Bit Literacy: Paper or Electronic?

Chapter 1 begins with a bang: Hurst admonishes us for using paper when we should be doing everything electronically. While paper does have its advantages, namely low cost and durability, the disadvantages far outweigh any positives. For instance, according to Hurst, paper kills trees; bits do not kill trees. Bits are nothing more than electrons, even though hardware “can be poisonous to the environment” (10).

Also, paper takes up space which can inundate the user, while bits take up no more space than a harddrive or a USB thumbdrive. Storage size is constantly increasing while physical size is decreasing. Paper, on the other hand, can only be so small. Paper can also be torn, burnt, destroyed and fade.

Hurst further shows his disdain for paper when he replaces what is obviously GTD with [complex paper-based system] in an email quote. It’s obvious from both the first chapter and his chapter on todos that he does not like paper.

So, it’s obvious that I disagree with him on this point. First of all, I don’t think GTD is a complex paper-based system. I certainly think GTD is better implemented if you use paper, but as David Allen says, it’s platform agnostic. You can do GTD completely paperless or completely computerless. This is why the system is timeless.

Secondly, the argument that paper kills trees but bits do not is ridiculous. He says hardware “can be” poisonous, when he should say it “absolutely is”. My iPod has mercury in it; if not properly disposed of, this mercury can and will cause damage to the environment. Also, the idea that bits themselves are not harmful is slightly disingenuous. Sure, bits are just electrons, but they do require something to display them. Computers use quite a bit of electricity which is probably fueled by coal which is probably strip-mined and, well, you get the point.

Finally, Hurst doesn’t seem to take into account that some people actually prefer to use paper in some circumstances. I am a fan of the Hipster PDA, which basically just means I carry index cards around with me to make notes and keep track of actions list. There are times when I can’t get to a computer or when I’m not allowed to be online (at work), but I still need to stay on top of my projects. Paper, whether index cards or a Moleskine journal, is an invaluable resource.

While I disagree with Hurst on this point (and fairly early on in the book), he still does make some good points about the sheer size of paper. Of course, if you’ve been using a computer for any period of time, you probably have gigs and gigs of files that even the best filing system can’t help you with.

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Bit Literacy

Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst is an interesting book. It is a call (as much as a tech book can have a “call”) to a life where you control the bits in your life, and not vice-versa. For many of us, whether at work or home, this is a lofty goal indeed.

It has the beginnings of system whereby you can be productive by actually doing things instead of worrying about fitting things into your system. The book provides a strong critique against such complicated systems (which, implicitly, includes GTD, although I disagree with him on this point) and seeks to move the reader towards simplicity.

More posts are coming this week about this book, but I wanted to touch on the major point of the book in this post. If you had to distill the premise, it would be to teach the reader how to organize bits. He breaks this down to emails, todos, pictures and other files.

For many of us, our inboxes/desktops/document folders are jumbled messes. You open your email and your inbox has a couple hundred items, some of which you’re working on, others you already did and some you haven’t even opened yet. Your desktop might look the same, filled with an assortment of pictures, documents, pdfs and illegally downloaded TV shows (for those criminals who can’t wait for the Sci-fi Channel to catch up with Doctor Who). We think it’s easier to find things if it’s all out in the open.

This is a hinderance to being productive because we end up spending more time trying to find stuff than we do working on it. We must, according to Hurst, organize our bits (which is a pretty funny thing to say) so that everything is easily identifiable, easily reached and (hopefully) easier to work on.

Bit Literacy does not guarantee “stress free productivity” but does promise less stress from things that are not important, like the size of your inbox. Stress from your projects is up to you.

What Else Could This Apply To?

Many people know they’re overloaded. What they may not realize is that they’re responsible for their own success in managing their bits. To be free of overload and the problems it causes, users must choose to be become bit-literate. This is more than making a mental decision to change; it requires actively working with bits in a new way. Learning the necessary skills isn’t difficult, but it can be a barrier for many people. (Mark Hurst, Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, 12)