How I Learned to Stop Complaining About Being Distracted and Made Forgetful By the Internet and Learned to Love the PIM

Dr. John Estes is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Malone University. He speaks to us today about leveraging PIMs (Personal Information Management databases) to organize the deluge of information which we are exposed to each day. The use of a PIM, I am a big fan of Omnifocus and Endnote, is an excellent method of managing our digital lives. Thank you, John, for closing out the “Faculty Speak Classroom Geek” series with this most excellent entry!


The brain is not a computer. It’s not even like a computer. If nothing else comes from this little essay, I hope that pointing out the debasing effect of that metaphor is of some use; the Malone mission is advanced every time a human being is disabused of referring to herself as a machine. A computer cannot be programmed to generate a random number, and thus has nothing of consequence on us, even if they can beat us at chess and Jeopardy.

Even so, despite the sci-fi warning of Skynet, the Borg, the Matrix and the HAL 9000, we press on. Many of us carry small supercomputers in our pockets and bags all day. If you’re reading this, you are probably trying to figure out how (or whether) these tools augment and facilitate learning, despite the steady flow of research beginning to demonstrate that our cultural and individual immersion in an ever-connected, screen-driven world is morphing, if not compromising, aspects of what we have long considered our core humanity: memory, attention, creativity, community. If you are like me, this research does little but ratify what experience has already suggested, if not proven.

I am really not trying to be cranky. I’ve been using so-called “new media” in my classes for nearly eight years, but I’m as suspicious of them as I am excited about them, as ambivalently wed to them as I am to my personal and writing life. It bears reminding that written text and the printed book are themselves media technologies susceptible to hype and were, like our new gadgets, thought by many to auger the end of civilization. And since they aren’t going away anytime soon–since our digitally native students cannot give their existence a second-thought and are less aware than we are that like any tools, electronic media operate as an extension of the self and will–the best thing we can do is encourage a line of questioning about media new and old. As Marshall McCluhan put it, “[A]ny medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary.” The liberally educated individual should be reflexively wary of and skeptical about all tacit assumptions and biases; our work is to make these manifest and available for reflection. Is makes a difference whether one thinks of the heart as a drum machine, a blood pump, or a lonely hunter.

Managing the Deluge

Even if you have never heard the phrase “attention economy,” you negotiate it every day. How often do you swear you’ll check your email less often, limit your time on Facebook, or take a phone sabbath? I couldn’t be the only one who feels like I was more productive/creative/efficient 10 years ago, before I had so many tools and such easy access to information? Or who thinks maybe I was happier then, despite not being able to remind myself of Fermat’s Last Theorem or the actors who have played God within an instant of wanting it? The fuss and fury used to about time management, and it still is in a way, but it’s actually more helpful to reconceptualize the problem as a scarcity of attention.

This dilemma is obvious: we are awash in information–much of it useless or distracting, and just as much of it interesting, if not vital to our work–and the competition for our attention is fierce. Hard choices must constantly be made, and we must work harder and harder to stay focused. We must even work harder and harder to be bored, if one sees a value in that. The ability to navigate this glut intelligently, especially for those of us reared in a slower, more analog world, can be elusive. Despite our attempts to the contrary, psychological research shows that the human brain simply cannot multitask without exacting a cost on the quality of our work. What we and our students need, to augment sheer will power, are tools and habits that help us manage the overload and find a way toward an intentional focus that helps us channel our attention and creative energies.

Enter the PIM

There is a cottage industry of productivity tools that promise to help us be better stewards of our attention: task managers, full-screen text editors, and the class of application I want to focus on, the Personal Information Manager. A PIM, as they are called, is essentially a database with (one hopes) a slick interface that helps and encourages you to capture, store and process all of your data. We all must be editors and curators now, and I try to impress upon students that this is one of the most important skills they will (or should) tackle. Imagine having all your data–from contacts, credit card numbers and passwords, to hordes of notes, PDFs and ebooks–in one place that is actually many places, having it searchable and sharable. So long as you trust the keepers of this information (a matter not to be taken lightly), it’s a pretty good scenario for a writer, scholar, or citizen of the digital age.

