is a designer and was redoing his website and he didn’t know how to talk about himself and the many things that he is interested in. You have the same problem. And I do too, except that I don’t care about it.
- Is it the problem of somebody having many interests, a polyhedric personality and having some difficulty in conveniently representing him or herself to others so that he can be put in a box?
This is actually a painful experience I’ve been experiencing since forever in my life, and sometimes it becomes so painful that I cannot sustain it. And so I invite my friends and I ask them to listen to me. And what I found useful is to get out of the mess that you have in your brain in terms of passions, interests, and things that you like and you love and let your friends try to recognize some patterns. To make sense together, to me is the most valuable thing.
And something that I really appreciate for instance, in what you do, David, is that as you were saying, “I don’t care” in a way that is a provocation and a way of living and this has been always a problem with my culture, because I always been taught to be all set up perfectly, and you need to do things in the “proper way”, not specifying what’s the proper way.
This is a limitation. To fight this limitation, it took me several years. And this is when I decided that to build my online identity or my professional identity, I didn’t care anymore about being perfect or having specific titles. So I invented some ways to manage this. I started to collect labels. And I said if I want to be interesting in a certain context, and I have a label that is relevant, I will use that label. If I don’t want to talk with people, I will say the opposite. And it worked. So this is one of the ways to manage multiple facets of your identities.
We are all full people, right? We are not mono-dimensional or bi-dimensional we are multidimensional and as in the beautiful book Flatland by Abbot, talking about how a cube meets the inhabitants of a bi-dimensional world and how it is difficult for them to communicate because the cube is not suffering from their limitations. Similarly, I believe it shouldn’t be your fault that you have so many interests if you are efficient in pursuing those interests and anybody should be able to see you in a given projection. And then if you develop a deeper and broader relationship with them, that projection will encompass more and more of what you are. To establish a professional relationship that is based on just a given section and a given perception of what you are is perfectly appropriate.
Knowing wide and knowing deep
Yes, this is true, I agree, but it’s a matter of your culture and your attitude to life. I feel that in most of our contexts, especially in the Italian culture when we talk about school and how you develop as a human being, this is not promoted. This is not facilitated because you are supposed to find your place as soon as possible, you need to settle down and you need to find your title and you’re going to be your professional title. And this has been a curse to me. This is one extreme but, at the same time, the opposite of being completely open, but superficial on many different topics like a butterfly, without ever focusing on something and going by deep diving. Do you know the metaphor of T-shaped people? (By the way, I am an O-shaped person) It’s when you can go wide and broad on topics but if you are polled on a specific concept you are able to go deep down and be able to have profound conversations about it. This is, for instance, what I really appreciate when we meet because we can talk about anything: life, universe, or c++.
The need for a culture of experimentation and innovation
What you said about Italian culture is sad because the necessity of telling a very young person that they are whatever happens to them in that moment for the rest of their lives was a necessity 100 years ago, but it is a profound condemnation today. And it really forces an entire population, not to experiment not to enjoy the alternatives possible, not to evolve with the needs and necessities of society as it is improved by technology.
- So what do you do with your own children or child?
- How can you tolerate this kind of violence that they go under at school?
Creating an environment conducive to creativity
This is a serious issue, and I live it every day. What I do is to try to nurture an environment that is conducive to be eclectic, and with many interests. And I try to always invite my child to anything that I do for work and recreation. And sometimes I use him as a sparring partner, as a creative person. I did that yesterday for a workshop I had to organize with 100 people. And I tested a prototype with him and I told him: “work with me for one hour, I want to see how it works”. The difference is in how you treat the person. Because if you treat a young human being like a child that needs to be fed and you have to wait for them to become persons, one day… This is what our parents were doing with us and I don’t want that. So I talk to him. When I want, as a child, as my son, but most of the time as a person, I talk with him about going to Mars or what Elon Musk is doing with reusable rockets or The Context by David Oban talking about living on the moon. And he is so excited and sometimes, it’s like planting seeds, you cannot see the immediate fruits of that. But after years or weeks, you get some returns because it comes back with the drawings, with ideas with worlds he wants to build on Minecraft. And this is fantastic, but you have to be present in everything that happens. You need to change your attitude. So educators or parents or relatives are absolutely important in the environment of young minds.
Coronavirus as a boring horror movie
How is life in Rome these days with the lock-down and everything?
