Category Archives: Productivity

A look through the viewfinder reminds us that technology changes us irreversibly

As I post this, I’m still on vacation in the Faroe Islands, where I’ve attended the wedding of a dear friend’s daughter. It was a traditional ceremony, blending ancient and new traditions. For instance, ancient Faroese and Danish songs were sung during the wedding reception, which also featured PowerPoint slideshows of photos and Quicktime videos depicting the bachelor and bachelorette parties. Digital cameras were everywhere, of course.

I’ve thought for many months how digital technology has changed the way we experience the world. We like to think that we craft our tools to serve us, but the limitations of these tools cannot help but change us as well, in the same way that our human eyes see a different spectrum of light than, say, the puffins I photographed the other day on the steep Faroese cliffs.

One example of this profound change is electricity, which is quite obvious. The other is more subtle, and involves digital photography.

Electric Light: The Other Midnight Sun

Faroese weddings go on for two solid days. The first day, which included what Americans would call the reception, had three distinct meals (the formal dinner, the serving of cakes, and an early-morning soup course). The first meal was only just ending at 11 PM, which didn’t seem so late, since the sun was only just behind the horizon. What’s more, being so close to the Arctic Circle, the sun didn’t stay away for long. As it began to reemerge, at 4 AM, we were still dancing to a band that played exclusively American — and British Invasion — rock songs.

I was told that the wedding dancing of a few hundred years ago would have included a traditional Faroese dance that takes at least an hour to complete (danced, as it is, to a song with 300+ verses). Back then oil lamplight would have illuminted the steps. This certainly would have dampened some of the more boiserous aspects of the event!

So much about us has changed because of technology’s “electric sun.”

In Maury Klein’s The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, I recently read of the pivitol day in September of 1882, when Thomas Edison, the man known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” illuminated the first 400 electric lights installed in New York City.

What struck me about his description is the muted reaction of New York Times reporters. Keep in mind that daily news reporting is driven by extremely tight press deadlines. Yet before the electric light, there was much that could be forgiven. A reporter could more easily file stories developed over weeks — and in the process, get more sleep.

Edison’s “lighting of New York” included 27 electric lamps in the Times editorial rooms. And so, you may wonder, what was the account of this sudden conquest over darkness from the reporters of “The Grey Lady?” Well, the column on Page 8 (yes, 8!) of the next day’s paper said it was, “In every way satisfactory.”

Klein made the obvious point that the paper, “never fully grasped its significance.” Only hindsight could show these reporters that their careers were to be changed forever. And also their family life. The electric light would extend both wedding festivities and work responsibilities — allowing for a day that need never fade into darkness.

Life In A Digital Viewfinder

In my travels these two weeks I’ve visited some extraordinary families (and I have one more to meet, in Belgium, before returning to the States). On the walls of homes in Milan, Berlin, Copenhagen — and now Torshavn, Faroe Islands — I’ve admired photos of relatives that sometimes go back to the very first silver plate photographs of the mid-1800’s. These photos are sometimes right next to the latest generation’s photos. Having observed at the same time some very ancient Eurpoean traditions, attitudes and mannerisms, I have to again posit that the medium has changed us as surely as we have changed the medium.

It was two years ago, when I saw this pose depicted in a still from a movie (illustrated below), that I first realized that the portability and disposability of digital camera technology actually created a new type of romantic embrace.

Compare the stock-still (and emotion-free) poses of couples and families in the tintypes of antiquity with this commonplace example of PDA (public display of affection), and you have to wonder if our cameras own us as much as we do them.

The Digital Camera Embrace

Traditional values — superceding romantic love with love of family, and narcissism with selflessness — may have been made quaint as much by our evolving tools as our evolving beliefs.

Am I onto something? Or have I simply been eating too much wedding day halibut salad and whale blubber?

