Tools for thought
For as long as I can remember, the Holy Grail of computing (at least for me) has been to find tools that actually help in making one a better, more efficient or more creative writer. And I’m not talking about word-processing but something that can do for authors what, say, the spreadsheet did for accountants and planners. The word processor is, well, just that — a tool that processes words. But where do the words come from? And can computing help in stimulating or generating the ideas that are expressed in words? So far, the answer seems to be “not much”.
It’s not that there aren’t lots of programs out there which help one store, index, organise and retrieve information, create ‘mindmaps’, even do brainstorming, etc. But none of these tools maps naturally onto the way one thinks — or at least the way I think. So there’s a tradeoff: given that I have to change the way I work in order to accommodate the software, do the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs? So far, the answer has usually been ‘”no”.
Enter Steven Johnson, a writer I admire. He’s produced several really interesting, stimulating, thoughtful books — notably Interface Culture. So when he published an essay in Sunday’s New York Times about a software tool he swears by, I sat up and took notice. The software in question is called DEVONthink. Johnson has given a much fuller explanation on his Blog of how he uses it. I was sufficiently intrigued to download the software and get it to index all the documents, web pages, images, etc. on my hard drive. It’s a very interesting tool with a fairly steep learning curve. And to get the most out of it one would (as usual) have to adjust one’s working methods to fit in with its underlying metaphors. Nevertheless, Johnson has persuaded me that it’s worth exploring it in more depth.
Oh — bad news for Windows users: DEVONthink is for Mac OS X only.