I stumbled upon reference to this book when looking at requirements listed around a User Experience Designer position on Craigslist (not for me – a colleague’s posting, I swear). The posting required any potential applicant to have read the book, and have an opinion on its merits. It struck me that if a complete stranger, or potential employer in this case, was so adamant about such a publication – perhaps it was worth a read. After all, it helped build a baseball stadium.
The most important component of this book for me was discussing the context for which technology was best used, and more importantly, how it affects our ability to think or create. In a few instances, there exists slight condescension when the author makes reference towards overeager bosses and engineers, but this manifestation of snarky-ness is done in a productive stance when referring to all of one’s “unimportant emails that need addressing right-away”. Email should be turned off, or at least down during sessions of productivity.
Dan Saffer coined the term, “Topless Meeting“, to describe a mandated no-laptop policy for technology meetings and business cultures. Sit down, look someone in the eye and give them undivided attention. In my work environment, we’re light years away from this, and at times suffer because of this. Distraction of one’s phone / email / laptop pulls them out of focus and into an alternative path of a meeting where nuances are lost, details skipped and, in my case, feelings are hurt. At times, it borders on narcissism, perceiving ourselves as being too important to even be present for the job we’re being paid to do.
Another solid takeaway from Bit Literacy is around the protection of one’s attention span – turning off all sources of distraction when trying to be creative and embed oneself in the challenge. I’ve found that even the computer is a distraction for the creative process. Stripping down to a pen and an oversize tab of paper can suffice in vetting ideas much better than a distracted pushing of pixels. It is more collaborative, people can discuss examples hanging on the wall and can discuss much better than if encased within an email attachment. Finding this sweet spot of focus and concentration, while still being able to supplement with referenced information (things that computers are good at doing) is a hard thing to accomplish. It is all too easy to be thrown off into a rabbit hole by even the slightest notion of wonder.
What Didn’t Work
I’ll start by framing this criticism by saying that this book was written in 2007. Our ability to manage data was still primarily on the desktop, and certainly hadn’t seen full realization of productivity either through mobile or using the cloud devices. Perhaps a bit of product placement (and subsequent marketing opportunities for Google) but when Larry Page was asked when he deletes messages from his inbox – he curtly replied, ‘never‘ – lest the attorneys be damned. Yet despite the callousness, I agree – the concept of a zero inbox is overblown. Many of the fears around inbox management and Outlook crashes due to large archives are now obsolete. Using web-based solutions alleviate the local hardware constraints the book’s arguments are centered around. Perhaps today’s version of Bit Literacy would offer similar principles to be applied making sure data redundancy is in-place if the cloud someday dissipates, a thought that genuinely terrifies me.
A similar argument can be said about file formats and versioning, chapters that are now somewhat redundant with today’s technology allowing us to work collaboratively and a reduced need for version control and files located on the desktop. With such a huge amount of data that the technorati has to process on a daily basis, the bookmarking, tagging and referencing of these resources presents a much more taxing dilemma than the single stream of an email inbox or file folder. Prioritization of multiple professional and personal social components (which hadn’t spread widely by 2007), the filtration of key influences against the static noise surely has a place in the next generation of Bit Literacy’s hyper-organization manifesto.
I also hold a different opinion against Bit Literacy’s described methods around task completion and organization. The section on to-do lists, for example, take the stance that paper is this slow, clumsy, disorganized, meta-less experience. That there is no indexing, categorization or other advantages found within a digital experience. For this task master, paper is my point of contact – as it features all the tangibility and tactical feedback I need to feel as if I made a mark. I feel more of a emotive experience to filling in a drawn checkbox and crossing off a list than clicking a virtual box and watching a pixelated line of text disappear. This should tailor into the author’s thesis of technology being a distracting element – that we need to reserve our usage for only tasks that require digital completion. The same principles exist – group by importance, category, delegated / non-delegated task or accomplishment date.
Worth Your Valuable Time?
Absolutely. Bit Literacy is a quick read, one that you can consume on public transit over the course of a single week. It helps understand habits that we fall into as our desire to clutch bright, shiny, connected objects grows greater and greater. I had a moment of reflection when seeing my infant son consistently try to grab my phone out of my hand. This is likely because the device lights up and makes noise – an instinctual attention-grabber, but I can also see that my wife and I are constantly fiddling around with our phones, especially while he’s playing around on the floor. Look at this microcosm of time as it relates to our career, as it parallels the small child playing on the floor – gone in an instant, and shouldn’t be experienced without giving our full attention.
Nick Cawthon is Director of Experience Architecture at Organic