New use of Wii controller helps you swim through data

The ability of the Wii controller to sense our relative position and movement through space has created a gaming sensation. Here’s an example of using this same controller to interact with a 3D model, showing uncanny perspective.

The implications for how this interface could allow us to explore data are exhilarating. But what data? I have two examples:

Visual Thesaurus Anyone who has used the Visual Thesaurus knows what I mean when I talk about “swimming through data” (the video demo is embedded below). This interface translates all of the interconnectivity of a thesaurus into linked “nodes” that advance, recede and move out of our way as we dig deeper into the connections. One could conceivably move from node-to-node for hours, never reading the same word or phrase twice. And in such an experience, one would walk away understanding not only the meanings of words but how they are interrelated. This is invaluable.

Walk2Web The developers of this application show an appealing way to see how web sites are interconnected through their hyperlinks. In other words, a swim that had you diving off here, at this post, would lead you to both the Visual Thesaurus site and Walk2Web site. The journey would continue to the many sites from which these sites link. The interface shows summary information about each site along the trip, providing context and meaning to the interconnections. Again, you walk away understanding more about this “data set,” and learning a ton!

When Visual Thesaurus arrived on the scene many years ago, the concept was thrilling. The interface, with its enticing movement through two dimensions, was impressive. But how much better to involve the whole body — and a third dimension! — in the exploration of this network of interrelated concepts.

Do you have a favorite example of applications you could see more appealingly “swim-able” using this Wii controller and 3D visualization technology?

Mindfulness the Google way by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Merlin Mann is one of my favorite productivity bloggers. And similar to how you feel when you learn that two old friends have met and hit it off, I was pleased yesterday to read his post on an influential teacher in my life: Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.

At about the same time that I was gaining my stride in my professional life, a chronic pain situation nearly ended it. Then I learned about what this fellow was doing, deep in the bowels of the University of Mass. Medical Center. I learned about Kabat-Zinn and his “de-dogma-ized” meditation program in a segment of a PBS special, Bill Moyers’ Healing and the Mind. What followed is a journey I’m still on.

Read Merlin’s post, and check out the YouTube video it describes, which was shot on the Google campus.

April 1 Update: Here’s an account of the health benefits of this type of meditation, from yesterday’s BBC News site.

Boost your office productivity with a bigger screen

Over the years, many of my co-workers have used two monitors to get work done. Others have swapped “standard issue” monitors for larger ones. Their explanation is always the same. Information work is all about work space real estate, and these set-ups make them more productive. Evidence has suggested to me that they’re right. Now from the Wall Street Journal comes further validation.

This piece reports on a study that was financed by NEC, but vetted by a more objective body (the university’s research board):

Researchers at the University of Utah tested how quickly people performed tasks like editing a document and copying numbers between spreadsheets while using different computer configurations: one with an 18-inch monitor, one with a 24-inch monitor and with two 20-inch monitors. Their finding: People using the 24-inch screen completed the tasks 52% faster than people who used the 18-inch monitor; people who used the two 20-inch monitors were 44% faster than those with the 18-inch ones.

The conclusion is a worker could save upwards of 2.5 hours a day by using a bigger monitor. This is far more than I would have expected.

Do you use a monitor that’s around 24-inch? Or two? If so, I assume you have the free time to comment. As for me? I’m writing this on my lunch break, with little time to spare. I need a bigger monitor baaaddd!

Google Reader replaces that stack of half-read books

Thank you, Google. I think. Today for the first time, I clicked a mysterious link in my Google Reader (which reads RSS feeds — click on the “Subscribe”button above if you don’t know what those three letters stand for). The link is labeled “Trends.” Below is what I found when I clicked it.

My so-called reading habits. Click if you’re the nosey type and want my top-read blogs

Oh, I see. That’s why I have over 1,000 unread items in my Google Reader.

So which is worse: Having to look at a stack of half-read books and looming New Yorker and Economist magazines (more on taming them later this week), or visiting Google Reader and being greeted with a chart of my crap reading habits?