Ch. 2: A Ψ For You

Keeping Found Things Found
The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management

By, William Jones



Chapter Two

A personal space of information

We?e each awash in an informational sea that we do not control, not even in the home waters of our offices or the hard drives of our computers. Farther out there are pirates who will steal our information and rob us of our time and money. Farther still ?har be dragons of offensive material and viruses intent on wreaking havoc. PIM means projecting our control where we can and making allowances for regions we can? control. PIM means using information to have things our way.

Men's private self-worlds are rather like our geographical world's seasons, storm, and sun, deserts, oases, mountains and abysses, the endless-seeming plateaus, darkness and light, and always the sowing and the reaping.

U.S. novelist Faith Baldwin (1893?978)

2.1 Starting out

A person preoccupied is described as ?n his own world. People who stay that way most of the time are considered odd or eccentric?r crazy. Can our information and our information tools make it so? Consider these examples:

A man approaches from the distance on the street. He is talking to himself. He gestures. He laughs. He even shouts . . . for no apparent reason. How do you feel? Maybe you look around for the reassuring presence of other people. Or maybe you think about crossing to the other side of the street. And then, on closer observation, you see that the man is talking on his mobile phone. Of course! So he? normal after all. As normal as the rest of us.

* * *

I work at home a lot. I especially like the opportunity to share a physical space with my eight-year-old son even as we do different things. He plays or does his homework; I work through email. With my notebook computer and a wireless connection, I can work virtually anywhere. I once had dreamy thoughts that modern technology might thus enable a return to a situation where families were closer knit on account of the time they spent together in work and play. As a boy at the turn of the last century, for example, my grandfather spent lots of time with his father doing the daily chores of a Wisconsin farm. Contrast this with the situation many of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s faced when parents (still mostly fathers) came home from a distant office at the end of a long day, often too tired to do more than fall asleep in front of the TV. But the situation with my son is like neither of these scenarios. My emotions can range widely from happy to frustrated or angry as I work, completely absorbed, through email correspondence. My son can? see the reality I experience.

* * *

Those of us who travel have seen a major transformation in commercial airline entertainment systems. Once a single movie played for everyone in the cabin. Passengers who didn? know one another would still laugh out loud in unison to a funny part of the movie. A shared experience, a shared reality. But now passengers on many flights can customize their reality?icking from several available movies and deciding when to view the movie. Some may even view movies on devices they have brought. The person sitting next to you on a flight may burst out in laughter like a crazy person. The person is ?here but very much in a reality separate from yours.

* * *

Four young men, by prior arrangement, converge to meet one another in a popular coffee shop in downtown Stockholm, Sweden. One man arrives, picks a table, sits down, and begins talking on his mobile phone while waiting. A second man arrives, already engrossed in a conversation on his mobile phone, gives a gesture of greeting to the first, sits down, and continues talking on his phone. A third man arrives and a fourth, and they each do the same. For several long minutes each person, while physically sitting at the same table, is in a world of his own as he speaks into his phone. (All four ignore a sign nearby asking people not to use their mobile phones while in the coffee shop.)

Civilization and the development of technology can be seen as an effort to ?ave it our way by freeing us from the dictates of the immediate environment. We store away food so that we can eat when we?e hungry, whether or not there is game to be hunted or berries to be gathered. We build houses so that we can stay warm and dry even when it? cold and wet outside. Mobile phones and email and personalized passenger entertainment systems are simply a recent manifestation of this enduring desire to have things our own way.

We won? go back. Even as mobile phones draw us away from full participation in our current physical environment, these enable and enrich other realities. How nice to be able to talk with friends or loved ones even though they are a continent away. How nice to see the movie we want to see, when we want to see it, and not be yoked with a hundred or more strangers to the same B-grade movie displayed in grainy resolution on a distant screen. And if information tools occasionally distract us or compromise our participation in the physical world?ell, this is often a fair trade, given the alternatives. At least my son can interrupt me from time to time with a question about his homework or a comment about his day at school.

