I’m going to Oxford this summer for the workshop on imagining business. I’ll be talking about «paper spaces,» the large, often room-sized roadmaps, timelines, and other documents the Institute uses in its workshops.
I’ve put a PDF of the paper online; I may experiment with putting a copy on Google Docs, and using Zotero to manage the citations (though that seems iffy, given that I often write pretty long footnotes). Whatever environment I use, the piece is like to undergo substantial revision over the next couple months, as I know there are a couple parts of the argument I want to expand. Here’s the introduction:
This article is about paper spaces: room-sized maps, timelines, and charts used to develop, record and share ideas. When used in collaborative work, paper spaces support both focused, creative activity—the creation of a strategy roadmap, the outlines of a software development project, etc.—and informal social goals, like the development of a sense of community or common vision. These are essentially very large pieces of paper, but the term «paper spaces» (the term is borrowed from computer-aided design ) highlights several things. First, we’re used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it’s useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren’t just things: they’re spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. IFTF workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history. Second, studying paper spaces help us understand the role that visualizations play in contemporary organizations. Historians have used studies of visual media and visual thinking to expand our understanding of science, technology, and other fields. The business world is supersaturated with visualizations—everything from advertisements, to PowerPoint presentations, to org charts, to brands, to workflows and flow charts—and studying those images could bring similar benefits. At the same time, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them— they’re annotated, extended, argued over, and played with— they’re more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess shared visions of the future. Finally, the term «paper spaces» highlights their hybrid, ephemeral quality. They work because they’re simultaneously interactive media and workspace, but their lives are brief and easy to overlook: they are designed to support idea- and image-making, but leave little trace of themselves.
To illustrate how paper spaces work, this article will focus on their use in a specific context: in expert workshops and roadmapping exercises conducted at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley-based think-tank. The article begins with an overview of information spaces, and a brief look at IFTF’s local culture and research practices. Next, it looks in detail at our expert workshops and facilitated exchanges, and describes how they’re organized, what they aim to accomplish, and how they work. It then discusses how paper spaces support the co-creation of knowledge about the future, and a sense of group solidarity. Finally, it argues that paper spaces are ubiquitous: most of our interactions with texts and other media have a spatial dimension that affects the ways we read, think, and create.
The piece is currently a relatively svelte 5000 words long; I figure it’ll hit 6000-7000 before I’m done. There are two big things I still have to do.
First, I have to build out the discussion of how working with (or in) paper spaces generates group solidarity, or a sense of common identity and purpose among participants.
Second, I hadn’t planned on doing this, but my experience working with ZuiPrezi has made me think I should make explicit something I had planned to leave implicit: that the paper spaces I describe will become extinct in the forseeable future. When I was in Malaysia, I used ZuiPrezi in one of my workshops, and it was a terrific experience; and it leads me to believe that we’re not far off from being able to replicate most, if not all, of the social functionalities of paper spaces in digital, projected tools. Thinking about what has made paper spaces work well has been essential for making them obsolete, and I think I’m going to add a section explicitly laying out what a digital system has to do in order to work as well as paper.
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