Technology June 2007

What Was I Thinking?

Computers may not be able to make decisions for you (yet), but they can sharpen your judgment.
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Do computers make us smarter? Probably not. But they can reduce the burden of some largely mechanical processes through which we develop, refine, and express ideas—which is a lot of what it means to think. The clearest example is word processing, despite the ugliness of that term. No one believes that you become a better writer just by sitting at a computer. But it would be even more far-fetched to imagine that the olden-days burdens computers now spare us—for instance, retyping pages or whole reports to accommodate a minor change—were in any way a plus.

In a surprisingly wide range of other ways, the simple, brainless efficiencies offered by computers can assist in the tasks that make up intellectual work. Before considering one especially ambitious new offering of this sort, it’s worth reviewing the practical, chore-like components of high-level modern work and the corresponding programs that, in my view, handle each chore best.

An elementary step is capturing thoughts—ideas, obligations, possibilities—when and where they occur to you. This is so you don’t forget them and, more important, so you’re not always wondering what you might have forgotten. For life away from the computer, the small notebook in the pocket, or the stack of index cards, is the ideal note-taking tool—as long as you have ingrained the habit of taking these out of your pocket and doing something with them when you get home.

For when you are at the computer, a good note-taking program should be “pop-up” or “modeless,” which means that you can immediately call it up, usually with one keystroke, without switching away from the Web page you are viewing or the document you are working on. The program should also make it easy for you to sort through and deal with those quick notes when you review them later on. The pop-up feature first got wide notice in the early 1980s, thanks to Philippe Kahn’s pioneering Sidekick program. I have used many similar PC utilities since then, but have relied for most of the last decade on the pop-up “Zooter” feature in Zoot, a data manager from Zoot Software. GyroQ from Gyronix, mentioned here recently, has similar features, as does VoodooPad for the Mac.

The next largely mechanical task is saving material you come across in your work, whether it is something unexpected on the Internet or the result of more purposeful research. There are countless tools of this sort; the one I now use is OneNote 2007 from Microsoft. I like it because it can handle almost any kind of information—Web clippings, PDFs, audio or video files, straight text—and index it for quick retrieval. It also has an elegant feature that makes capturing information utterly painless. When something you want to save is on your computer’s screen, you can press a button or two and “print” that blog posting—or photo, or e-mail, or online receipt—to your OneNote file. It’s like storing paper documents in folders, except that it’s faster, easier, and more reliable when you look for the material later on. Microsoft has made other Office programs available for the Mac, but not yet OneNote. Scrivener, a new research and writing application, is what I would try on the Mac.

The next practical task involved in thinking is finding things when you want them—the right citation for your legal argument, the right chronology to remind you who said what when. Mac users have an advantage here: In addition to the Spotlight indexer built into OS X, DevonThink (mentioned here before) has its own powerful “fuzzy search” tools to help you find things even if you’ve misremembered the name or keyword you’re looking for. For PCs, the free search utility X1, from X1.com, is unsurpassed.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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