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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Why note-taking apps don’t make us smarter

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That is Platformer, a publication on the intersection of Silicon Valley and democracy from Casey Newton and Zoë Schiffer. Sign up here.

At this time let’s step outdoors the information cycle and switch our consideration towards a subject I’m deeply invested in however solely hardly ever write about: productiveness platforms. For many years now, software program instruments have promised to make working life simpler. However on one vital dimension — their capacity to enhance our considering — they don’t appear to be making a lot progress in any respect.

In the meantime, the arrival of generative synthetic intelligence might make the instruments we use extra highly effective than ever — or they might develop into simply one other mirage.

To grasp the place issues went mistaken, I need to concentrate on the common-or-garden note-taking app: the place the place, for therefore many people, considering begins.

Earlier this week I learn a narrative about farmers. “America’s Farmers Are Bogged Down by Information,” learn the headline on Belle Lin’s story within the Wall Avenue Journal. I believed to myself: You and me each, farmer! And I learn the piece.

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Over the previous decade, farmers have been supplied all method of software program instruments to research and handle their crops. Typically, although, the extra software program that farmers use, the extra they discover themselves overwhelmed by information that the instruments accumulate. “We’re gathering a lot information that you just’re nearly paralyzed with having to research all of it,” one farmer advised the Journal.

As a journalist, I’ve by no means collected as a lot information as I do now. The collapse of Twitter has me shopping 4 or 5 text-based social feeds a day, scanning for information and considerate dialog. The rising recognition of arXiv and pre-prints basically has left me with a stack of analysis that I’ll by no means get by way of. E book galleys pile up in my home.

A screenshot of the app Notion.
Picture: Notion

In the meantime, all day lengthy I browse the net. Tales that may belong in Platformer get saved right into a database within the productiveness platform Notion. Each hyperlink that has ever been on this publication is saved there, in lots of {cases} with the total article textual content.

Collectively, this materials provides me an abundance of riches — way more to work with than any beat reporter had such quick access to even 15 years in the past.

And but most days I discover myself with the identical downside because the farmer: I’ve a lot info at hand that I really feel paralyzed.

One resolution to this information paralysis is to take notes. As a journalist, after all, I’ve all the time taken notes. A number of years in the past, I believed we had seen some true breakthroughs in note-taking, and more and more put my religion in these instruments not simply to seize my writing however to enhance the standard of my considering.

The breakthrough instrument was Roam Research. In 2021, I wrote right here about my first year using the subscription-based software, which had two key insights into information work. One was to make skilled note-taking really feel extra like journaling. It seems {that a} contemporary observe created every day, labeled with a date, is an efficient canvas for gathering transient ideas, which might function a springboard into deeper considering.

The second is thought to note-taking nerds as “bidirectional linking.” Normal hyperlinks, like those you discover on the net, go in just one path — from one web page to a different. In a note-taking app, bidirectional hyperlinks be a part of two pages collectively. This successfully allows you to add backlinks to any idea — an organization that’s essential to you, say, or an idea that’s in your thoughts — after which allow you to browse the whole lot you’ve collected associated to that idea at your leisure.

A graphic from Roam illustrating bidirectional linking.
Picture: Roam

On one degree, that’s not so completely different from including tags to notes. However tags are extra about search. Bidirectional hyperlinks, which some apps present you on pages that embrace snippets of all the opposite notes that comprise the identical hyperlink, are extra about shopping and rediscovery.

Initially, I threw myself into this type of associative note-taking. I gathered hyperlinks round ideas I needed to discover (“the web permits info to journey too rapidly,” for instance, or social networks and polarization). After I had an attention-grabbing dialog with an individual, I might add notes to a private web page I had created for them. A number of occasions per week, I might revisit these notes.

I waited for the insights to return.

Observe-taking apps are up towards a a lot stronger foe

My gusto for concept-based, link-heavy note-taking diminished. Roam’s improvement slowed to a crawl, and I spent a season with the light-weight, principally free different often known as Obsidian. Obsidian’s brutalist design wore on me, although, and ultimately I decamped for the extra polished consumer interface of Mem. (These apps all allow the exporting of your notes in Markdown, making switching comparatively painless.)

I proceed to journal most days, and infrequently discover myself working to refine one idea or one other amongst these notes.

However the unique promise of Roam — that it could enhance my considering by serving to me to construct a information base and uncover new concepts — fizzled fully.

One interpretation of those occasions is that the software program failed: that journaling and souped-up hyperlinks merely don’t have the ability a few of us as soon as hoped they did.

One other view, although, is that they’re up towards a a lot stronger foe — the infinite day by day distractions of the web.

Observe-taking, in any case, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in your pc, subsequent to e-mail, and Slack, and Discord, and iMessage, and the text-based social community of your selecting. Within the period of alt-tabbing between these and different apps, our capacity to construct information and draw connections is completely challenged by what could be our finally futile efforts to multitask.

Ezra Klein wrote superbly about this example this week in the New York Times:

Gloria Mark, a professor of data science on the College of California, Irvine, and the writer of “Attention Span,” began researching the best way folks used computer systems in 2004. The typical time folks spent on a single display screen was 2.5 minutes. “I used to be astounded,” she advised me. “That was a lot worse than I’d thought it could be.” However that was only the start. By 2012, Mark and her colleagues discovered the typical time on a single process was 75 seconds. Now it’s right down to about 47.

