What does it mean to “synthesize” knowledge? Joel Chan, author of this post and professor of human-computer interaction, describes it as “creating a new whole out of components.”
In reading, digesting material, and taking notes, you’re by definition creating small components of information that you then ideally piece together to form knowledge.
The difficulties with synthesis described in the post align well with the reasons I talked about in my review of Roam and how it’s addressing these exact gaps:
- Cognitive Overhead (aka Cognitive Load): often the task of specifying formalism is extraneous to the primary task, or is just plain annoying to do.
- Tacit Knowledge: if relevant information for developing formalism is tacit, asking people to formalize it will interrupt the task, with serious consequences for the quality sof the work.
- Enforcing Premature Structure: people don’t want to commit until they’re sure what formalism is actually useful for their task (and what’s extraneous and only annoying).
- Situational Structure: Useful structures and formalisms vary significantly across people, situations, and tasks.
The idea of “incremental formalization” is interesting. Tools should favor the free-form mode for exploratory, unbounded thought documentation, and incrementally suggest, expose, or automatically self-organize the information into structures:
Incremental formalization addresses the cognitive overhead problem by spreading it throughout the task a bit more evenly, as well as removing it mostly from the earlier parts of the task, where minimal friction is needed to maximize exploration. It also helps with the premature and situational structure problems, since you don’t have to commit early on to a structure that may not serve you well (or even hurt your performance) later on.
My Roam workflow really does strike this great balance with affording a flexible, open-ended place for stream of consciousness, while the selective insertion of linked references creates emergent order in the system.