Paper, pen and tools for thinking

November 19, 2020

“The art of thinking is grounded in the mind’s astonishing capacity to create beyond what it intends, beyond what it can foresee.” — Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information

Perhaps one of the best habits that I’ve picked up and sustained in 2020 is the art of bullet journaling. Now that I’m a few months in, my journal has since become a trusty sidekick, the daily ritual of its care and feeding now an essential, calming practice. Journaling is how I both start and end my day. It is how I reflect on the activities of the previous week, the highs and lows of the previous month, how I track all of my tasks and todos and remember important events. Writing things down on paper in a structured way has genuinely helped me focus, remember things, think more clearly, maintain other habits, and even pare down my commitments in ways I was never able to achieve with more sophisticated digital tools. And over the years I have tried a lot of digital tools—todo lists, journaling apps, notetaking apps and apps that transcend these boundaries. I still use these tools, but they have become secondary, playing a supporting role to a simple, black dotted notebook that has since become the star of my daily routine.

The allure and promise of so many digital productivity tools is that they purport to be better than the analog tools from which they derive inspiration. In some ways this is true; they offer near-ubiquitous ease of access, better searchability, collaboration support with distant colleagues, protection against data loss, etc. But computational devices—be they laptops, desktops, phones, tablets—remain fairly poor instruments for the act of thinking. In this, nothing seems to top the simplicity of paper and pen.

There are several reasons for this:

A few days ago I watched a panel conversation put together by Mario Gabriele of The Generalist on independent research, tools for thought and internet academia. The conversation opens with the question: “What is your favorite tool for thought?” Several of the panelists respond by sharing favorite analog tools—reams of dot-matrix printer paper, four-color pens, books, post-it notes. When any panelist did share a digital tool—Are.na or Google Scholar, for instance—it was a tool used for purposes of information gathering and organization rather than creating, assembling, drawing, searching for patterns, the hard work of thought.

Computing just isn’t there yet.

The devices Mark Weiser once dreamed about have become reality, with input modalities on par with the expressive fidelity of paper and pen. And perhaps one day we will invent better tools for augmenting thought beyond digital facsimiles of analog solutions. But not without much more investment in this space. Over two decades ago, during the heyday of labs like Xerox PARC, computing tools for thinking, productivity and creativity felt richly explored and researched. Today, the bulk of the tech world has focused on, as Adam Wiggins asserts in the conversation mentioned above, social media, video, search, and other consumer-focused endeavors. The promise of computing to serve human creativity, thought, and productivity feels, these days, somewhat quaint—a whisper of some bygone era lost in a cacophony of services competing for ever-smaller slices of attention.

There’s a lot of room to innovate, but lately the industry feels like it’s lost all ambition here.