If we won? go back, personal information management starts with a belief that we can?e must?o better. The growth of available information?nd in the technologies for its creation, storage, retrieval, distribution, and use?s astonishing and sometimes bewildering. How can there be comparable growth in our understanding of this information, its impact on our lives, and the ways in which tools can help us, and sometimes hinder us, in our attempts to gain mastery of our lives? How can we better use information and information technologies so that we can have things our way?

Later chapters will consider several essential kinds of activity that make up a practice of PIM, But first, it is important to better understand the object of this PIM activity. What is personal information? What does it mean for information to be personal? How do we come to have?o inhabit? personal space of information, and what does this mean for us in our daily lives?

This chapter is organized into the following sections:

  • What is information to us? ?nformation is an overloaded term, with uses that range from the physical?nformation as a document or some other ?hing?to the abstract?nformation as a means of reducing uncertainty. This section takes a practical survey of some ways information is used by and impacts us in our daily lives.

  • How is information personal? What does it mean for information to be ?ine? Look for the ?e in ?ine. From any given person? perspective, information can be owned by, experienced by, about, sent by, sent to, or (potentially) relevant to ?e. Each relationship defines a kind of personal information. Each is relevant to a general discussion of PIM.

  • The information item and its information form are defined as essential terms for an analysis of personal information management. Information comes packaged in many different ways. People still receive conventional letters, account statements, magazines, and junk mail in paper form via postal, or snail, mail. People also work with email messages, electronic documents, web pages (and pointers to these), digital photographs, downloaded music, and so on. The collection of tools and techniques for working with information vary widely with its form. But, regardless of information form, we can speak of information items for which the same basic operations, the same basic decisions, apply.

  • Defining a personal space of information (PSI). A PSI includes personal information in each of its senses. The PSI also includes various tools and other objects (virtual and visible) affecting the flow of information to, from, and through a PSI. An ordinary office door affects the flow of information in a personal space. A PSI includes regions of information over which a person has very little direct control but ought to have. People have very little control over ?heir medical information as kept by their doctor. But achieving greater control?he ability to correct serious errors, for example?an be a matter of life or death. People, by broadly defining their PSI to include regions that ought to be under their control, take an important conceptual step toward making it so. The PSI is central in discussions of personal information management throughout this book.

  • Making sense of the PSI is aided through concepts introduced in a final section of this chapter. Concepts help to carve a large, amorphous PSI into more manageable regions. Across different forms of information, for example, we can follow Sellen and Harper? (2002) distinction between small hot regions of daily use, larger warm regions of less frequent use (relating to active projects and ongoing roles and relationships), and large cold regions where information is accessed infrequently or not at all.


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2.2 What is information to us?

What is information? This question has been a repeated topic of discussion in its own right. Buckland (1991) provides an analysis illustrating that the word ?nformation alternately denotes a process (the act of informing), a result (a state of being informed or the knowledge imparted), or a thing (such as a document that contains and communicates information). In reaction to the definitional inclusiveness of ?nformation and the many senses in which the word is used, Buckland concludes that ?e are unable to say confidently of anything that it could not be information (p. 356).

Even so, for any given event or item, each of us can make an assessment of information value, as in ? knew that already or ?hat was incomprehensible; I learned nothing, or (we can hope) ?hat was really useful; I learned a lot and now know better what to do. This second sense of information in Buckland? analysis?s understanding or knowledge imparted?akes contact with the seminal work of Shannon and Weaver (Shannon, 1948; Shannon & Weaver, 1949). Key to their work was the notion that the information content of a message can be measured for its capacity to reduce uncertainty. The information value of a message depends on the recipient of the message and his/her state of knowledge. The message that ?ob is coming to the meeting has no information value, for example, if its intended recipient knows this already or if the message is given to the recipient in a language she does not understand. In neither case does the message do anything to reduce the recipient? ?ncertainty concerning who will be attending the meeting.

