Tom Critchlow

Of Digital Streams, Campfires and Gardens

Building personal learning environments across the different time horizons of information consumption

October 10, 2018

A few things surfaced recently that I wanted to connect the dots on.

First - a thread from Venkatesh on information consumption, with lovely insights about how retreating from technology is not the answer. And of course living entirely in the stream also doesn’t work for us. So what? This framework gives us some good insights into where and how we should be engaging:

Especially interesting to me are the time horizons in this mental model. Loosely speaking - streams are for fast twitch thinking and acting. Participating in the stream is a fast feedback loop, with a slightly longer undercurrent of connection building.

As I was reading this thread by Venkatesh I was struck by the similarity to the ideas and concepts in a piece I also read recently (though it’s from 2015) - the garden and the stream, a technopastoral.

This piece from Mike Caulfield takes a very similar look at the time horizons of information, but with an inward lens. How do we build and maintain our own personal information gardens? Not streams - but environments we can tend and grow over decades:

The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It’s the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another.

Things in the Garden don’t collapse to a single set of relations or canonical sequence, and that’s part of what we mean when we say “the web as topology” or the “web as space”. Every walk through the garden creates new paths, new meanings, and when we add things to the garden we add them in a way that allows many future, unpredicted relationships


In the Garden, to ask what happened first is trivial at best. The question “Did the bridge come after these trees” in a well-designed garden is meaningless historical trivia. The bridge doesn’t reply to the trees or the trees to the bridge. They are related to one another in a relatively timeless way.

This is true of everything in the garden. Each flower, tree, and vine is seen in relation to the whole by the gardener so that the visitors can have unique yet coherent experiences as they find their own paths through the garden. We create the garden as a sort of experience generator, capable of infinite expression and meaning.

The Garden - vs the Stream:

In the stream metaphor you don’t experience the Stream by walking around it and looking at it, or following it to its end. You jump in and let it flow past. You feel the force of it hit you as things float by.

It’s not that you are passive in the Stream. You can be active. But your actions in there — your blog posts, @ mentions, forum comments — exist in a context that is collapsed down to a simple timeline of events that together form a narrative.

In other words, the Stream replaces topology with serialization. Rather than imagine a timeless world of connection and multiple paths, the Stream presents us with a single, time ordered path with our experience (and only our experience) at the center.

Both links take some work to finish but I can’t encourage you to read them enough.

Stream, Campfires and Gardens

So as I’m reading these pieces it strikes me that I consume & produce information as follows:

Streams - mostly Twitter for me, this is where fast twitch information discovery happens. The firehose of content. But with an undercurrent of creating new connections. While I’m slightly over-consuming here I can’t kick the habit because of so many incredible connections that have come from it.

Campfires - mostly blogging for me, though I know some folks gather around private slack groups too. My blog functions as a digital campfire (or a series of campfires) that are slower burn but fade relatively quickly over the timeframe of years. Connection forming, thinking out loud, self referencing and connection forming. This builds muscle, helps me articulate my thinking and is the connective tissue between ideas, people and more. While I’m not a daily blogger I’ve been blogging on and off for 10+ years.

Gardens - This is the wiki layer Michael references above and I don’t think I have any real solution here. Where is the tool to curate, connect and explore information? Where is my personal learning curriculum? This decades-spanning project of information sensemaking is missing for me but seems appealing., Pinboard, Evernote and Pocket all fill some portion of this gap for me but none of them are building a garden I can maintain…

Michael’s piece was written in 2015 and references heavily the idea of federated wikis and I’m curious to hear where his thinking went with it.

How do you manage information flows? If anyone is using a personal wiki-style long term information tool I’d love to hear from you!

This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.