That is an acid tub for human cognition. Multitasking is usually a delusion. We are able to concentrate on one factor at a time. “It’s like we now have an inside whiteboard in our minds,” Mark mentioned. “If I’m engaged on one process, I’ve all the data I would like on that psychological whiteboard. Then I change to e-mail. I’ve to mentally erase that whiteboard and write all the knowledge I have to do e-mail. And identical to on an actual whiteboard, there generally is a residue in our minds. We should still be considering of one thing from three duties in the past.”

My first thought upon studying this was that it appears uncommon for me to spend even 47 seconds one display screen on my pc with out a minimum of glancing at one other. (I purchased a 38-inch widescreen monitor for the categorical function of with the ability to look at many home windows concurrently. On the time I understood this as a instrument for enhancing my productiveness.)

My second thought is that if you wish to take good notes, it’s a must to first extract your thoughts from the acid tub.

Klein’s piece begins from the remark that productiveness progress is now about half of what it was within the Nineteen Fifties and ‘60s. The web’s arrival briefly speeded it up, he writes, however the extra we stared at our screens the slower our productiveness improved. He worries that AI may have the same impact on the economic system — promising to make us extra productive, whereas concurrently inventing so many new distractions and entertainments that they overwhelm and paralyze us.

The piece caught with me, as a result of there’s one particular method I’m relying on AI to make me extra productive. It goes again to that database of hyperlinks I’ve been constructing in Notion, and the insights I hoped to get out of Roam.

Saving an article in Mem.
Picture: Mem

Earlier this yr, like many productiveness instruments, Notion added a handful of AI options. I exploit two of them in my hyperlinks database. One extracts the names of any corporations talked about in an article, making a sort of automated tagging system. The opposite gives a two- or three-sentence abstract of the article I’m saving.

Neither of those, in observe, is especially helpful. Tags would possibly theoretically be helpful for revisiting {old} materials, however databases usually are not designed to be browsed. And whereas we publish summaries of stories articles in every version of Platformer, we wouldn’t use AI-written summaries: amongst different causes, they usually miss essential particulars and context.

On the identical time, the database comprises almost three years of hyperlinks to each topic I cowl right here, together with the whole textual content of hundreds of articles. It’s right here, and never in a note-taking app, that information of my beat has been accreting over the previous few years. If solely I might entry that information indirectly that went past my reminiscence.

It’s right here that AI ought to be capable to assist. Inside some cheap time frame, I count on that I will discuss to my Notion database as if it’s ChatGPT. If I might, I think about I might discuss to it on a regular basis.

A lot of journalism merely includes remembering related occasions from the previous. An AI-powered hyperlink database has an ideal reminiscence; all it’s lacking is a usable chat interface. If it had one, it could be an ideal analysis assistant.

At this time’s chatbots can’t do any of this to a reporter’s customary

I think about utilizing it to generate little briefing paperwork to assist me once I return to a topic after a while away. Catch me up on Canada’s struggle with Meta over information, I would say. Make me a timeline of occasions at Twitter since Elon Musk purchased it. Present me protection of deepfakes over the previous three months.

At this time’s chatbots can’t do any of this to a reporter’s customary. The coaching information usually stops in 2021, for one factor. The bots proceed to make stuff up, and wrestle to quote their sources.

But when I might chat in pure language with an enormous archive, constructed from hand-picked reliable sources? That appears highly effective to me, a minimum of within the summary.

After all, the output from this type of AI instrument must be reliable. A big downside with utilizing AI instruments to summarize issues is that you may’t belief the abstract except you learn all of the related paperwork your self — defeating the purpose of asking for a abstract within the first place.

Nonetheless, in case you are the type of productivity-tool optimist who will attempt any to-do record or calendar app on the off likelihood it makes you even a little bit happier at work, it appears to me {that a} database you possibly can discuss to could be the next-generation note-taking instrument we now have been ready for.

I’ve discovered one thing else about note-taking apps, although, since my mania for them started in 2020.

In brief: it’s most likely a mistake, ultimately, to ask software program to enhance our considering. Even when you can rescue your consideration from the acid tub of the web; even when you can collect probably the most attention-grabbing information and observations into the app of your selecting; even when you revisit that information on occasion — this won’t be sufficient. It won’t even be value attempting.

I’ll admit to having forgotten these questions over the previous couple years

The rationale, sadly, is that considering takes place in your mind. And considering is an energetic pursuit — one that usually occurs if you end up spending lengthy stretches of time staring into house, then writing a bit, after which staring into house a bit extra. It’s right here right here that the connections are made and the insights are fashioned. And it’s a course of that stubbornly resists automation.

Which isn’t to say that software program can’t assist. Andy Matuschak, a researcher whose spectacular website provides a feast of excited about notes and note-taking, observes that note-taking apps emphasize displaying and manipulating notes, but never making sense between them. Earlier than I completely resign myself to the concept that a note-taking app can’t remedy my issues, I’ll admit that on some elementary degree nobody has actually tried.

“The purpose is to not take notes — the purpose is to suppose successfully,” Matuschak writes. “Higher questions are ‘what practices may also help me reliably develop insights over time?’ [and] ‘how can I shepherd my consideration successfully?’”

I’ll admit to having forgotten these questions over the previous couple years as I saved filling up paperwork with transient strings of textual content inside costly software program. And I settle for that to be a greater thinker, I’ll must commit extra time and a spotlight to wrestling with what I discover.

If there’s a pleasant AI to assist me try this, although, I’ll be first in line to attempt it.

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