Random Notes

The occasionally-updated public notebook of Scott Nesbitt

Publisher: Meatspace Press

Editors: Shannon Mattern, Mark Graham, Rob Kitchin, and Joe Shaw

The ideal city, at least to the denizens of certain ideological circles, is one in which that city and its services are run like a business. More to the point, a city and its services that are in the hands of private enterprise — preferably one or more technology firms.

That kind of a shift is touted by its boosters as making local government leaner. As allowing those governments to make better decisions with data. As offering better services, more efficiency, and at lower costs. Which, in turn, results in lower taxes and fees. And who doesn't want that?

But does the vision match what will really happen? That's difficult to predict with absolute accuracy. In How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables, a group of academics and writers with deep interests in technology and public policy uses a set of short stories, poems, essays, and essay fiction to present a different perspective.

What emerges from this book isn't the image of a smoothly-running metropolis, one basking in the wonders of the free market and lean, data-driven digital processes. Instead, it's a city of social credit scoring. A city of constant surveillance and data gathering, of scrambles for scraps of gig work. A city in the throes of a race to the bottom fueled both by the need to survive from day to day and by the greed of the corporations pulling the digital levers. It's a metropolis in which the divisions we see in our society today are further deepened by algorithms. Hardly the technological utopia promised by the likes of Sidewalk Labs, IBM, and Cisco Systems.

How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables is a thought provoking and sobering read that provides a counterpoint to the tales of the rosy futures that many technologists are spinning to try to convince us their vision of tomorrow's city is what's best for us. Speculative though it may be, this book offers a look into a potential tomorrow. A tomorrow that isn't the future we signed up for. One which, if we take what's been happening in the technology world over the last decade or so into account, could be a likely tomorrow.

And there is a difference between the two.

What you chuck into your note-taking application, personal knowledge management tool, collection of text files, repository, or whatever isn't knowledge. All that is just bits of data. Facts. Figures. Thoughts. Ideas. Quotes. Links. Notes. Scribbling. Snippets.

All of that information only becomes knowledge when you give it context. When you shape it into a form that you can easily use or share. Like an article, a blog post, a paper, an essay, a book chapter, a set of instructions. Something another human can read and use and learn from. Something that you can read and use and learn from.

And, no, the tools don't do that work for you. You need to put in the hard graft to transform the information that you've collected into knowledge. Until you do, that information isn't as valuable or useful as you think it is.

Whether we realize it or not, we often need to find a balance between complex and simple. Too often though, many people err on the side of the complex.

To some, the complex choice in anything seems better value. Others fall into the contingency mindset when choosing between complex and simple — they figure they might need more at some hazy point in the future, and go with the more complex option.

If you’ve been reading the posts in this space for any length of time, you know that I tend to choose the simple path wherever and whenever possible. Why? Simple offers less drag on my efforts. Simple requires less maintenance. Simple cuts to the core of what I need to do, what I want to do, what I want to know.

Take, for example, a task management application called Remember the Milk. Way back in January, 2016 I started a year-long experiment with it. Over the 12 months that I used Remember the Milk, I found it had more features than I’d ever use. It has more features than I need. That doesn’t mean that Remember the Milk is a bad tool. Far from it. It became clear by the middle of 2016, though, that Remember the Milk wasn’t the right task manager for me.

That’s not to say I shun the complex. Complex does have its place. You can’t wrap everything that’s happening in the world today in a simple, straightforward package. Very little is black and white. There are too many shades of gray.

Some people, for example, need the advanced features of software like Photoshop or The GIMP. Something like Pinta just isn’t enough for their needs.

Balance comes when you understand when to go simple and when to go complex. That balance isn’t easy to find. It takes a bit of introspection. It takes you challenging your ideas about what you need. In the end, though, you can strike that balance.

Leo Babauta hits it on the head:

[I]f you ever get really really good at executing and getting stuff done ... you realize that it’s an empty, meaningless game.

Showing up. I'm sure you've heard people say that showing up is a huge part of succeeding — whether in your career or with a project or a goal. While I agree that showing up is important, I don't think it's the most important factor for success.

You can show up and still go through the motions. You can show up and not be ready to get the job done.

You need to do more than just show up.

You need to be passionate about what you do or what you want to do. If you don't have that passion, what you're doing will just be a job. It'll be a chore. It'll be a task. What you do or want to do must be more than that.

