Why note-taking apps don’t make us smarter


That is Platformer, a publication on the intersection of Silicon Valley and democracy from Casey Newton and Zoë Schiffer. Sign up here.

At present let’s step exterior the information cycle and switch our consideration towards a subject I’m deeply invested in however solely hardly ever write about: productiveness platforms. For many years now, software program instruments have promised to make working life simpler. However on one important dimension — their means to enhance our considering — they don’t appear to be making a lot progress in any respect.

In the meantime, the arrival of generative synthetic intelligence may make the instruments we use extra highly effective than ever — or they may turn into simply one other mirage.

To know the place issues went flawed, I need to give attention to the common-or-garden note-taking app: the place the place, for thus many people, considering begins.

Earlier this week I learn a narrative about farmers. “America’s Farmers Are Bogged Down by Knowledge,” learn the headline on Belle Lin’s story within the Wall Road Journal. I assumed to myself: You and me each, farmer! And I learn the piece.

Over the previous decade, farmers have been supplied all method of software program instruments to research and handle their crops. Basically, although, the extra software program that farmers use, the extra they discover themselves overwhelmed by information that the instruments acquire. “We’re accumulating a lot information that you simply’re virtually paralyzed with having to research all of it,” one farmer informed the Journal.

As a journalist, I’ve by no means collected as a lot information as I do now. The collapse of Twitter has me shopping 4 or 5 text-based social feeds a day, scanning for information and considerate dialog. The rising recognition of arXiv and pre-prints typically has left me with a stack of analysis that I’ll by no means get by means of. E-book galleys pile up in my home.

A screenshot of the app Notion.
Picture: Notion

In the meantime, all day lengthy I browse the online. Tales that may belong in Platformer get saved right into a database within the productiveness platform Notion. Each hyperlink that has ever been on this publication is saved there, in lots of circumstances with the total article textual content.

Collectively, this materials gives me an abundance of riches — much more to work with than any beat reporter had such quick access to even 15 years in the past.

And but most days I discover myself with the identical downside because the farmer: I’ve a lot data at hand that I really feel paralyzed.

One answer to this information paralysis is to take notes. As a journalist, in fact, I’ve all the time taken notes. A couple of years in the past, I assumed we had seen some true breakthroughs in note-taking, and more and more put my religion in these instruments not simply to seize my writing however to enhance the standard of my considering.

The breakthrough software was Roam Research. In 2021, I wrote right here about my first year using the subscription-based software, which had two key insights into data work. One was to make skilled note-taking really feel extra like journaling. It seems {that a} contemporary be aware created every day, labeled with a date, is an effective canvas for accumulating transient ideas, which might function a springboard into deeper considering.

The second is thought to note-taking nerds as “bidirectional linking.” Commonplace hyperlinks, like those you discover on the internet, go in just one route — from one web page to a different. In a note-taking app, bidirectional hyperlinks be part of two pages collectively. This successfully enables you to add backlinks to any idea — an organization that’s vital to you, say, or an idea that’s in your thoughts — after which allow you to browse every little thing you’ve collected associated to that idea at your leisure.

A graphic from Roam illustrating bidirectional linking.
Picture: Roam

On one degree, that’s not so totally different from including tags to notes. However tags are extra about search. Bidirectional hyperlinks, which some apps present you on pages that embody snippets of all the opposite notes that include the identical hyperlink, are extra about shopping and rediscovery.

Initially, I threw myself into this type of associative note-taking. I gathered hyperlinks round ideas I wished to discover (“the web permits data to journey too rapidly,” for instance, or social networks and polarization). After I had an fascinating dialog with an individual, I might add notes to a private web page I had created for them. A couple of occasions every week, I might revisit these notes.

I waited for the insights to return.

Be aware-taking apps are up in opposition to a a lot stronger foe

My gusto for concept-based, link-heavy note-taking diminished. Roam’s improvement slowed to a crawl, and I spent a season with the light-weight, largely free different referred to as Obsidian. Obsidian’s brutalist design wore on me, although, and ultimately I decamped for the extra polished person interface of Mem. (These apps all allow the exporting of your notes in Markdown, making switching comparatively painless.)

I proceed to journal most days, and infrequently discover myself working to refine one idea or one other amongst these notes.

However the authentic promise of Roam — that it might enhance my considering by serving to me to construct a data base and uncover new concepts — fizzled utterly.

One interpretation of those occasions is that the software program failed: that journaling and souped-up hyperlinks merely don’t have the ability a few of us as soon as hoped they did.

One other view, although, is that they’re up in opposition to a a lot stronger foe — the infinite day by day distractions of the web.

Be aware-taking, in spite of everything, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in your laptop, subsequent to electronic mail, and Slack, and Discord, and iMessage, and the text-based social community of your selecting. Within the period of alt-tabbing between these and different apps, our means to construct data and draw connections is completely challenged by what may be our in the end futile efforts to multitask.

Ezra Klein wrote superbly about this case this week in the New York Times:

Gloria Mark, a professor of data science on the College of California, Irvine, and the creator of “Attention Span,” began researching the best way folks used computer systems in 2004. The common time folks spent on a single display screen was 2.5 minutes. “I used to be astounded,” she informed me. “That was a lot worse than I’d thought it might be.” However that was just the start. By 2012, Mark and her colleagues discovered the typical time on a single process was 75 seconds. Now it’s all the way down to about 47.

