Notes on: Malcolm Gladwell "Social Life of Paper: Looking for Method in the Mess"

Notes on Malcolm Gladwell "Social Life of Paper: Looking for Method in the Mess":

"…how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerization. A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don't agree. Paper has persisted, they argue, for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers. The dismay people feel at the sight of a messy desk — or the spectacle of air-traffic controllers tracking flights through notes scribbled on paper strips — arises from a fundamental confusion about the role that paper plays in our lives."

re: a study on why paper is necessary, ref to "Myth of Paperless Office": "Their answer is that the business of writing reports — at least at the I.M.F — is an intensely collaborative process, involving the professional judgments and contributions of many people. The economists bring drafts of reports to conference rooms, spread out the relevant pages, and negotiate changes with one other. They go back to their offices and jot down comments in the margin, taking advantage of the freedom offered by the informality of the handwritten note. Then they deliver the annotated draft to the author in person, taking him, page by page, through the suggested changes. At the end of the process, the author spreads out all the pages with comments on his desk and starts to enter them on the computer — moving the pages around as he works, organizing and reorganizing, saving and discarding."

"…paper has a unique set of 'affordances' — that is, qualities that permit specific kinds of uses." (throwback to Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things)

"But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that 'knowledge workers" use the physical space of the desktop to hold "ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.'"

In part 3 of his essay, Gladwell describes the desktop as an extension of a worker's mind. Through the organization of materials on a desk, a person can contextualize and reconstruct thoughts. It is a system that is created completely by the user, whereas the filing system of a computer is very rigid with folders and files organized rationally but not always correctly. Apple and Google are on the right track with bringing natural language search to the forefront of information retrieval. At a "real" level, however, our minds use associative indexing to organize our workspaces. The most interesting insight in part 3 is the emphasis on personal context rather than general documental essence. A document has some essence through its contents, but as the workers(at the chocolate manufacturer) show, it is the apparent ephemera(extra stuff in files), notes in margins, etc. that makes the documents useful, but maybe only to the person who kept those things. It is because we do not always reveal the reasoning behind our organizational and work processes that the "knowledge" of the individual is not always replaceable by automated or digital means.

"…documents cannot speak for themselves. 'All of this emphasized that most of what constituted a buyer's expertise resulted from involvement with the buyer's own suppliers through a long history of phone calls and meetings,' Sellen and Harper write:

The correspondence, notes, and other documents such discussions would produce formed a significant part of the documents buyers kept. These materials therefore supported rather than constituted the expertise of the buyers. In other words, the knowledge existed not so much in the documents as in the heads of the people who owned them — in their memories of what the documents were, in their knowledge of the history of that supplier relationship, and in the recollections that were prompted whenever they went through the files."

"It is only if paper's usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous. The solution to our paper problem, they write, is not to use less paper but to keep less paper."

"…we all have the best filing system ever invented, right there on our desks — the personal computer. That is the irony of the P.C.: the workplace problem that it solves is the nineteenth-century anxiety. It's a better filing cabinet than the original vertical file…The problem that paper solves, by contrast, is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work."

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