Computers, as those of us whose professional lives revolve around them know all too well, do not necessarily make life easier. A lot of the time, they just add another level of complexity and another layer of demands on our time.
So, approaches have been developed that aim to make computers easier to get along with by simplifying what they do and how they do it.
Some years ago, Danny O'Brien (sometime stand-up comic, scriptwriter, Wired U.K. journalist, and, now, EFF's International Outreach Coordinator) gave a presentation at O'Reilly's 2004 Emerging Technology conference in San Diego, in which he spelled out the concept of "life hacks."
He'd been fascinated by what other geeks did to keep themselves organized, so he set about contacting a large number of them and asking them outright: how do you do it?
The answers all boiled down to simplicity. The geeks used old tools, simple tools, which were reliable ways of working that rarely, if ever, went wrong. They kept to do lists in plain text files. They depended on copying and pasting to move data around. It was simple, and it worked.
So, Danny's presentation sparked many ideas in a lot of other people's heads, and the personal productivity boom now enjoyed by the likes of 43 Folders and Lifehacker was born.
Danny sums it all up this way:
A few years ago, I coined the term "life hacks," which has gone on to become an entire industry of hints and tips that I am, by my congenital laziness, unable to use or benefit from. It is some sort of karmic punishment.
So far, so straightforward. But we haven't gotten to the Good Easy yet.
Enter Mark Hurst. Mark's "Good Experience" newsletter and blog have always been about making technology easier to use. He's just published a book, Bit Literacy, which aims to teach ordinary people many of the simple tools and reliable working methods that Danny O'Brien found the geeks using back in 2004.
Hurst takes things further, in more detail, and aims his thoughts at a much wider audience. Computers are not "bit literate" machines out of the box, he says. It is up to users to bend, amend, and shape computers into something that will perform better and make them more productive people.
The "Good Easy" is a sub-set of the "bit literacy" concept. It represents the specific changes Hurst and his staff make to any new computer that arrives in their office. Until these changes are made, Hurst considers the computer unfit for use.
In short, the Good Easy is all about removing some things that are (in Hurst's opinion) broken and adding third-party tools to make the working environment better.
I spoke to Hurst to find out exactly what the Good Easy is and why he considers it essential for all new staff at Creative Good.
In short, the Good Easy is about making every machine (and at Creative Good, they are all Macs) a more productive working environment. Productivity is improved when the tools and methods used are kept as simple as they can possibly be.
For example, file formats. Like a lot of geeks, Hurst keeps almost everything in plain text files. When saving a clipping from the Web, he prefers to copy and paste the text of the article into a new text file and save that, with appropriate metadata like URL, author, and data appended at the top.
Why do this and not just save as a web archive or import into an app like Yojimbo? Because, says Hurst, plain text is the simplest possible format for storing text data, and unlike web archive files, he can be confident of opening and reading a text file on almost any computing device for decades to come. Saving the URL itself in a bookmark or at an online service like del.icio.us is useful too, but URLs change, disappear, get switched behind paywalls, and so on. Hurst's approach is just to keep the text.
To turn a factory-fresh Mac into what Hurst calls a Good Easy Mac, here's what gets added:
Other changes made include:
So, why these apps? Why work this way? Mark Hurst has his answers ready.
Why the insistence on text files?
"One of the most important ideas is to always choose the simplest file format for the job. The choice of text format is of supreme importance. Technologists who have a clue know about, and will use, ASCII. It is simple and virus-free."
And why Mailsmith? Does Hurst have anything against web app email services?
"People should use the mail client they feel most comfortable with," he replies. "For most people, I recommend Mailsmith, but I don't use it. I use Claris Emailer, in Classic mode.
"It is the best mail program I have ever used. It is simple and blazing fast. It has features that even the most modern OS X clients don't have. There are no animations or windows flying around anywhere. It helps me be more productive. But I don't recommend it to other people, and I appreciate that its days are numbered.
"Mailsmith is not as good, but it is the closest alternative to a fast, simple mail client that most people can use."
(Hurst is not alone in this fondness for Claris Emailer. Jonathan "Wolf" Rentzsch made a similar confession in an interview here back in 2005.)
