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When you store things digitally, you actually lose them

Evan Baehr

Over the last twenty four hours I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which left me concerned that, despite degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, I am on a path toward a brain that doesn’t work.

The idea. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and partly the inspiring philosophy of Carr’s work, argues that our tools end up numbing whatever part of our body they “amplify.” The power loom left weavers without manual dexterity.  The mechanical plows left farmers with no tactile understanding of soil.  Carr explores the next application of this thesis: if computers and the internet are meant to amplify the brain, do they also numb it?

Previous inventions–the book and the calculator–enabled greater human understanding and materially advanced the cause of mankind, Carr argues.   With the book, humans were able to communicate (write) and understand (read) across time and place, eliminating the need to obtain a rare physical copy or, even worse, find someone to recite it.   With the calculator, students could stop spending hours on long division and instead devote time to calculus.  But the internet is different: it enables us to outsource our brains - or at least the entire set of facts, images, and stories – to external storage.  Although this outsourcing might seem efficient because it allows humans to focus on higher order thinking (e.g. combining the images, telling narratives with the facts, etc.), outsourcing actually robs us of the very act that enables us to do the higher order thinking in the first place: the neural process of committing “data” from short term memory to long term memory.  While remembering things seems unnecessary and even irrational in an age of cloud storage, failing to do so actually leaves us incapable of doing anything meaningful with that memory.

Hitting home.  I seek out technology for nearly everything–especially tasks related to storing and recalling data.  I love that ICQ logs my full chat histories.  I love that Evernote records the lectures I attend.  And I love that Gmail keeps every email–forever.  This gives me a sense of freedom–of insurance.  I can carry on thinking about “things that matter” while leaving the storage and recall of facts to my devices.  And we might image a world in which a full-time Siri listens and acts for us: in a meeting I mention making an email introduction to someone and Siri does it… or I attend a talk on transcendentalism and Siri adds the wiki article to my evernote.  This technology assures me that any fact, detail, or even memory is at the tip of my fingertips.   But my realization is that I am doing myself a huge disservice by not doing the hard work of committing things to memory.  The concern isn’t: is evernote backed up (e.g. might I lose it)?  The concern is: by digitally “storing it” have I actually “lost it”?  Or perhaps if I digitally store it, I have never actually “had it”?

Getting help.  Carr uncovers a gem from the sixteenth century that got me thinking.  The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus taught his students to look for “occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, brilliant flashes of style, adages, examples, and pithy remarks worth memorizing” and to collect them in a notebook organized by subject.  This process of transcription and memorizing was not a means of storage but rather “the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.”  The Roman Seneca said it beautifully:

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better.  Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

This counsel manifested in the 17th century tradition of “commonplaces,” a scrapbook of sorts with clippings and transcribed passages, quotations, and memories.  As one linguistics professor said, “a gentleman’s commonplace book” served “both as a vehicle for and chronicle of his own intellectual development.”  This was not just our ancestors’ CTRL+C.  Rather the act of copying and organizing the content created the mental schema that enabled understanding. On this William James went so far as to say: “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.”  We might ask: if we are not remembering, are we not thinking?

Evernote is not a commonplace.  I was tempted to laugh at our ancestors; after all today I can capture terabytes of data about my daily experience – an HD video camera can record 1080p and 4 channel sound, recognize every face I encounter, transcribe every word I hear, and soon enough perform tasks and research passively, without my even thinking about it.  And that’s the point: today’s evernote and tomorrow’s 24/7 life capturing devices rob us of the act of remembering and, per James, the act of thinking.

The commonplace required manual transcription–a deliberate and time-intensive act that had two critical side effects.  First, handwriting requires mental recitation of an idea and creates time to process the idea.  Today I can “add to my evernote” and entire novel in one second.   Second, the commonplace was a book with a limited number of pages, which forced prioritization of ideas–only the ones that mattered made the cut.  Yet today I have no hesitation to record the audio of every lecture I attend and to save all 3,000 photos from my family vacation.

I am on a hunt for a modern commonplace–yes a book of sorts, but also a physical place and even an attitude.  Amidst the tumultuous sea of tweets, RSS feeds, and email, I am searching for a way to discover, understand, and remember basic truths.  The more places I visit, people I meet, and degrees I obtain, the more I appreciate the beauty and simplicity of a single idea, presented cogently.  And it is these basic ideas that I am trying to bring together so that they might mingle and become a “single sweet substance.”

So, what is your commonplace?  Have you committed things to memory?  How did it go? Any suggestions for me?

Note: nearly all of the quotations above are from The Shallows and are not correctly attributed. I am not intending to reflect those quotations as my own research.  In fact, it is clear to me now that I may not even have the capacity to do this kind of research!

