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Get Bit Literate, with a Buggy Whip

Do you feel as though you’re struggling to keep your head above a fast-rising flood of digital data – email, photos, Web sites, instant messages – that threatens to inundate you? You’re not alone, and that shared pain has given birth to any number of systems, Web sites, and books that promise an organized life and enhanced productivity, along with much more. The latest entry in the productivity porn genre is Mark Hurst’s self-published “Bit Literacy,” which offers a few nuggets of utility. But despite gushing quotes from luminaries like Richard Saul Wurman, Seth Godin, David Bodanis, and Craig Newmark, I found the book ultimately unsatisfying.

“Bit Literacy” echoes nothing so much as an earnest educational film from the 1950s. Hurst is entirely confident that his suggestions for managing email, photos, media sources, and so on are correct for everyone, regardless of profession, personality, or preferences. Plus, underlying the entire book is an almost Luddite-like distrust of the functionality inherent in special-purpose software and of computers in general, accompanied by frequent jabs at software developers for making programs that Hurst feels are designed to lock in market share at the expense of serving the user. Instead, Hurst paternalistically entreats the reader to buckle down and behave in highly specific, almost robotic ways, with the overall goal being to let bits
go as much as possible. “Just follow my simple rules, kids, and you won’t suffer the ill effects of information overload!”

With email, Hurst recommends the “inbox zero” approach, which isn’t inherently problematic. But he encourages exporting individual messages to text files and filing them in normal folders using a specific naming scheme (initials-date-topic.extension). That’s because he doesn’t trust an email program not to lose mail and because he wants everything related to a project to be in one folder (with no or few sub-folders). So rather than rely on a program that’s designed to make common email tasks easy – reading discussions, filing, searching, replying, and so on – Hurst would have you fall back on simple, generic tools that require significantly more manual interaction. He says – deep in an appendix – that there are no “bit-literate” email
programs available, though he never specifies what features such a program would have.

Similarly, no to-do programs meet Hurst’s requirements, except – surprise! – the one he developed, a Web-based system called Gootodo that costs $18 per six months (nothing is said about whether Gootodo locks users into the site like the tools Hurst constantly criticizes). His criteria for a to-do manager are:

  • Each to-do is associated with a particular day.
  • Users can create new to-dos for any particular day via email.
  • Each to-do has a priority ranking within its day.
  • Each to-do contains a detail field as well as a summary.

The only interesting point above is the capability to create new to-dos via email, scheduling them by sending or forwarding them to a particular address at Gootodo – that is indeed uncommon and likely useful. But Gootodo, accessible only on the Web (forget about syncing to an iPod, iPhone, or even iCal) seems overly simple and clearly won’t scale for anyone with more than a handful of to-do items per day. Hurst dismisses such criticisms by saying that people with too many to-do items shouldn’t expect a to-do manager to help with that problem. But that’s why we’re reading your book, Mark!

A footnote in the to-do chapter shows what Hurst thinks of modern technologies: “Still other requested features [for Gootodo] include AJAX, RSS, and other faddish acronyms that are only understood by techies and the journalists who love them.” That’s inanity – AJAX can enable far better online interfaces that don’t require constant page reloads, and support for RSS lets people access content in ways that work well for them. There may be legitimate reasons to avoid AJAX and RSS, but faddishness is not one of them.

Where Hurst makes the most sense is in talking about managing incoming media. He recommends limiting the onslaught of published material by separating media sources to a “lineup” and a set of “tryouts.” Within your lineup, he says you should have a very few “stars” that you read in their entirety regularly, a number of “scans” that you dip into mostly for interesting or useful pieces, and “targets” that you read only for a single targeted use. With tryouts, you’re encouraged to be discerning, know why you’re trying it out and for how long the tryout will last, and realize that any tryout may have to replace something in your lineup.

