book review – “Bit Literacy”

As someone who is a geek, and as someone who has done extensive research into how people manage their time (with a focus on how various electronic devices fit into their time management practices), it’s fair to assume that I’m not the target audience for this book.  But I’d heard good things about Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst, and I got a free copy somewhere, so I figured I’d give it a go.  What a mistake.

Bit Literacy is a self-help book, and it feels like it.  It spends the first few chapters trying to convince you that you have a problem and that only this self-help book can solve it.  With some minor search-and-replace, I bet I could take any Dr Phil book and turn those first few chapters into the first few chapters here.  The tone for the rest of the book is just as preachy, and just as arrogant.

The book is both unoriginal and misguided.  The email chapter is nothing more than an overview of getting to Inbox Zero, a concept that isn’t his but the author doesn’t give credit where it’s due.  The to-do list chapter is an seemingly-endless ad for the author’s website for to-do management (an issue which mars the rest of the book, although not as completely as in this chapter).  The chapter on file management was so misguided as to make me laugh out loud.  Likewise, the author’s statement that we should use a service like delicious.com to manage bookmarks because it’s somehow open is obviously bunk, given the Sturm und Drang associated with Yahoo!’s decision to cut support for it1.

I was surprised at the author’s pervasive anti-Microsoft stance.  I’m (obviously) a Mac girl myself, and I have no skin in the Windows/Mac game at this point in my life.  I haven’t used Windows in any appreciable manner in something like 15 years.  But the constant digs were both needless and inaccurate.   For example, there’s a cheap shot at Outlook 2007 for Windows that whinges that the help file for how to create a new to-do is too long.  Sure it is, since it lists every single step, including both changing to the task list view and all of the optional steps in the process (like setting a due date and changing the reminders).  Go document your own process to that level of detail and see what that looks like.

What really annoyed me was that the author obviously came to write this book with no understanding of why people manage their time the way they do.  This fault firmly puts it in the camp of many self-help books: no understanding of the underlying causes, but a layman who is convinced that their arbitrary solution is actually The One True Solution.  In this regard, I view Bit Literacy as being rather too similar to books that propose cabbage soup diets as weight-loss methods.

The single piece of advice that I found useful in the book was the admonishment to take lots of pictures, and then delete not just the bad ones but also the ones that are only mediocre.  If you take a lot of pictures of a given event, then you’re more likely to get some really great ones.  Then you keep only the really great ones.  It’s hard to get over the hump of deleting good-but-not-great pictures, but he is right that there’s little need to keep them.

As someone who has extensively researched time management, I think that any given person’s solution is going to be tailored to their usage.  As a result, when considering the various approaches out there, you have to consider their underlying principles and not just the methods that they use to try to implement those principles.  In reading books like Getting Things Done, while some of the specific tools haven’t been useful to me, the principle has been useful.  For example, I’ve got my own way of getting to Inbox Zero, and I find that concept to be essential in how I manage my digital life.  I didn’t feel like Bit Literacy had an underlying principle other than “do things my way”.

As I was writing this, I half-remembered something from Hurst, years ago.  It was a discussion of The Page Paradigm, in which Hurst takes a simplistic view of how websites should be designed.  Peter Merholz did an excellent job of responding to this in The Oversimplification of Mark Hurst.  The comments thread is a good read too, and has further discussion about where Hurst went off-track.  In the comments thread, Merholz says this:

All that said, Mark’s argument ends up being flip and facile, an effort to grab attention without addressing some of the very real complexities at stake.

… which, I think, is an excellent description of this book, too.

  1. I am a Delicious user, but not for things that I care about.  I mostly use it to keep track of recipes that I intend to try.
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