Design Thinking: six ways to get started

Evan Baehr

I first learned about design thinking during a Harvard-sponsored trip to Silicon Valley where we spent an afternoon at IDEO,  the iconic design firm involved in many of the most famous designs in the last 25 years, including the mouse, the PalmPilot, and many of Apple’s flagship products. There was something refreshing about the attitude of the designers, the culture of the firm, and even the design of their workspace. The firm is filled with “t-shaped people”– experts in one trade but generalists in all. A team of anthropologists, structural engineers, and graphic artists can sit down, be given an outrageously difficult problem, and hours and hundreds of Post-it notes later, they often have a remarkably elegant solution. This was something I wanted to learn more about.

Cofounding a new venture nine months ago has provided an opportunity to infuse design thinking into a technology company from the beginning. Below are a few things we’ve tried along the way.  If you are curious about design thinking, just pick one and get started!

1. Learn what it’s all about: the best place to learn about design thinking is Stanford’s bootcamp bootleg found here. This 100 page bootleg document is the best summary I have found and was created by probably the institutional leader in the field: the Stanford d.school.  Empathize. Define.  Ideate.  Prototype.  Test.  That’s it!

2. Practice thinking visually: A key component to design thinking is expressing  ideas visually. Don’t be afraid if you are a bad drawer!  Just start!  For example, I used to track all of my job candidates in Microsoft Excel. Recently, I wrote all the candidates names out on small Post-it notes and lined them up on the wall. It was amazing how often I ended up thinking about these people just by glancing over at the wall.  So think about it this way: the more content you write out or even print out and put on the wall or the whiteboard, the larger screen size you have!  Moreover, actively mapping out ideas or people in a 2D,  flexible space, enables your mind to better organize and understand the data.  Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin is a helpful place to start to learn how to draw basic diagrams and illustration.  Or check out some additional training materials around “visual note taking” from Dave Gray, Sunnibrown’s Visual Note Taking 101, and Austin Kleon’s Ideas Worth Stealing.

3. Design your space: We have tried to maximize the visual whitespace in our office so that as many square inches are as functional as possible. We have big glass doors that work for posted notes and whiteboard markers, we painted a 10′ by 30′  wall in IdeaPaint (a paintable white board – expensive but works well), covered 3 other walls with foamcore (a lightweight foam poster product sold in big sheets at design stores, usually about $15 for a 4′x8′ sheet),  and gave everyone awesome white glass desks from Ikea so their workspace is writeable! 

4. Choose your tools: Go ahead and go to Amazon right now and order a box of fine point sharpie markers (black and red), and small Post-it notes.   Make a habit of always carrying them with you. For example, I was in a bar last week and ended up mapping out someone’s idea with about 20 posted notes on the table. Yes, it was a bit odd, but we had a good time doing it.   I also have come to love my ActionMethod Journal, with tearable pages, a to-do list, and nice rubber cover.

5. Practice as a team:  friends at a design-heavy venture accelerator in Austin called Thinktiv suggested a fantastic book called Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, which lays out a few dozen really fun, engaging games that a team can play in order to solve difficult problems.

6. Make friends with designers: Austin  is lucky to have  a very rich design ecosystem, created in part by frog design and sustained by folks like Jon Kolko and his Austin Center for Design and Dean Kakridas.  I have made a point to meet these designers, learn how they work, and find small ways to engage them in our company’s work. For example, we ran a full-day design thinking workshop around the future of postal communication with a half dozen designers, our team, and a few volunteers from craigslist; over eight hours we came up with a few hundred ideas.

During my first encounter with design thinking I was a bit intimidated: I was not an artist, I didn’t wear cool black glasses,  I had never been trained in this…. But,  the great news is that design thinking is actually accessible to anyone and has the power to bring big ideas and creativity into any organization.

Chick-fil-A and the business of story listening

Evan Baehr

Consumer-facing businesses have a unique opportunity to touch millions of real lives in a personal way every day. Put on your consumer hat for a minute and think through your day: the coffee shop barrista, the cashier at McDonalds, the sales associate at Target, the attendant at the gas station, the waiter at your restaurant, and on and on. Indeed we have conversations with several people every day–probably dozens a month–in the context of retail businesses. Retail employees are amazingly prevalent in our lives – a prevalence surpassed only by our friends and family members. That consumers spend so much time and even emotional energy interacting with employees creates a real opportunity for businesses to go beyond traditional roles of sales and customer service.