This essentially reasonable advice is somewhat undercut by Hurst’s use of the “media diet” terminology. Little is more faddish than diets, and they’re nearly impossible to maintain over any significant period of time. I’d worry that the same will prove true of Hurst’s advice with regard to media, depending as it does on constant vigilance and self-denial.

I did find some other bits worthwhile. Along with the suggestion for a media diet, Hurst makes some excellent points about how to write email and Web pages for better comprehension and easier scanning. In particular he points out that it’s best to state the most important idea in a message right off, followed by the information that supports the main idea. Other suggestions to avoid confusion and ambiguity include stating the obvious and using absolute dates in favor of easily misinterpreted relative dates like “today,” “tomorrow,” and “next week.”

But the many problems obscure such bright spots. Another short chapter enables Hurst to explain exactly how he organizes his photos, though this section is particularly misguided. He would have you create one iPhoto Library per year and some other set (likely an album) for each event in each month. He acknowledges that iPhoto could do this in a single iPhoto Library but dismisses the possibility because it’s possible that photo dates could be incorrect. That can and does happen infrequently, but incorrect dates can also be changed easily. There are good reasons to create and switch among multiple iPhoto Libraries, but having more than a year’s worth of photos in an iPhoto Library is not one of them. All it will do is make searching more
cumbersome, as you try to remember which iPhoto Library to look through.

Other aspects of “Bit Literacy” that bothered me include:

  • Hurst believes that sent mail somehow causes significant stress and should thus be deleted every week or so, with important pieces of sent mail BCC’d back to you and saved – outside your email program – as a text file. There’s no reason sent mail can’t be nicely out of sight and out of mind… until such time that you want to refer to it, something I’ve found valuable on many occasions.
  • Instant messaging is treated in only a paragraph or two, with no acknowledgment that it serves an entirely different communication purpose than email and may contain content worth archiving.
  • For backup, Hurst recommends (very briefly) manual copying of important files and folders every week or two. This advice borders on the criminally negligent, since most people have no idea of exactly where all their important data actually resides on a modern computer. Being forced to restore from Hurst’s backup strategy would result in potentially massive data loss and huge amounts of wasted time.
  • Hurst would have us name all files using an initials-date-topic.extension approach. He admits the author initials are pointless for personal files, but defends putting the date in the file name on the grounds that he doesn’t trust the filesystem not to mess up date metadata. This obscures the real name of the file – the topic – at the end of the file and ensures that different versions don’t sort together. In contrast, when we at TidBITS work on versioned files with multiple people, our naming scheme is topic-version-initials.extension to force different versions of a given file to sort together, in sequential order.

In general, little acknowledgment is made of the very real issue that people use computers in wildly different ways today. Advice that makes sense for an engineering professor collaborating on research projects with colleagues around the world may have nothing of utility for an in-house graphic designer at a large manufacturing company or a freelance marketing consultant working with numerous clients in a small city.

Also, I found myself constantly bothered by Hurst’s exhortations to let go of bits at all times. Yes, we’re all accumulating increasing amounts of data, whether in the form of photos, email, or iChat transcripts. But attempting to eliminate those bits, whether by deleting photos, trashing email, or refusing to use iChat, will both require more immediate effort and result in future frustration from lost information. The popularity of services like Google shows that what people really want are tools to manage and sort through all that data automatically. The price of disk space drops all the time, and Moore’s law ensures that we have ample CPU power; what we need are more and better tools to extract meaningful results quickly from our
oceans of information.

Lastly, despite occasional references to modern tools like Google Docs, nearly everything in “Bit Literacy” could have been written 10 years ago when Hurst started his professional career. That in itself is not a criticism, but because of this outdated mindset, it feels as though Hurst has never revisited any of his thinking to determine whether new tools could in fact make any of these tasks easier. Whether it’s with file names or photo organization, the scripted behaviors he recommends are exactly the kinds of repetitive tasks that computers were supposed to handle for us. Computers are the reason we’re so inundated with digital data; to focus on approaches that require us to act more like machines seems to be heading in the wrong

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