That is an acid tub for human cognition. Multitasking is generally a delusion. We will give attention to one factor at a time. “It’s like we’ve got an inner whiteboard in our minds,” Mark mentioned. “If I’m engaged on one process, I’ve all the data I would like on that psychological whiteboard. Then I change to electronic mail. I’ve to mentally erase that whiteboard and write all the knowledge I have to do electronic mail. And identical to on an actual whiteboard, there generally is a residue in our minds. We should still be considering of one thing from three duties in the past.”

My first thought upon studying this was that it appears uncommon for me to spend even 47 seconds one display screen on my laptop with out at the least glancing at one other. (I purchased a 38-inch widescreen monitor for the categorical function of having the ability to look at many home windows concurrently. On the time I understood this as a software for enhancing my productiveness.)

My second thought is that if you wish to take good notes, it’s important to first extract your thoughts from the acid tub.

Klein’s piece begins from the commentary that productiveness progress is now about half of what it was within the Nineteen Fifties and ‘60s. The web’s arrival briefly speeded it up, he writes, however the extra we stared at our screens the slower our productiveness improved. He worries that AI may have an analogous impact on the financial system — promising to make us extra productive, whereas concurrently inventing so many new distractions and entertainments that they overwhelm and paralyze us.

The piece caught with me, as a result of there’s one particular method I’m relying on AI to make me extra productive. It goes again to that database of hyperlinks I’ve been constructing in Notion, and the insights I hoped to get out of Roam.

Saving an article in Mem.
Picture: Mem

Earlier this yr, like many productiveness instruments, Notion added a handful of AI options. I take advantage of two of them in my hyperlinks database. One extracts the names of any corporations talked about in an article, making a sort of computerized tagging system. The opposite gives a two- or three-sentence abstract of the article I’m saving.

Neither of those, in apply, is especially helpful. Tags may theoretically be helpful for revisiting previous materials, however databases should not designed to be browsed. And whereas we publish summaries of reports articles in every version of Platformer, we wouldn’t use AI-written summaries: amongst different causes, they typically miss vital particulars and context.

On the similar time, the database accommodates almost three years of hyperlinks to each topic I cowl right here, together with the whole textual content of 1000’s of articles. It’s right here, and never in a note-taking app, that data of my beat has been accreting over the previous few years. If solely I may entry that data in a roundabout way that went past my reminiscence.

It’s right here that AI ought to be capable to assist. Inside some cheap time period, I anticipate that I will speak to my Notion database as if it’s ChatGPT. If I may, I think about I might speak to it on a regular basis.

A lot of journalism merely includes remembering related occasions from the previous. An AI-powered hyperlink database has an ideal reminiscence; all it’s lacking is a usable chat interface. If it had one, it may be an ideal analysis assistant.

At present’s chatbots can’t do any of this to a reporter’s normal

I think about utilizing it to generate little briefing paperwork to assist me after I return to a topic after a while away. Catch me up on Canada’s battle with Meta over information, I would say. Make me a timeline of occasions at Twitter since Elon Musk purchased it. Present me protection of deepfakes over the previous three months.

At present’s chatbots can’t do any of this to a reporter’s normal. The coaching information typically stops in 2021, for one factor. The bots proceed to make stuff up, and battle to quote their sources.

But when I may chat in pure language with a large archive, constructed from hand-picked reliable sources? That appears highly effective to me, at the least within the summary.

In fact, the output from this type of AI software must be reliable. A major downside with utilizing AI instruments to summarize issues is you could’t belief the abstract until you learn all of the related paperwork your self — defeating the purpose of asking for a abstract within the first place.

Nonetheless, if you’re the form of productivity-tool optimist who will attempt any to-do checklist or calendar app on the off probability it makes you even a bit happier at work, it appears to me {that a} database you possibly can speak to may be the next-generation note-taking software we’ve got been ready for.

I’ve realized one thing else about note-taking apps, although, since my mania for them started in 2020.

In brief: it’s in all probability a mistake, ultimately, to ask software program to enhance our considering. Even in case you can rescue your consideration from the acid tub of the web; even in case you can collect probably the most fascinating information and observations into the app of your selecting; even in case you revisit that information infrequently — this won’t be sufficient. It may not even be price attempting.

I’ll admit to having forgotten these questions over the previous couple years

The explanation, sadly, is that considering takes place in your mind. And considering is an energetic pursuit — one that always occurs if you find yourself spending lengthy stretches of time staring into house, then writing a bit, after which staring into house a bit extra. It’s right here right here that the connections are made and the insights are fashioned. And it’s a course of that stubbornly resists automation.

Which isn’t to say that software program can’t assist. Andy Matuschak, a researcher whose spectacular website gives a feast of serious about notes and note-taking, observes that note-taking apps emphasize displaying and manipulating notes, but never making sense between them. Earlier than I completely resign myself to the concept a note-taking app can’t resolve my issues, I’ll admit that on some elementary degree nobody has actually tried.

“The aim is to not take notes — the aim is to suppose successfully,” Matuschak writes. “Higher questions are ‘what practices may also help me reliably develop insights over time?’ [and] ‘how can I shepherd my consideration successfully?’”

I’ll admit to having forgotten these questions over the previous couple years as I saved filling up paperwork with transient strings of textual content inside costly software program. And I settle for that to be a greater thinker, I’ll need to commit extra time and a spotlight to wrestling with what I discover.

If there’s a pleasant AI to assist me try this, although, I’ll be first in line to attempt it.


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