A few weeks ago I had the privilege to visit Chick-fil-A headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, for an all-day tour and series of discussion with the company leadership.  Based on my conversations, here’s my impression of how Chick-fil-A sees its business: 1,600 community spaces where 7+ million Americans spend time with their friends and family… and to these spaces their customers bring their stories, their needs, and their hopes. Although it is great chicken sandwiches and a welcoming restaurant that get people in the door, once customers show up employees have an opportunity–albeit brief–for real interaction. Yes there is customer service: taking orders, making change, delivering food. However, there’s more. Chick-fil-A wants to serve the full range of needs of its customers. So when an elderly woman walks in the door, the posture isn’t just: “what value meal can I serve this woman?” It is also: “What is this woman’s story?” and “In my few minutes of interaction, how can I somehow connect with and empower this woman?”

So given these powerful personal stories of individual customers, what can Chick-Fil-A employees really DO?  Yes, it is unreasonable to be the personal social worker for every customer–employees can’t leave work to go run errands for an elderly person.  But let’s set aside zero sum thinking and explore ways that employees really can serve customers in realistic ways.

Consider Martha–a 73 year old woman who every day visits her husband in a senior home, where he lives out his final years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Today is an ordinary Tuesday.  After her morning coffee and toast, Martha drives to visit her husband.  But on this Tuesday, after 2 years of visiting every day, her husband doesn’t recognize her.  Imagine: the love of your life–your best friend–no longer knows who you are.  That is a story.  That is an experience.  This is no ordinary Tuesday.

Consider the rest of her day.  She leaves an hour later with her world changed.  She drives to Chick-Fil-A to eat lunch.  Over the next 45 minutes, she will sit quietly, eating her sandwich and thinking about her morning. At that very moment what does Martha need?  Errands run? No.  Financial support?  No.  Educational opportunities? No. Martha needs empathy – she needs her story to be known – she needs to have an opportunity to tell her story – she needs someone to listen to her story.

Giving someone the opportunity to tell their story is a precious gift.  On its surface it seems silly.  You might say: that some nice guy sits and listens to an old woman talk about her husband doesn’t do anything–he’s still dying, she’s still sad–all you’ve done is feel good about yourself.  But think of it this way: remember back to a time when you first told someone something–”I love you,” “I’m pregnant,” “our dad died.”  Verbalizing an observation or experience brings reality to it in a way that simply keeping it in your memory does not.  Oral story telling is a performative experience for the listener and the teller.  It enables the teller to process, communicate, and share her experience, in a way that solitary reflection does not. And perhaps most importantly, that someone wants to be your audience says that your story matters–that it is worth hearing and worth telling.  Having an audience communicates “you matter.”   And the act of communicating that story forces a rational, psychological, and emotional processing of the experience for the story teller.  Indeed, story telling is about much more than communicating information; if employee Jim asks Martha “How are you?” and Martha begins to share her story, this is not an act of transferring information; Jim would not say, “Can you drop me an email on that?”  Rather, story telling–or rather story listening–is an opportunity to show someone that they matter. Giving someone your focused attention, listening attentively, and being emotionally present in the conversation together authentically say “I care about you.”

The reality is that most people have stories to tell.  The tragedy is that no one is there to listen–no one even bothers to ask.  So we are left feeling that our stories don’t matter–that we don’t matter.  Because most people interact with retail business several times a day, consumer-facing businesses have an opportunity to enable story telling on a massive scale. Enabling millions of people to tell their story will cause fairly profound social change (whether decreased depression and suicide, greater self-actualization, increased confidence and optimism, etc.).  In addition to serving customers’ material needs, businesses oriented this way might begin to serve customers’ social, psychological, and emotional needs.

To begin exploring the merits of this proposal, try out your hand at story listening.  As you navigate your day or show up at a conference, try to see how many stories you can enable to be told.  Practice asking good questions.  Practice creating little moments of authenticity and trust in which someone feels able to share openly.  Find the person sitting alone in the lunchroom or standing in the corner during the meet and great and go listen to their story. Go give someone an audience–you might be reminding someone that they matter – something we all need to hear from time to time..

Things I’m still thinking about:

  • How can we train and equip employees to be “story listeners”?
  • How can we measure the impact and relevance of story telling?
  • Are there story listening “best practices”?
  • Need we be able to do more than listen?  If the story teller has real needs (e.g. addiction, abuse, employment, etc.), should we be able to equip or at least refer them?
  • Historically: who in society serves as story listeners?  Pastors? Coworkers? Psychiatrists?  Is it odd that business would have to serve this role?
  • Maybe we’re really just talking about people being listeners… and they have to do so at a business because that is simply where they are during the day. So perhaps a business-led listening movement is ill-fated.