Thinking and Paper

Yesterday as I was reading Dr Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” papers, I was reminded by his use of the H-LAM/T acronym (Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained), and his definition of the term Artifact, that I very much wanted to write about Dr Edward Tufte‘s “Thinking and Paperforum entry.  It is at http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00008c.

Dr Tufte’s entry begins with a reference to and comments upon Malcolm Gladwell‘s article “The Social Life of Paper“, which was originally published in the March 25, 2002 issue of the New Yorker.  That article is also available on Gladwell’s site gladwell.com.   (As an aside, Gladwell has an archive of articles he has written which are ALL very interesting and worth reading.  His article “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” is another particularly interesting one to read from a #ThoughtVectors perspective.)

Following Dr Tufte’s remarks, many readers have posted interesting and useful comments.  It’s worth quite a bit of time to read down through them, ponder in turn their content, and use them as launching points for further study and exploration.  The forum comments explore the idea that the use of paper is very valuable in facilitating thinking, and for some purposes is better than any other technique or tool.  Dr Tufte explicitly states “For some cognitive tasks, paper outperforms computers…”, and others provide many examples and suggestions along those lines.

It has been many years since I read Gladwell’s article and Tufte’s forum comments, but the key concept I gleaned is that sometimes paper IS the best tool to use.  While many things have been automated using computers and other tools, there are still lots of things for which paper is STILL the most effective and efficient approach.

Of additional interest, the forum entry includes multiple comments by  (and comments in response to) a gentleman named Martin Ternouth, describing the paper-based organization system he developed.  At one point he had a job for which “My desk system had to have all operational information immediately to hand, but in such a form that it could be cleared instantly: either to receive a hostile visitor complaining of a mispayment, or to substitute the paperwork for another complex problem totally unrelated to the last.”  These entries are HIGHLY worth reading.

Entries related to Ternouth’s system have been extracted and summarized at http://drauh.typepad.com/Ternouth/,  and described in several places.  Also, there have been a couple successful attempts at merging the Getting Things Done concepts with Ternouth’s, such as at 43folders based on an article by Ishbadiddle called “The Anxiety of Getting Things Done”.  (I’m having trouble finding the original article tonight, the link to http://triptronix.net/ishbadiddle/archives/2005/06/19/01.53.20/ seems broken. Perhaps we need to use the WayBack machine at archive.org…)  Note also that the donationcoder.com site has a PDF description from Mr Ternouth attached with permission.

So with respect to Dr Engelbart’s augmentation concepts, we must not neglect nor denigrate the value of paper.  And with the ideas in Tufte’s forum 00008c, Gladwell’s article archive, Getting Things Done, and the various descriptions of Ternouth’s system, there is no lack of mind fodder for, and distractions from, our #ThoughtVectors explorations.

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