Mark Hurst's "Bit Literacy"

Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload attacks a problem that, of all people, my Alexander Technique therapist mentioned to me today. She said that evolution has granted our bodies numerous ways to deal with few or no calories, but no way -- except obesity -- to deal with too many calories. Likewise, our brains are adapted to recognize patterns and intuit deductions from minimal information, and it does this unconsciously and automatically. But our brains can’t naturally accommodate too much information and it can stun our brains into paralysis. "Information overload" is the conventional term for this condition.

Hurst’s book is an attempt in this Web 2.0 age of Lifehackery and GTD’ing to advise on his own methods of stemming the flow of information so as to decrease the sense of overwhelm.

Various reviews I found on the web marvel that this young guy -- and an MIT computer science grad, to boot -- has a seemingly curmudgeonly attitude to applications and computer habits: he uses older versions of Mac apps, he eschews Web 2.0 services, he trusts in text files and recommends copying emails you want to save into text files you store on your own hard drive.

This is the kind of book I would push on a relative or person older than me who’s not computer-literate and doesn’t quite know what to do with or how to handle the files they compile on their PC. It’s bad enough that most PC/Mac owners inevitably become their own sysadmins; it’s insult to injury that their computers don’t automatically read minds and track all the info they find interesting and keep their files and photos nice and orderly without significant manual intervention.

I was irked a bit by some of Hurst's assumptions that drive this book's messages. But even as an old computer hand, I learned -- re-learned, actually -- some good lessons and reminders regarding file-naming, directory organization, and being responsible for the bits I invite into my life.

What follows are various thoughts, criticisms, and observations about the book. For more information on Hurst, visit his web site, Good Experience, or subscribe to his sensibly formatted newsletter.

  • Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization--do, delegate, defer, or delete--Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.
  • Hurst prefers the bits (i.e., electronically captured and shared data) over paper. Paper requires energy to produce and transport, it doesn’t scale, and it can’t capture the instant arrival and transformation of bits. Paper is old-fashioned and simply can’t keep up with the flow.
  • I disagree with all of Hurst’s opinions about paper. In regards to the energy needed to produce paper--exactly how many nuclear-, hydro-, or coal-powered plants are needed to produce the electricity for you to read these words? If paper isn’t a good repository for to-dos or information, then maybe it’s because people didn’t learn good habits on how to use them? If the bits are so wonderful, our use of paper should have naturally declined. Instead, we need Hurst’s book to tell us how to use the bits--just as many people for many years taught knowledge workers how to use and file paper. So maybe it isn't the medium that's at fault here.
  • As for the inability of paper to transform bits on the fly--if the goal is to transform an email into a to-do, then I phrase the to-do in my head (which is the hardest part of the task, incidentally--I’m continually re-learning how to phrase a to-do so it’s actionable), write down the task in my paper diary for whatever day I need to do it, and then delete the email or file it for reference. The to-do is thus ready for me to tackle when I'm ready to do it, and since I use my paper diary daily, I don't have to worry that I'll forget to do it. A paper diary well-used -- I prefer Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow system -- is to me superior to all the electronic tools I’ve tried.
  • I think paper is not the disadvantage. Nor are excessive bits. The disadvantage is that people haven’t decided what information is really important to them and then been schooled in how to use either method effectively. Paper and electronic methods for handling info exist and either one will work fine. But if you think that everything is important or that you may need this information “someday,” then you do curse yourself into being a custodian of huge wodges of information for a long time and that is a thankless task.
  • Hurst’s contempt for paper is oddly reflected in his self-published book's contempt for the niceties of book design, thus impairing a good reading experience. The paragraphs are separated by a blank line (drafted in a text file, no doubt) instead of more visually attractive line spacings. And--this is what really annoyed me--there’s no friggin’ index! How am I expected to find the reference to the reformatted New York Times article links? Or to the Macintosh apps he recommends? The table of contents is no help. Guess I’ll have to thumb through the book until I find the footnote on page 177 that lists them all -- but then, how will I remember them? Write them down? On PAPER??  A simple back-of-the-book index is an example of a sensible device to navigate paper-based information, exactly the kind of device that Hurst doesn’t acknowledge existing.
  • As for handling to-dos, I tried his Gootodo service and it just didn’t mesh with how I process my tasks using my paper diary and Forster’s DIT system. I agree with the school of thought that says writing things down by hand engages parts of the brain that typing doesn’t. Forster describes how the simple act of writing down an idea that occurs to you, rather than acting on it when you get it, automatically puts distance between you and the task, allowing you to think more clearly about what actually needs to be done. Deferring a task is also possible with Gootodo, of course, but I'd offer this as an example of, if you know what you want to accomplish, then either digital or paper methods should work fine.
  • It sounds like I’m anti-Hurst, but I’m not. I agree that users need to take responsibility for their “stuff,” and I’ve hit on my own file- and folder-naming strategies, similar to Hurst's, that enable me to store and scan efficiently, based on my own needs. My own flirtations with various proprietary applications like Lotus Agenda, Infoselect, and Evernote have taught me that I accumulate way more info than I ever need (”just in case”), that that info never survives intact when transformed, and that I hardly ever need that info anyway. As a result, I’m saving more stuff in txt or rtf files (usually procedures or projects I'm pursuing at the time), I’m stockpiling bookmarks in Delicious, and I'm squirreling stuff web pages or other information away using a Gmail REF label. I don't perceive that storing them causes a cognitive burden on me. Although the bits are not truly "gone," were I to lose them, I wouldn’t be sad.
  • I liked his description of how the best way to save photo files. Very good and sensible advice. I was doing something similar but tweaked my layout to match his rules. Although it's curious that his book doesn't address ways to save and access downloaded music or video files, which are surely as ubiquitous as digital photos. Perhaps, as a Mac Man, he uses iTunes, which handles a lot of that for him. For myself, I use Media Monkey on my PC to handle that chore, and I prefer a directory-based layout as the foundation layer for any music apps.
  • On maintaining a media diet, I agree with his statement that "an unbounded bitstream tends toward irrelevance." Alas, I still maintain too many RSS feeds, but hardly any hard-copy publications. For my RSS feeds, I have a single must-read folder, a second read-when-I-have-a-moment folder, and the rest are all optional. As with many of Hurst's other suggestions, the aim is to control the limited resource that is your time and attention; being profligate with your energy and focus on digital snack-food doesn't help your cause.
  • His chapters on file formats, naming, and storing files are what I wish I'd had when I started using PCs lo those many years ago.
  • I very much  agree with his advice to find a "bit lever," which is essentially a global AutoCorrect app that will expand abbreviations to full words, phrases, paragraphs, URLs, etc. I'd also suggest a good clipboard management program. For Windows, the best is ClipMate; I haven't found a great one for the Mac, but am evaluating CopyPaste Pro. I also like having a macro program around; for the PC, I've used Macro Express for years, but ActiveWords looks good, too. As for managing passwords, I've relied on Roboform on Windows, but haven't really investigated such apps for the Mac.
  • Hurst advocates the Dvorak keyboard layout, which I pick up and put down two or three times a year. When I'm in a crunch, I usually return to Qwerty and stay there.
  • For the index: page 151 lists the programs he recommends for specifying frequently used folders and directories. I have to tip my hat to him for recommending FileBox eXtender for Windows, which I've been pretty happy with so far.
  • For screenshots: SnagIt on the PC. For backups to the cloud: JungleDisk and the Amazon S3 service.
  • Disagree about not using Excel as a database. It works quite well as a flat-file database. If you want to keep a simple list of names and addresses, a text file or Excel is preferred over a database program.
  • Most of Hurst's recommendations, though, he would probably consider small potatoes compared to his bigger vision of re-tooling users for the future as he describes it: more bits, more proprietary file formats or protections (like DRM), more social software and the implication of every bit being tracked and stored somewhere for someone to process. I think there will always be a need for strong opinions on "here's how you should do it" because many of us simply don't have the time or take the time to think through all the implications of the tools we're directed to use. These bit-level tactics will always be needed and will always need re-tooling for the next wave of technology that washes over us.
  • I think, in addition to Hurst's prescriptions, the real key will be in people deciding what they want to do with the technology, with the bits, with their digital tools. If they haven't decided what's really important to them (which is the problem addressed by Hurst's "media diet" chapter), then they'll need all the help they can get to stay on top of it. If they've decided what's of interest to them and their lives and work, then--like Donald Knuth and Alan Lightman--they can choose to eschew email and other bit-processors totally, and get on with what they were put on Earth to do.

Update 08/06/2012

I have been using Hurst's Goodtodo web service for about a year now and have woven it into my daily/weekly task management. It works great as a future reminder system. I may blog later about how my always evolving system, which includes Goodtodo, works nowadays.