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A fancier GUI won’t make Supermemo universal because is aviral.

July 4, 2009

I have always though about Dr. Wozniak reluctancy to improve the interface. By the share amount of knowledge shared in the official web anyone would think this must a be a very smart guy, in fact the whole idea of creating this product was to make him self smarter (selfish as it sounds), but how doesn’t he understand a better GUI would make this product more universal. Seems like reluctancy doesn’t come from an attitude that  I call “teachers paradigm” (a teacher can’t see the students point of view unless he becomes one mentally) but is based on the concepts of memetics.

When Supermemo’s creator was interview and asked the following question in 2001:

If SuperMemo works as advertised, why isn’t it as popular as an Internet browser?

He explained not only the reasons for the though justified a not greater expansion of the concept of learning trough SRS systems, but also the answer for not investing more effort on a better GUI.

Wozniak: When setting up SuperMemo World, we thought SuperMemo was a product that would spread like wildfire. This came from little understanding of the differences in psychological profile of people that make up the studying population. It was an erroneous extrapolation from our own perception of SuperMemo to the entire population.

… Inherently, SuperMemo is not viral. In memetic science, there is a research field some mathamaticians call “social percolation theory”. It describes networks of individuals, their communication means, the spread of information in such networks, and the variables that affect it. Let me use some concepts of that theory to explain my point. SuperMemo does not have the Whoa factor that makes an Internet browser spread. It is therefore inherently aviral, i.e. it does not percolate. It’s smoothness factor is low.

I heard many voices that if SuperMemo were simpler or if it had a better user interface or if it was translated to Polish or French, or if it came with a plain language documentation its ability to percolate would change. Simplicity will not take away SuperMemo’s inherent problem with smoothness. Nobody can sit to SuperMemo and feel the enlightenment or joy of playing with the browser. That is the key! Several variables in a social percolation model stand against SuperMemo.

Many top-IQ people and great programmers were given the idea of SuperMemo to their free hands to capitalize on the previous experience. They tried to develop a better wrapper for the idea. A better “viral capsule”. In other words “better SuperMemo”. I intentionally stay away from similar efforts to make sure I do not pollute their creativity with my own preconceived molds. (Italics mine)Those smart people could never come up with widely viral product they hoped for. This is not their fault, the fault is inherent in the concept.

Our brain does not have a reward-punishment system for measuring memory or forgetting. Ignorance is rather painless, and knowledge SuperMemo helps you keep in your brain is always taken for granted. Knowledge “feels” as if it was to stay in your brain anyway. It is the “feeling” that matters. It is very hard to build impressive and massive bodies of knowledge because persistence and will power stand on the way for a majority of people. Only when you learn a huge body of material you develop the skills, the awareness, and the deep understanding of what SuperMemo does to your life. Only a very small proportion of people really “feel” SuperMemo and its power. But this “feel” and awareness often takes years. That disqualifies SuperMemo as a viral product. Not only it is not smooth. Its velocity is deplorable. It does not ride on the first experience and instant gratification, it rides on hard-earned wisdom. Those weaknesses are inescapable and will always be there. Naturally, there were cases where a small niche of users was quickly saturated, where SuperMemo conquered a whole class in a school or university, but these cases were always based on individual leadership. Where one or very few very smart people got infected with the idea and were able to make others follow. However, those niches collapse as soon as leaders are gone! SuperMemo keeps on spreading among people for who knowledge is the matter of survival or who simply love learning.

Source: The Decade of SuperMemo:, Interview with people who brought SuperMemo to life.  M. Morawska. Summer 2001 (updated Fall 2002). [Accessed:2009-07-04].

So ok, I love my supermemo, I would also love a better GUI, I do love style,  but wouldn’t stand losing the actual power for simplicity or better GUI.  in fact I want even more power, but after reading this article at least I know my expectations of a better GUI or simplicity won’t come from the this man, maybe is even better for some. But I would like that many more would enjoy the pleasure of learning efficiently and that’s what supermemo means knowing how much you learn for the invested time or learning how much you don’t.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. LittleFish permalink
    July 5, 2009 23:00

    Sorry I haven’t been commenting recently, I’ve been busy (But I have lots of stuff to say, maybe this will be the start of it…).

    I am up kind of late, hopefully what I am typing makes sense. Tell me what you think, as I’m unsure of the validity of my opinion (I am prone to extremes, so please help provide balance).

    Whoa, I never thought about this subject from such a perspective before. I guess I always knew that Supermemo is not viral by nature, because “viral” is something that spreads like a virus, it is something that is “easy to catch on.” The concept of Supermemo is no doubt attractive to many (Along with losing weight through hard work), but when it comes to actually doing the necessary work, very few follow through (Is this because of mental laziness?). I truly cannot see why such a course would be logical in any way to any intelligent person that understands the potential that such a course of learning entails (Unless circumstances did not allow you to pursue using Supermemo; not having access to a computer or electricity, for instance).

    Many complain about the GUI, bugs, etc. in Supermemo, but after reading this article, I realized that the GUI, the various bugs, etc. do not really matter. Using lack of accessability as an excuse to not use Supermemo is akin to saying “I don’t want to dig for those diamonds because there is too much dirt to dig through.” If you know how valuable the diamond is, you would be willing to dig deep to find it. Similarly, those that dismiss Supermemo because of the bad GUI are using lack of accessability as an excuse to validate mental laziness. To such people, ANYTHING would become an excuse to stop using it. If it wasn’t the GUI, another excuse would be found. So perhaps Supermemo’s lack of accessability is a safeguard against lazy people from wasting their time?

    I guess I never thought of such measures as being intentional, that it was all “part of the plan.”

    Oh well, I’ll sleep on it and see what I think tomorrow (I might post another comment then).
    Thanks for posting this, I’m glad I read this interview.

  2. m5000 permalink
    September 15, 2010 14:35

    Oh, come on… The argument about SuperMemo being viral or aviral, or whatever else is just rubbish 🙂

    Lots of people are hooked on SRS nowadays. Look at Anki or Mnemosyne, and their users. Now, why are those people using Anki or Mnemosyne, not SM? Because of SM’s lousy and bug-ridden GUI and poorly-designed options. Explaining it away by referring to SM being aviral or some other similar shite is just laughable…

    This kind of argument as funny as Mr Wozniak’s writing about GUI which can be found here :

    Now, this IS really funny. So much science and wisdom, and… they came up with one of the worst GUIs around 🙂

    • gersapa permalink*
      October 13, 2010 22:48

      Yes, supermemo is ugly, but yes this is the best SRS if you mind remembering, not a nice looking app. I wish it had a better GUI, but I prefer the fact that it delivers efficient memorization.

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