You need to be engaged. Passion is only the start. Passion alone isn't enough. Without engagement, your passion can quickly fizzle out. Engagement keeps the fires of your passion burning. That's not to say that your level of engagement can't or won't wax and wane, but it will help keep you going when things get tough.

You need the right mindset. That mindset? To stick with what you're doing until that end, regardless of the obstacles that you encounter. Call it mental toughness or perseverance or the will to win. Whatever tag you slap on it, that mindset is the guiding hand that keeps your passion and engagement on track.

Finally, you need a support system. And I'm not talking about cheerleaders. I'm talking about friends or colleagues. A mentor or coach. Someone to whom you can turn for advice, answers, reassurance, or help. Someone who won't judge you, who will have an open mind, who can offer insights or points of view that veer slightly away from yours.

If you show up with all that, you'll have a better chance of succeeding. At whatever you're trying to do.

You might recall a post I published a while back about the text playlist that I added to my home page. In that post, I recommend including maybe half a dozen items, at most, in a playlist. That said, when I wrote that post my own contained about 11 links.

A playlist (text or otherwise) is personal — it can have as many or as few entries in it as you want. Me? I guess I'm just a stickler for keeping to my recommendations. With that poking at me, I felt the urge to whittle my playlist down to the recommended six items.

So what did I do? Like most people, I'm not in state of flux or stasis. Like most people, I'm changing, being influenced or inspired or challenged by something new. Regularly. Some ideas might resonate with me a bit more than others at a given moment. That doesn't mean, though, the other ideas still don't matter.

To reflect that, I did what most of us do with audio playlists: I began rotating the contents of my text playlist. It's now a mix of (for lack of a better term) evergreen inspiration and what's given my thinking a jolt in recent days.

I'm not sure how often I'll rotate my text playlist, or how it'll change with each rotation. But I am looking forward to what those changes bring.

We live in a world where the superficial seems to have taken control. Sound bites, 280-character messages, short headlines, news briefs.

We graze. We catch only a few drops out of the fire hose of information that is spraying online. We only see the surface.

But rarely do we see deeper.

What do I mean by that? Striving for more depth in what we take in. Depth is what not only gives us greater insights, but also offers context and detail. That depth can lead us to an informed opinion and to stronger understanding. It can help us see what's not readily apparent.

To see deeper, you need to make an effort to dig for that detail. To do that:

  • Avoid relying on tweets, headlines, and summaries.
  • Read analyses, in-depth essays, and listen to or watch in-depth interviews and news stories.
  • Vary your reading, watching, and listening.
  • Challenge yourself and your assumptions.

Most of all, think. Try to understand. Try to move aside or lower your filters. Try to approach an issue or an idea from different angles.

It's not easy. No matter how open minded we think we are, many of us have built up a wall of assumptions, opinions, and positions that we jealously protect. And that wall is the biggest barrier to seeing deeper. Breaking through it, or even just climbing over it, isn't easy. It will not only be difficult, it could be painful. It could cause you to doubt what you know and what you think.

And that's the whole point of seeing deeper. To challenge your belief. To shake up your opinions. To put cracks in your assumptions.

Once you start to see deeper, though, you'll view the world and yourself in a very different and, I'd hazard to say, better way.

Sometime in the autumn of 2005, my wife bought some educational software for our daughter. It looked interesting, and quite comprehensive.

Unfortunately, it was anything but straightforward. Each task or lesson had a lengthy preamble attached to it, setting up the task with a long, convoluted story. And there wasn’t any way to skip the preamble.

My wife got very frustrated with the software. My daughter … well, she got bored, wandered off and picked up a book to read.

While this was going on, I installed some educational software on one of my Linux-powered laptops — specifically, GCompris and Tux Typing. Within minutes, my daughter was using (and I hope learning from) the software. All without the annoying narration and set up. The Linux software that I installed was simple; some would say boring. But it worked.

That taught me a valuable lesson: often, the simple choice is better than the complex choice. Especially when it comes to tools — whether they’re productivity and organization tools, writing tools, or tools for learning.

Simple offers a number of advantages over complex. There’s less overhead, both cognitive and digital. There’s less to distract you. Simple is faster. It’s often more effective.

Simple lets you get the job done. Quickly, easily, and with the minimum of headaches.

Simple keeps you focused on what you’re doing.

Simple just works. And it lets you work. And learn. And play.

Sure, there are people who need a more complex option. Most of us, though, can get by without that complexity. In most cases, I’d say we can do more than get by.

Don’t default to the complex in anything. Consider a simpler option, a simpler path. For most of what you do, simple is more than good enough.

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