More Protection From Complexity

With the amount of information available to lawyers increasing alarmingly, anything that can unclutter our lives, and relieve the info-burden deserves attention. 

Adrian Dayton explored one aspect in his article “How Social Media Can Prevent Information Overload “. He pointed out that “… it isn’t about consuming more content, it is about consuming more relevant content.“ While on the one hand, presenting us with a ridiculous amount of information, what tools such as Google, and hypertext/the web also do is protect us, to some extent, from this information burden and complexity, at least with respect to navigation.

We know of hypertext via the web, typically as a means to link from text to more text or images etc. In this way, our viewing of information is revealed to us in stages, we are not confronted by all the information at once, and we are able to focus on the information relevant to the task, as we need it.

I was introduced to some of the power of hypertext by Peter C Hart with his Compleat Desktop software in 1990. It was on the Mac with a graphical Hypercard interface sitting on top of an Oracle database. One outstanding feature was the audit trail in his system, particularly his electronic books. The software allowed you to roam through a library of books, cases and legislation etc, all with a clickable Table of Contents, Indexes and other links. Users automatically left a Trail while conducting research. This Trail could be edited, annotated and saved as a Tour. Others could then stand on the shoulders of the “information pioneer”. 

While Peter’s Desktop was too “complete” for most lawyers to appreciate …. he did say it would take 20 years to be accepted by the legal profession. One of the many things I am grateful to him for sharing, was the method he used to demonstrate his software.

He used electronic “Sticky Notes” to hide, then gradually reveal the full story. His ideas led to me developing a very effective method to present evidence in some large Australian prosecutions in the early 1990’s. The approach is explained in an ancient article here, with the results of our first effort demonstrated here – done completely in a Hypercard-clone. 

Despite my subliminal “guilty” messages in the graphics for our first prosecution (/joke), we had some stiff competition – one juror was getting messages from “God” in her tea leaves that the defendants were innocent and so had put cotton wool in her ears (true). As a result, the jury was discharged. Subsequent systems we developed were far more sophisticated bringing together a structured database, full text retrieval and imaging supporting a hypertext environment. 

The practical result was that defendants could not easily hide behind complexity. The defendant in a large money laundering prosecution, saw how simply we were able to reveal the case one digestible piece at a time, when demonstrating to the court the proposed system. As a result, “her eyes rolled heavenward, and she decided to plead guilty,” according to one of her defence team.

Better her eyes “roll” than the eyes of a jury – they were spared an eight day opening address. It is cases like that, that prompt statements such as those by South Australia’s Chief Justice Doyle:

By the end of the century I believe that, at least to a significant degree, the virtual court room will be the norm. Another thing that underpins our system of advocacy — orality — will have gone.

Where the system we developed became much more flexible than trying to do it all in the Hypercard-clone was the integration of FileMaker Pro, a structured database which is very empowering as it enables non-technical types to manage huge amounts of information. Amazingly these systems can now run on the web, or directly on an iPhone or iPad.

A database such as FileMaker should be in every lawyers toolkit, which today can often just be an iPhone. Databases allow you to filter the information, accessing only what you need, when you need it.

On the other hand, Sticky Notes can help your audience “digest” the filtered results. Just as the answer to the elephant-eating challenge was “chunking”, what you want to avoid is having it all dropped on your plate at once.

The “secret” to the Sticky Notes approach is to be able to reveal the information only when needed. Outliners can do a good job of this. They were once only standalone applications, but are now also modules/features of many programs. While their main application is to allow your creativity to avoid being hampered by distracting formatting and other issues, they can be very good at protecting authors from the complexity of their work.

In the “early days” a program called MORE on the Mac was considered the Rolls Royce of outliners. It allowed you to create content, and present it effortlessly, but impressively. It was so “perfect” that Symantec said they would not be developing it further, something I never quite understood. I suspect it was another example of software that was too far ahead of its time. The problem is that those who eventually copy the main features created by a brilliant pioneer often miss out on the subtle sophistication of the original product that made it really great.

IT-visionary and keeper of, Dave Winer said:

There were ideas in those early programs that are still unique, are not commonly available in the current-day counterparts.

The same could be said of Peter Hart’s software.

Interestingly, I might be the conduit between two geniuses. Part of Peter Hart’s approach to presenting information has been applied to the structure of Microsoft Word documents themselves. Though they were two decades apart, both had brief involvement with law, and both have created jaw-dropping software whose only problem was that, once again, the legal profession on the whole was not ready for it.

Dr Tim van Gelder of Austhink Consulting, like Peter Hart, has created software that only his children’s generation of lawyers might come to appreciate. Very recently he created a simple program called MORE Add-in

More Add-in makes it simple to hide and show stuff in Word documents. Just select any part of a Word document, and with one click, add a button to the page to collapse or expand that part. So obvious… so easy… this is the hide/show ability that Word has been missing!

While Peter Hart’s approach to hide/show was to cover information with an electronic sticky note, like outliners, MORE Add-in takes a “collapsible” approach. Unlike a diagram, a Word document with parts blanked out wouldn’t work. The results are similar in the sense that rather than a linear approach to presenting information, such as with PowerPoint, you can jump around a document as the circumstances require.

Peter Hart’s brilliance has been directed at interests other than the legal profession for almost 20 years. While we have had the benefit of his insights as keynote speaker at our previous events, he has declined involvement in next month’s Online Legal Services Conference. He is retiring from the relentless task of keeping up with IT, as he has other priorities that keep him “hopping”.

We should work hard to not miss out on 20 years of Tim’s brilliance as we did with Peter. The legal profession needs to support pioneers who make the effort to provide empowering tools for lawyers – which is what I am doing with this blog, and our conferences. Over to you … And if we do the right thing, one day I will tell you about the really powerful stuff Tim has done, and hope he does even more.


  1. More Add-in listed on TechRepublic’s 10 Cool Addins for Office + review on CNET