I've been toying around with the Notmuch Email Client which is a nifty piece of software that provides a very minimalist and powerful email system that's inspired by the organizational model of Gmail.

Mind you, I don't think I've quite gotten it.

Notmuch says, basically, build searches (e.g. "views") to filter your email so you can process your email in the manner that makes the most sense to you, without needing to worry about organizing and sorting email. It has the structure for "tagging," which makes it easy to mark status for managing your process (e.g. read/unread, reply-needed), and the ability to save searches. And that's about it.

Functionally tags and saved searches work the way that mail boxes in terms of the intellectual organization of mailboxes. Similarly the ability to save searches, makes it possible to do a good measure of "preprocessing." In the same way that Gmail changes the email paradigm by saying "don't think about organizing your email, just do what you need to do," not much says "do less with your email, don't organize it, and trust that the machine will be able to help you find what you need when the time comes."

I've been saying variations of the following for years, but I think on some level it hasn't stuck for me. Given contemporary technology, it doesn't make sense to organize any kind of information that could conceivably be found with search tools. Notmuch proves that this works, and although I've not been able to transfer my personal email over, I'm comfortable asserting that notmuch is a functional approach to email. To be fair, I don't feel like my current email processing and filtering scheme is that broken, so I'm a bad example.

The questions that this raises, which I don't have a particularly good answers for, are as follows:

  • Are there good tools for the "don't organize when you can search crew," for non-email data? And I'm not just talking about search engines themselves (as there are a couple: xapian, namazu), or ungainly desktop GUIs (which aren't without utility,) but the proper command-line tools, emacs interfaces, and web based interfaces?
  • Are conventional search tools the most expressive way of specifying what we want to find when filtering or looking for data? Are there effective improvements that can be made?
  • I think there's intellectual value created by organizing and cataloging information "manually," and "punting to search" seems like it removes the opportunity to develop good and productive information architectures (if we may be so bold.) Is there a solution that provides the ease of search without giving up the benefits that librarianism brings to information organization?