Saturday, January 19, 2013

Method Madness

Alexandra Samuel (B | T) recently wrote a blog for Harvard Business Review arguing that the only productive way to take notes is digitally. The opening line:
I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.
The takeaway is that, according to Alexandra, if you use pen and paper to take notes during a meeting, you are a prehistoric, unproductive dumbass incapable of getting anything done.

The Comments were overwhelmingly negative. I didn't see outright flaming (maybe those were removed?), but I read plenty of comments that summed up my feeling about the article. Alexandra followed up with a post on her personal blog where she expresses how she's hurt by the negative feedback. Her mother tells her to let it go, what does she care about what a bunch of total strangers think about her.

And can we stop with the black/white, for/against, either/or absolute-ness of everything? Alexandra (bravely) joins in on the Comments to her HBR post, yet she refers to her detractors as "fountain pen devotees" and having "passionate reasons for paper." That's not what it is. Paper notes aren't better than digital notes, and digital notes aren't better than paper notes. The juxtaposition is wrongheaded. Judge people on their results, not on their note-taking method.

I've followed Alexandra for a while. She wrote an Atlantic piece a while back about balancing our digital stream and unplugging from distractions. Funny, it speaks to why I prefer taking notes (sometimes) with pen and paper. With pen and paper I don't have to fight a tool like auto-correct, which inarguably gets in my way more often than it helps.

But Alexandra is all-in on the realness of our digital lives, and she's not letting up. I don't know, I think she's trying too hard. You can want something to be real. But if it isn't, it isn't. I feel like she's trying to tell me not only that these digital relationships are real, but that they're enough.

The digital life is something. But there's more. There's face to face. And pen to paper.


awsamuel said...

Thanks for weighing in, JJ -- both here and on Twitter.

Your post gave me a real aha! moment on why people reacted so strongly to this piece and to previous posts I've written about "real life" online: they read this as saying online life is better than offline, or a possible replacement for offline life.

I love the offline world: as you say, there's face-to-face, and it's nothing like online conversation. But it's neither better nor worse: it's got totally different virtues, and totally different limitations. I would never give up face-to-face interaction, nor many other joys of the offline world -- but there are many joys of life online that I wouldn't give up, either.

The inflection point we're at is a species is one where we're just learning to think about when it makes sense to go analog and when it makes sense to go digital. As I made clear in my post this week, I think that office meetings are now one context where it's almost always more sensible to go digital. But I could (and should!) write an equally passionate article called, "Dear friend, please put away your smartphone while we're having dinner".

One quick note: I hope your readers will check out both the HBR post and the post on my personal blog ( for their own take on what I was arguing. I don't think my personal post is about being hurt -- quite the opposite, I was writing about what a joyful (if tiring) week it has been.

Thanks again.


JJ Burnam said...

I agree, different virtues. I don't categorically dismiss online connections as trivial. After all, here the two of us are, having a dialogue. Will we ever meet face to face? This may be as real as it gets. I'll take it.

My issue with the argument for going digital in office meetings is the fallacy that digital notes are objectively better than pen and paper notes. It just isn't true, but it's an easy thing to think is true. I can already see the Dilbert strip.

Thanks for the comment, Alexandra. I enjoy following your work.