The Gecko in the Machine
(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)
I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.
Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.
But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.
It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.
First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.
They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.
All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).
But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:
* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)
The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.
But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).
If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.
* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)
If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)
* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.
But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.
PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.
It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.
For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.
This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.
Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)
Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.
PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.
PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.
So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.