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.
Next is sorting, the important and subtle task of grouping items according to similarities and differences. In a sense, this kind of pattern recognition is the highest level of human intelligence. Seeing patterns where others see confusion is what distinguishes the great chess masters—and the great diagnosticians, historians, philosophers, legal theorists. Recognizing distinctions is the other side of the same skill.
Such compare-and-contrast judgments are extremely difficult to produce through computerized intelligence. But computers can help people exercise their own judgment by providing cues, props, and reminders. They do this mainly by allowing you to apply “tags”—identifiers that help in later assessments of data. For 10 years I have used Zoot, even though it is idiosyncratic and somewhat hard to learn, because it is more powerful and supple in such tagging than anything else I’ve seen. If I read an article, I can decide that a certain paragraph is relevant to China—and to a meeting I’ll have next week, and to something I want to see in India. With Zoot I can assign it to all those categories with a few keystrokes. The computer’s role here is to provide a record of my judgments about similarities and differences, so I don’t have to try to keep them in my head.