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Retro Information Management I

Do you still carry a PDA around? Yes, pulling out a PDA at a meeting has become rather gauche. Everyone had them in the bubble and now they are largely collecting dust in the back of junk drawers. Sure, many have moved on the cell phones with PDA capability, which sounds nice in theory, but in practice, beyond address book functionality, I can count on half a hand the number of people I know that actually use them as an information management device. There's one exception: the BlackCrackberry, which seems to be quite good at inducing information-addiction (largely in the form of email).

So what's an organized person supposed to do!? Well, while it's not a proven technology yet, I just love the retro feel of Merlin Mann's Hipster PDA.

If you're not familar with Merlin, he runs a great blog called 43 Folders built around the concept of adapting David Allen's ideas in the book Getting Things Done to the technology world. He also has some great discussions on very low-tech information devices like the legendary Moleskines notebooks.

So Merlin describes his new PDA as:

The Hipster PDA (Parietal Disgorgement Aid) is a fully extensible system for coordinating incoming and outgoing data for any aspect of your life and work. It scales brilliantly, degrades gracefully, supports optional categories and "beaming" and is configurable to an unlimited number of options.

Sounds pretty good huh? But there's more: the PDA of course fits in your
pocket and costs practically nothing to purchase or maintain. How can this
be? Remember I said this was a retro PDA, it's made of 3"x5" index cards and
a binder clip.

How does it work? Basically you have a set of index cards with a separator in between them. On one side you have completed cards, on the other a fresh supply of new cards. You make your notes, and then when your cards are nearly full, or you're back at the office, it is time to process them, presumably move them to digital, or whatever. Using concepts from David Allen you can then divide them into various information processing stacks (action items, waiting for something, etc.).

Now the obvious question is, "so what?, why are sites like BoingBoing calling this kind of thing 'amazing'?" or as a reader of 43 folders recently put it:

Could someone explain to me why this is such a revelation, or even an exciting idea. Is there really a group of people out there who somehow "forgot" about paper and pencil, or is the paperclip the exciting new element here?

The answer is "uh, yeah, we did forget when everyone was pulling out the PDAs." Sure, there is no major rocket science going on here, just a system for people who are trying to keep things in control in a world that is getting more complex. Now one thing I really like about it is how low tech it is; there is just something to the tactile feel of paper and writing that you don't get from a PDA. But we lose something too, the ease of digitalization of the content we're creating. Ken Arnold once told me "you know, it's fun to ship bits (software), but it's a heck of a lot of fun to ship atoms (books, etc.)." So true, there is just something about the feel and weight of producing something made of atoms and not pure bits. Perhaps digital paper and other technologies will begin to solve this and I look forward to 21st century Moleskines.

This got me thinking about another real world artifiact that was created to improve the creative process: Eno's Oblique Strategies. I'll come back to that in my next post and relate it to software development a bit.

Oh, and if the Hipster PDA just isn't "hip" enough for you, no worries, there's already a new version out, the Mini Hipster PDA.

Posted by Eric Freeman on January 12, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

have you encountered more examples of low-tech exertainment and info-management tools in your
research?

My preoccupation, what a big word :-) in this
case, is that, in the theme of creating passionate
users, high-tech seems leading. Sometimes having
just a book support on an old hometrainer, and a
mind gauged to infinity and beyond, is an effective
and fun blend of reading and training. One guess
whose recent book took some miles to read, compliments ;-)

Cheers

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 12, 2005 11:04:43 PM

I'm going to look into this 43 folders "thing". I think I'll replace the binder clip with my Moleskin Memo Pockets and keep my 3x5's in that though.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 12, 2005 11:11:51 PM

Low tech exertainment, at first I thought "that's an oxymoron", but I guess I can think of a few such activities... but I'm not going there. ;)

A book and a hometrainer... hey, why not! I've always had trouble personally reading and training, but audio works pretty well for me (both music and spoken). I used to be quite the Audible.com junkie.

Johannes, I'm with you, the Moleskine seems a lot cleaner, let me know how the experiment goes.

-Eric

Posted by: Eric | Jan 13, 2005 12:49:11 PM

ok, I see your point :) I was under the
impression you where conducting a research
into what drives users and makes them pas-
sionate. The reading-training thing was just
one example of one end of the spectrum I
thought was beeing considered. Thanks.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 13, 2005 11:01:34 PM

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