The reference manager is a specialized class of PIM tailored for research, and deserves mention. On the professional end most everyone knows of EndNote, and maybe Bookends (Mac), but for student use there’s nothing quite like Zotero, a free utility developed by a group at George Mason University. While one downside may be its Firefox-only plugin capability, its benefits far outweigh whatever sacrifice that might entail. From within the browser one can collect, organize, and take notes on sources, including archiving webpages for offline viewing, leaving the dirty work of bibliographic formatting–your choice of format–to the program. An increasing number of academic, library, and popular website are coded to allow reference managers to easily gather pertinent data, but since nothing is foolproof, users must stay aware of what is being collected and fill in any missing data, and of course records can be manually created as well. Another nifty feature it has (as all the high-end ref managers do) is the ability to insert citations directly into word processors, creating a Works Cited as one writes. For the price, it has all the features a student needs (and plenty for most professionals), is easily mastered, and since so much of our research is done online, it fits right into existing workflows. The prospect of not having to worry about such minutiae as the difference between comma placement in MLA vs. APA vs. Chicago style ever again is either a revelation or a horror, depending on your frame of reference.

The Elephant in the Room

The ideal PIM would be with you always (if you wanted), like a trusty notebook, ubiquitously present for import or export or browsing, syncing invisibly over the air between devices. This ideal is beginning to be realized, although implementations vary. The best web-based app is surely Backpack by 37signals, which is really a sophisticated wiki with many collaborative features that make it capable of being a hub for class writings. On the Mac, there is DevonThink and Yojimbo, on Windows OneNote. All three of these are robust, and have iPhone and/or iPad apps with some level of sync capability. A few programs like Papers (Mac only) and Mendeley (cross-platform) do all that plus have a built-in reference manager. The watchword in this category is “frictionless”–minimizing the number of steps, keyboard strokes or mouse moves it takes you to get information from its source into your database. The ecosystem that has come so far the closest to this ideal is probably EverNote, which touts itself as “an extension of your brain.”

Its power and usefulness as a classroom tool is a function not just of it features, of which there are many, but its reach. Not only is it available for Mac and Windows, but has apps for all major handheld and tablet devices so students can make us of it whatever with what they have. Also, your data resides on the web so it can be accessed from any computer. It has hooks into every major browser, several RSS readers, email, Twitter, as well as scanners and other apps that can send documents and media files into the database. You can snap a picture, record a voice memo or even a video in the field, tag it, send it to EverNote and later sift through your day’s haul on your laptop without having to download or move files. Taking advantage of its magnetic Smart Cover, EverNote has turned the iPad 2 into an electronic flash card.

One habit such a tool encourages is constant attentiveness. As writers we are always working on something but can’t divert focus to deal with every passing idea, a web page we surreptitiously come across, or even all of the data we find when purposefully searching. What EverNote and other PIMs make possible is fast, frictionless collection for later retrieval, culling, and reflection. To Capture is to Remember might make a good tagline. Students who make good use of a database like this will benefit by the longer development arc for their papers and research projects, giving them more matter in front of them (virtually at least) and more time to make connections between and insight into their data.

EverNote’s organizational schema is the Notebook, in which one can have as many Notes as one wants. And because Notes and Notebooks can be shared (publicly or privately), one way I intend to use EverNote this coming semester is to replace Google Docs as the means by which students can share their work with me and fellow students for workshopping drafts and submission for grading. Students can share files with me and I’ll be able to send an annotated PDF directly back into their EverNote Notebook. Having a repository like this should obviate some of the problems I’ve run into with Google Docs (similar to those explored here), particularly issues of mass file organization and student privacy. Going the other way, I can have a class Notebook shared with them into which I can put course documents and whatever else I wish to distrubute to everyone, and it will automagically arrive on their desktops without having to open an email or download it from a website.

There is something disturbing about a computer program that promises to take over the work of human memory. Are we at risk of becoming stockpilers rather than learners? This is already happening according to a study released this summer. And it’s a turn of events that was foreseen a few thousand year ago. In Phaedrus Plato tells the story of Thamos, a king, and Theuth, the god who invented writing. When Theuth brings writing to Thamos, asking that he help distribute his new invention to the people, promising it will make them wiser and aid their memories, Thamos balks. He claims that it will in fact have the opposite effect: once one can write thoughts down, there will be no need to commit them to memory. Writing will “implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he says. And neither will people be wiser, as they will only seem to know much, possessing the conceit of wisdom. I would like to think that we can judiciously make use of these media so long as we cultivate our critique and careful use of them. I would like to think that assimilation by machines is not inevitable, that resistance is not futile.

One Response to How I Learned to Stop Complaining About Being Distracted and Made Forgetful By the Internet and Learned to Love the PIM

  • Earl Rodd says:

    Very informative and thought provoking article!
    One update: Sci-Fi warnings about technology , the Matrix (that great 20 minute story with 90 min of added gratuitous violence) is getting
    old. The latest are novels Zero Day (by Mark Russinovich), written by a technically competent author and a plausible, if scary story and
    Daemon (by Daniel Saurez) a more far reaching (and less plausible) story in the mold of the matrix (lots of extra violence which could be skipped)
    and its sequel (which I have not read) FreedomTM.

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