It’s surreal. You would see scenes that are really familiar to any other place around the world. And the first time that I had to get out to buy groceries, it seemed to me like I was living in a movie scene from 12 monkeys. I felt like Bruce Willis, navigating this incredibly deserted world. And I was scared, you see people in long queues and they are way farther than two meters one from the other. And you can feel the embarrassment, the fear in the eyes of people.
On one side you still see the elders being absolutely not disciplined (along with the younger). One of the best scenes I was part of was a person with plastic gloves, and a mask, he went into a bakery and he bought a piece of pizza bianca. He put down the mask and he started to eat in the middle of the road like, nothing was happening. I said, so why are you wearing a mask?
On the other side, this was a month ago, the first time that I met my mother in law the instinct was to hug ourselves. And I said, Okay, no, no, we need to touch our feet. This is what they used to do in China. So this is our way of saying hello. And it was fun and sad at the same time.
Sped-up digital transformation
A lot of people who postponed the adoption of modern tools are now forced to use video conferencing and share the collaborative platforms, documents, either on Google or Microsoft Teams or maybe some open source solution as well. And they are hopefully going to realize that there is nothing to fear that it is going to be good to keep going with these tools even when the peak of the pandemic has passed and when children go back to school and, and when the workers are back in their offices.
So what do you think about the relationship between the tools of knowledge management and the ability to manage knowledge?
Becoming intentional in digital knowledge managment
This is the essential concept that we need to address for people like me who like to play with everything and experiment with everything and they keep on having thousands of ideas, everything they do. Having infinite space at the finger for free. It’s a curse. It’s like the tool you’re using right now Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, with a finger you keep on scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, it’s just like drugs. You’re addicted, you go there and you scroll for hours. Now the same is happening when you can save any piece of information. With the illusion that one day you will read it or with the illusion of knowledge since you have grabbed a beautiful piece of writing or an article or a video. You have the illusion, the dopamine boost, of being smarter. And this is, unfortunately, so easy that I frequently fall into that. And this is what I’m trying to fight by trying to be more intentional. This is the most important thing we need to nurture in our children and in ourselves, to be intentional. We should still be open to serendipity, finding things where you’re not looking for it. But that cannot be 90% of our lives. At the same time, trying to be more intentional needs discipline. So I’m doing a lot of effort in trying to ask myself, why am I saving this link? I’ve been collecting information since 1995 and I still have those collections. I still have them after 25 years, with the illusion that one day, maybe I will review them because I remember there was something interesting. And it’s like prehistory, it’s the archaeology of myself. After 20 years, I really don’t care. The difference today is not what I’m saving, but what I’m gonna do with that information.
And I like letting go of things that once I thought were so important, I feel it as a cathartic moment when I realized that it had its place and now it has a different place and I can do without and I also like Saving, stuffing the knowledge that I am not going to, for example, read the article that I am saving, but I have an expectation of an increasing utility in the tools that surround me. So that they will be able to derive the correlations among the components of the information that I am saving in order to surface in a contextual manner, what is relevant in a given time in the future and, and there are glimpses of that already. For example, even though it is a tool that we used to love and now we love it less because we believe it may not last forever and we are a little bit afraid of its proprietary nature and format. Evernote when you start writing, it’s pretty good. Bringing you other notes saying this might be relevant to what you are writing. And also, there are other tools that are doing similar things.
- Do you believe that it is reasonable to expect AIs to become effective assistance? And pretend that whatever we don’t do is because we don’t want to make the effort, they will do it in our place.
Think strategy before technology
I hope so. But of course, we have to discuss what we mean by that. I’ve been dreaming about Google before it was born. I was dreaming about Yahoo groups before it became a reality. And my idea was to have my brain in a digital format so that I could share it with anybody else on the internet. I could create a connection while I was sleeping. At the same time having the assistance of Google or Alexa is, for now, a little bit more than a toy. But when you mention tools like Evernote or Notion or others, they are powerful, advanced, but still, if you are not disciplined, they are going to become a mess very soon. So we’re not there yet. I want Google to tell me, 30 years ago, you were thinking about this. Do you want to have some more information about this concept? Because there is David talking about this right now. This is what I want.
The future of Personal Knowledge Management will be in our brain
Or given your browser history, I know that whatever you attempted 30 years ago, you were not ready. But now you are ready because you have acquired the skills and what you wrote, contains certain components.
We have Sabina Spagna, saying that children must be stimulated in every context. And this is called divergent thought. And it is also a successful movie and a book hasn’t read it but I know it’s very popular.
