Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”

Some thoughts on planning, remembering, and the body (a.k.a. “getting things done”)

First, a note of explanation: What follows is not a post on “getting things done” or on the merits of various productivity tools. It is, rather, some thoughts on the ways I’ve found those tools to shape my thinking and my work.

After almost four years of trying to keep track of all my various projects with various apps, I’ve given up and gone back to a combination of a paper journal (hardbound, dot-printed rather than lined) and, for long term planning of specific projects, various homespun electronic documents and spreadsheets. It’s working wonderfully; I find I’m far better able to keep track of what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Having made that change, here are some of my observations.

  1. The promise of having continuous access to my project information was… well, promising, but I never did get around to using my smartphone in that way. I hate typing on my smartphone. I have fairly big hands, and staring at little screens makes me feel boxed in, almost claustrophobic. A hardbound journal meets the same need; it’s always with me. Better, it’s always open on my desk; I don’t have to push buttons to access it. I can’t, therefore, ignore it. (If I tried, it’s orange.)
  2. Apps swallow their past. Once you check an item off as completed, it disappears from view. There’s nearly always a way to retrieve that information, but not typically in a way that I find conveniently displayed. Loose sheets of paper are worse; they get thrown away. A journal, as long as you mark entries rather than crossing through them, preserves the past in readable fashion. That’s of some practical value: I can, for example, see when I last gave the dog her heartworm preventative or note a tendency to put off certain tasks. I can learn from my mistakes in a way that’s impossible if I hide or erase or throw away (or even cross through) what I’ve done. But there’s also something philosophically worrisome to me about the ease with which productivity apps move you inexorably into the next task. It encourages presentism, an emphasis on what’s important now and on what’s next, and I think the culture already encourages far too much of that. Hardbound journals, by contrast, encourage reflection and a vision of oneself as a whole over time.
  3. An app, no matter how flexibly it’s designed to be used, is inherently algorithmic. Computer code is algorithms. And if I’m using that code, I, too, have to follow the algorithm; my own thinking must shape itself to the algorithm. Now, it’s true that processes of work must always adapt to fit the tools at hand, but some tools are more flexible than others. Blank sheets of paper, dotted rather than lined, bound into a journal, give me tremendous flexibility. I can choose my own symbols and systems, index as I wish, organize as suits my preferred ways of thinking, planning, remembering, and visualizing. As my thinking about my thinking evolves, my processes can evolve with it. With an app, I’m stuck in someone else’s head. (There’s also a difference, I think, between a tool and an algorithm, but that needs more thought.) A simple table in an Open Office document serves that end when paper doesn’t.
  4. There is some satisfaction to writing, physically writing, the X next to a task completed. It serves the same purpose as checking a box on a computer screen and watching it disappear, and so they may be functionally identically, but to claim that the two actions are thus identical and interchangeable reduces human experience to mere functionality. I’m not an algorithm (see #2, above); I have a body, and I think with it.
  5. I buy the blank books and ink for my fountain pens from a local stationary shop — yes, I still have a local stationary shop, an amazing thing, and I’d like to help keep it in business! Both come ultimately from some company or other, I don’t know where. (France?) So I’m not claiming any sort of purity. But to use them, I don’t have to support my cable company, my phone company, or one of the world’s largest global corporations (e.g. Apple). And when I stock up I get to have a chat with a guy who calls himself, professionally, Crazy Alan. So there’s that.