A Cognitive Prosthetic

I recently wrote Curation & Cognition after receiving a paper that defined the practice of curation: Attention Doesn’t Scale. Summary: good curation is a treasure when you find it, and now we know what that entails.

Stemming A Torrent Of Garbage describes the poor condition of LinkedIn groups without naming names. The ones I admit to being in are fine, a lot of the others … not fine. Summary: There is a problem, and good curation can play a role in resolving it.

An acquaintance recently forwarded me a story about a young man who was using his cell phone as a ‘cognitive prosthetic’. He had some sort of dangerous sleep disorder and the phone served as means for him to self assess so he’d know when trouble was brewing. This set me to thinking about what sort of cognitive prosthetic I could arrange for myself in order to improve my focus. I had long been thinking I needed to do a time study on how long it took me to get through the policy oriented email I receive, I decided I’d look for a browser plugin that could assist in this, and I got something that will serve as a starting point with my very first search: Time Tracker.

Web Site Usage Tracker

I have been running it for the last hour while I write this and catch up on some other reading. Everyone’s writing style is different, for me anything longer than a paragraph is an iterative process, and when writing on complex topics I often diverge for an hour to do some background reading, returning with a very different understanding than when I departed. The article prior to this, Stemming A Torrent Of Garbage, took five hours from start to finish, thanks to a car hitting a power pole in our neighborhood, a walk to get dinner at a place with wifi, and then letting it simmer a bit while I walked home.

This is just a starting point. Right away I see a few problems. I store PDFs in my Scribd library, but I prefer reading using an application that lets me mark up documents. The system tracks time on site but it doesn’t drill down to the URL level. I’d like to know not only which sites hold my attention, but which stories on the given sites require the most time to examine.

There are a lot of other details I wish I could see, not just applications outside the browser. One of the problems that comes with excess social media use is frequent context switching for the sake of new stimulus. You get that constant newness when you follow enough accounts on Twitter, but if you’re in a post Twitter desktop that impulse leads to a lot of pointless hotkey switches from what you’re reading to check email. Yes, there is a plugin at the upper right that shows me email and SMS messages, but I still flip to the browser window for each periodically.

Those involved in certain forms of meditation will make use of a ‘mindfulness bell‘. These were originally actual bells that were used to trigger a pause, followed by an inspection of one’s condition and surroundings. This is metaphorical any more, people train themselves to use various irregular events in their lives to serve as checkpoints. I am curious what other ‘cognitive prosthetics’ are available for use as a mindfulness bell, but I suspect the level of detail that I want might be a custom application. Maybe such a thing has already been done for some other cognitive study, I am going to have to nose around a bit and see what is available.

Even if I do find such a tool, how can it be abstracted and scaled up to help other curators? This is likely going to be a personal discipline for me, affecting design decisions I make regarding environments that others will use. It’s too much to expect someone who isn’t already a mindfulness meditator to pick up such a discipline along with everything else. If I can identify what is important perhaps something simple, like time in URL statistics for a curator oriented web site, would serve as a non-intrusive method to facilitate better focus?

(NOTE: 122 minutes run time, 70 minutes spent in this site, 40 minutes in gmail writing a carefully considered message, and the other 12 minutes were a smattering of music video changes in YouTube, a quick consult of my pastebin site for that email, and so forth. This is not unusual, my focus when writing is pretty good. I’m almost afraid of what I’ll find at lunch time tomorrow when I see what my scattered morning is like.)

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