The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin
This book proceeds from a very pragmatic position, and that is that the overload of information and choices and decisions that are forced on people requires people to be more organized in terms of their thinking and living. For most of us, and I speak for myself as much as anyone else here, we tend to be overwhelmed by what we have to deal with, even on the sheer level of paperwork. The author seems to think, as is commonly thought, that an organized mind springs from organized surroundings, so this book belongs to the tidying-up school of thought when it comes to the way people live their lives. I cannot say I am sold on the book’s approach, but the author is not so much an original thinker as much as someone who attempts to systematize contemporary thinking about organizing one’s thoughts and surroundings in order to have to make fewer decisions and waste less time to distraction, and it is generally seeking what it views as a worthwhile end. What makes this book somewhat ominous, for those who are inclined to take it that way, is the fact that this book’s focus on avoiding distractions appears far more interested in helping corporate productivity than in improving the lives of workers, and some readers will find fault in that.
This book has three parts and nine large chapters enduing up at roughly 400 pages of material. The author begins with an introduction that discusses information and conscientious organization, which is his method of avoiding information overload. Part one contains two chapters, one that deals with the history of cognitive overload in terms of people having to make too many decisions (1), and the other providing the author’s views on how attention and memory work (2). The second part of the book contains five chapters that focus the responsibility of organizing on the reader, including how our homes can be organized so that things start better (3), on how our social world can be organized based on how human beings connect now (4), on how our time can be organized so that we waste less of it in distraction (5), how information can be organized so that we can make hard decisions in a timely and accurate fashion (6), and how we can organize the business world to create value (7). After that the third part looks at what we can teach our children about organization (8), and the power of the junk drawer as a spur to creativity (9), and there is an appendix on Bayesian fourfold tables as well as notes, acknowledgements, an index, and illustration credits to close the book.
My criticisms of this book are not to suggest that this is a book without value. The author is quite wise, for example, to suggest miscellaneous categories that allow for fruitful pondering of how things can be used or how they fit together, and also is quite in line to suggest that readers improve their understanding of Bayesian probability, which allows for better estimation and decision-making skills, not least because false positives are such a huge problem in the contemporary world of testing. That said, it frequently appears as if the author is seeking to pander to the realities of the contemporary world and does not have as good an understanding of the way things ought to be as he has a pragmatic grasp of contemporary realities. And it does not seem often as if the author is really on the side of ordinary people, and that is something that bothers me at least a little. It would be one thing for us to be more tidy and organized for our own self-interests, but often the author appears to have the interests of other people in mind that are simply not interests I am interested in serving. Moreover, the author’s discussion about medical risks and the way that they are grossly exaggerated because of systematic biases for false positives is something that should be addressed, and which the author doesn’t appear to do so in a thoughtful enough fashion. And that is a shame.