Neuralink is one of the newest Elon Musk companies, where he’s able to rapidly assemble an excellent team, where he gives instructions coming from his approach of first principles, redesign of solutions to achieve a tenfold or a hundredfold improvement on anything that was possible before. Neuralink wants to achieve the ability to interface our brain and our thoughts directly with computers. And with other humans at a depth and speed and completeness that would make us all for every practical purpose telepathic. But we have a problem with bandwidth. If we communicate like this, the effective transmission of information via a spoken word, it is not a very high rate, especially if I am not a good communicator. So, Neuralink wants to increase the communication bandwidth between humans and our exo-cortex.
The only people who want to go through the effort of doing that are the paralyzed. Today the first attempts with Neuralink will be on people who have no alternative. But yes, there will be a time when the system will be less expensive, less cumbersome, less dangerous, less delicate, and it will not require FDA approval and exception anymore. And that is when many of us will eagerly embrace that.
Time is money and getting relevant knowledge needs precious time.
- How can we make sure that the information we get is relevant and that both children and teachers can use the best methods available? So what do you say, Massimo, to that?
Do exactly the opposite, ask children to teach to teachers, this is the very first thing you should do.
And what is needed in order for that to happen?
We need a transition in our culture and in the system because, of course, if you are living on the salary that you are getting by giving tests and giving rating you cannot do otherwise than that. So the system needs to be changed. In fact, I think the teachers right now are victims of the system. They are not only the perpetrators of what they’re doing. So I feel compassion and I’m empathetic to them. Because when I was a teacher, I had the luxury of doing whatever I wanted. So in any class that I was teaching, I said, you don’t want to do that? You do want to do computer graphics. You want to do photography, let’s do photography! And the student, you know, didn’t pass the course. But he was so happy. And he changed his life. He did another job and after 15 years, he’s saying thank you, Max!
Systems Change starts with you
Now, what about the family pressure where they need to study in order to pass a given admission to the next school and then the next school and then the next school for 20 years, at least or you know, if somebody stops at high school after 12 years or 13 years, whatever it is there? because we are talking about children and teachers and the families right, all three have to agree that the current system is not working
When we talk about changing the system, the system has different levels, the first level is yourself, then you have to go in circles, and expand them gradually and see who you have near you. You have your family, this is still the system, and then you get outside, then you have the school, and then you have the nation-state, the government and then the world. So you cannot act only top-down or bottom-up, you have to intervene in all of those levels. That’s why it’s so difficult. That’s why I keep on failing every day.
Knowledge Management in the workplace
Since the title of this episode is knowledge management, it is not surprising that we are talking about schools and children. But the same challenges are applied also in the workplace where a very hierarchical and centralized decision system pretends to assign you tasks that you do unquestioningly and then measures the time that you spend on the task and the more time you spend, the more important the task is. And if you questioned the method, you are seen as rebellious and dangerous and set aside. Now I’m describing the worst possible workplace, but is the challenge harder or easier in your opinion to re-calibrate the minds and the culture around what we really need to focus on what matters in terms of how to cope with the information flow and what is happening?
It depends on the environment where you’re working. And workplace and personal knowledge management, they are two different things. But of course, there are similar kinds of approaches and methods. In the workplace, If you are in the old school, I don’t think you have any chance you have to follow the hierarchy. I was having some pains in working in a very strict hierarchical system where I wanted to share knowledge and share information with my colleagues higher or lower. It was a problem. It was a problem because I was not respecting the hierarchy. Now, in a very formal, scientific environment I can even think there could be some benefits, of course, because otherwise, it is completely chaotic. But I still feel that it’s a sort of limitation because it’s very old school, you get beaten on your hands, why did you do that? you have to pass by me! And even if you go a little bit lower in medium-sized organizations, even in Italy, they are still like this.
Knowledge Curation and Personal Knowledge Management
When instead you go and work with people that are more open and modern in terms of sharing and managing knowledge, what I really appreciate is where everything is transparent and available to everybody. In that case, you have other kinds of problems, because you have too much. The next step is to curate knowledge, Personal Knowledge Mastery becomes the needed approach. What do I want to do with the knowledge I’ve acquired? In the workplace, if we are working together, we need to have conversations and work actually together to discover what we need and aggregate and let the information grow. So that one day we will have clusters of something that is meaningful or relevant to us.