"Why client-side? I prefer the faster response of something that's running on my machine. Email is so important to the work that I do; I spend many hours a day inside my email client. It's important that it works well and is very fast. When you spend so much time in an application that doesn't work well, it's painful, it's like a stone in your shoe. I simply work faster in Emailer."
The same principle applies to all the other software choices he's made, Hurst explains.
"People should think about the time they spend in any one application, then think about the tools they can use to maximize efficiency."
Then there's his choice of word processor: AppleWorks. A product so old (and apparently neglected) that its official web page still features a picture of a G3 iBook. Ted Landau hits the nail on the head with this description of this most ancient of applications:
Unfortunately, AppleWorks has been more than showing its age in recent years. It feels very much like what it is: an Mac OS 9 program stuck in an Mac OS X universe.
So, why does Mark Hurst still use it?
"I use AppleWorks for both its word processor and its draw program. Both are much simpler, faster tools than comparable applications made by other companies. If I have to output a file in Word format, I'll hold my nose and use Word. But otherwise--if I'm sharing the file as a PDF, or printing it on paper--it only makes sense to use the most efficient program to do the job.
"The draw program is excellent. It uses a similar interface to the MacDraw I grew up with in the mid-'80s, and it doesn't have a lot of extra, irrelevant features cluttering the experience."
How about RSS feeds? Hurst has a confession to make there, too.
"There's a quote in my Bit Literacy book about RSS. Back in 2006, Khoi Vinh wrote: I've collected so many RSS feeds that, when I sit down in front of the application (NetNewsWire), it's almost as difficult a challenge as having no feed reader whatsoever. With dozens and dozens of subscriptions, each filled with dozens of unread posts, I often don't even know where to start.
"So if Khoi Vinh has trouble managing his RSS feeds, what does that say about the rest of us? We have a problem. A lot of people have a problem: we need to be more careful about the media we consume."
It's not up to our computers to put a limit on the data we try to take in every day. Hurst argues that the responsibility for that lies with us, the readers.
"The cure for information overload has to come from the users themselves. People should read less, to keep them as informed as they need to be. If someone feels they need to read 300 blogs every day to stay informed, fine--more power to them. But I think that most people don't need to do that.
"I don't use an RSS reader. The only blog I read every day is Boing Boing. There are a few others that I read every once in a while. I keep bookmarks in my browser and visit the sites I like when I feel I need to."
Hurst considers TypeIt4Me and Default Folder to be essential tools. The former he describes as a bit lever. By allowing you to set up abbreviations for commonly-used text, it saves Good Easy-minded people a lot of time, given how much of it is spent in plain text files.
As for Default Folder:
"Default Folder is essential for every Mac user. It fixes one of the worst parts of OS X, the open/save dialog. In OS 9 it was perfect, or nearly perfect. Mac OS took a step backwards in this regard, with the transition to OS X. I don't know how people can function on a Mac without it."
If you're reading all this and finding yourself overcome with the feeling that Mark Hurst's approach is a little weird--you're not the only one. Hurst himself has to deal with that reaction a lot.
He says: "I heard from one high-tech guy who had read the book, and he was offended by it. He said, how could someone be so out-of-date and quaint? That's a common reaction, actually. People think I'm ignorant of the riches of Web 2.0.
"On the contrary, I'm just trying to give people the tools they need to liberate themselves from the stress and anxiety of technology in modern life."
Mark Hurst is the owner of his own company. Of course he gets the right to tell his staff how they should use their computers. Is his approach the right one?
His central premise--that life in front of a computer ends up being made more complicated by the existence of complicated software products, and that the ease with which you can drown in online information can actually make you less productive in the long run--is hard to deny.
But I have a feeling that a lot of readers will feel strongly about Hurst's choice of tools. Some will have suggestions for other ways of achieving the same effects; others might argue that it is still possible to use the more complicated software products, and more up-to-date file formats, if you train staff to understand them and use them more productively.
That said, a lot of what Hurst describes in his book will be very familiar to people who have followed articles about personal productivity on this web site (and others) in recent years. Whether you agree with Hurst's ideas or not, if you're even vaguely technically minded, you're probably already using some of his techniques. Those elements, while cleverly dubbed "Bit Literacy," "life hacks," or "the Good Easy," might also be known more generally within the geek community as "common sense."
Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.
Return to MacDevCenter.com.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.