I really don’t like when somebody just shares a URL, and nothing else. And when they do it on their own wall, and maybe they asked me to be a direct connection, what Facebook calls a friend, I look at their walls, and it’s just a series of links with zero context, zero opinion, zero curation, as you say, and I just can’t accept, because I don’t need that human to be a collector of links. What I want that human to be is a thinking value adding actor that provides his or her opinion on whatever is important.
I want to make sure that our viewers can find you. So they can go to curatella.com Is that like a cold cut from Rome? That’s how it sounds to me. Maybe too close to dinner. That is why I think mortadella-Curatella
That’s the worst joke they used to do to me when I was a young boy, but it’s not. It’s actually a plant and it is coming from South America. I think it’s Curatella Americana. It’s herbal medicine. And it is a nice name because it reminds “curating”.
All right. So, on your website curatella.com there is contact information and people can get in touch with you. To have you design and facilitate and write and do all the other wonderful things including provoking and upsetting and disrupting. Which you do very well as well. So, as we go towards the end of our hour together, what would you like the people who are here, take away? What can they do to make our conversation actionable to them?
Building a writing habit
Oh, that’s a beautiful question. I am a technologist. I am a software developer. I do software engineering, I love technology. What I will tell you is: forget about technology, widgets, smartphones, unless you can use those toys to really augment your brain, the first thing that I would suggest is to write, you have to write, you have to get things out of your brain. Writing is painful if you’re not accustomed to it. To reach the stage of publishing on my blog, I’ve been writing a quarter of a million words, privately, nowhere to be found, only for me. And it was an immense effort.
And you posted it somewhere, and I commented, well, where are those words? Yes. Why are you hiding them?
Yes, what I suggest is to try to work on your character by building a habit. It’s even more painful than quitting smoking or sugar. But once you’ve discovered the power of having an outlet getting thoughts out of your brain, it’s a superpower, you cannot do without it, you will change, you will change your life. So, write, you will think better, publish, and then think about technology.
So, the people who should be recommending technology as the solution, you specifically recommend a deeper analysis and understanding of the objectives and of the outcomes, and only when that is better understood to find the tools but at the end tools do make us better and faster in achieving what we want to do, or even sometimes to do what seemed impossible when we couldn’t read or write. The ability to aggregate and curate knowledge was severely limited by oral culture. The invention of writing was fundamental. When we invented airplanes, we really started to do something that all humans dreamed about and almost all of them believed it would never happen and it would be impossible. So I understand and agree that analyzing in the abstract or within yourself, what are your goals, How do you really want to understand the task or the knowledge that you are managing is important, but I also think that the tools and technologies can help us over achieve With respect to what we would be doing without them.
Technology can help to build your digital brain
I agree completely I could not live without technology. And that’s why I have several thousands of digital books. I have an enormous amount of notes in several collections. And there are tools that will help you if you have your intention to collect a certain kind of knowledge. For instance, you mentioned Evernote, I would like to give you some suggestions about some tools: one is RandomNote for Evernote that would pick for you randomly every day a note from the past. So it would reemerge, you will get inspiration about something you have said in the past. Another suggestion is the Zettelkasten where this concept is taken to an extreme. This guy, Niklas Luhmann, in the ’60s created a slip-box method where every concept would be written on a card as a note, identified by a numerical ID, and every note would be connected to others through a relationship. So, basically, by following numbers, he would have been able to create a dialogue with his notes, with his brain. And that was on paper. Okay, today I would never do that although maybe on my back you can see something that wanted to reproduce that. Today, I would do that with Evernote, or with Notion and Readwise or with WordPress. I would export all the notes that I’m getting on my Kindle. and using a tool that is called readwise.io, I would get all these interesting pieces of knowledge to come back up to me, maybe in six months, maybe in three months. So technology can absolutely help. If you go on my website curatella.com/notes, that is my experiment with my second brain online. To write something publicly, you need to be confident. Am I writing something that makes sense? And then you need to connect it. That’s why I have keywords, pointing at key concepts that I want to use in the articles that I’m writing. It is a lot of work, but that’s the way to do it.
Wonderful. So Massimo, thank you very much for being a guest on the show.
Here on Searching For The Question live. That is what I do every day, experiment with new tools, and invite guests to take part in these conversations. And you can also vote for who would like to be one of our next guests on the URL that you see on the screen. And you can come and participate in the discord community to have conversations that we can have beyond the live stream as well. And the opportunity is absolutely open for us to keep these conversations.