Making information exclusively about the reduction of uncertainty has come to be seen as overly restrictive. An exchange of information has a sender as well as a recipient, for example, and the exchange is not always collaborative. It? nice to think that the sender is trying to reduce the recipient? uncertainty, but of course the sender may have many other intentions. The sender may want to impress or persuade. The sender may want to increase the recipient? uncertainty (?ave you considered these other possibilities??. The sender may even want to confuse or deceive.

Nevertheless, a larger point in the work of Shannon and Weaver remains: The value of information is not absolute but relative to a context that includes the intentions of the sender and the current state of a recipient? knowledge. What is information to us? We might better ask, What is information without us? Table 2.1 provides a sampling of the ways in which information is used by and impacts us.

Information is?/b> As in?/b>
Information is what people process to understand their world. We are processors of information. Information comes in sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and smells. Information helps us to understand, predict, and even control outcomes in the world that matter to us.
Information is what? in documents, email messages, web pages, MP3 files, photographs (digital and paper-based), videos, etc. This is Buckland? sense of information as ?hing.?/td>
Information is what can be stored, retrieved, copied, transformed, and distributed. As an alternate perspective on ?nformation as thing, information is defined by what we can do with it.
Information is how other worlds are represented to us: past and present, possible and pretend. For example, information helps people to imagine (1) their summer vacation, (2) how people live in Mongolia, or (3) what the world will be like in 50 years.
Information is how we are represented to the outside world, accurately or not, for better or worse. Information represents our medical histories, our financial status, our purchase patterns, and even our airplane seating preferences. But information can be nearly impossible to update or correct. Statements we made 10, even 20 years ago may persist on the Web even though these no longer reflect the ?s of today.
Information is what people use to get things done. People send email messages to make reservations, fill in forms to order things, write reports to influence people, etc.
Information is an extension of us. Take the getting-things-done perspective a step further. Information can persist in printed documents, and now on personal web sites, blogs, and the like, to serve as an extension to ourselves.
Information is a drain on a person? money, energy, attention, and time. Advertisements convince us to buy things. Email messages can distract us and take up all our time and energy. Even small changes?he red squiggly line under a misspelled word inside a document we?e writing, for example?an distract.
Information is what we can use to have things ?ur way.?/td> Information and information technologies can work as a cushion to free us from the immediate demands of our environment so that we can set our own timetable of work and play.

Table 2.1. Information can mean many different things.

Information is what people process to understand their world


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Information lets us have things our way

We can conclude on a more positive note concerning what information is to us. Information is power, of course, in the conventional sense that what we know that others do not can give us a real advantage in a variety of situations. But in our everyday existence, information can be a cushion between us and our immediate environment. Information, properly managed, can free us from the need to take every twist and turn presented by our day? events so that we can instead stay more focused on our life? most important goals and roles. The essential point of personal information management is to make information our ally and not our enemy.

2.3 How is information personal?

What does it mean for information to be personal? As summarized in Table 2.2, there are several ways in which information can be ?ersonal. Information can be owned by, about, directed toward, sent by, experienced by, or relevant to ?e. Each kind of personal information is briefly described below.

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  1. Controlled by (owned by) me. The information a person keeps, directly or indirectly (e.g., via software applications), for personal use is personal information. Included are email messages in an email account, files on the hard drive of a personal computer, and also the papers kept on desktops and inside conventional filing cabinets. Although information is, at least nominally, under the person? control, the rights of ownership for portions of this information are sometimes in dispute. In the context of a person? work inside a company or in collaboration with others, for example, it is often unclear who owns what information.

  2. About me. Information about a person but available to and possibly under the control of others is personal information. Personal information in this category includes the information about a person kept by doctors and health organizations, for example, or the information kept by tax agencies and credit bureaus.

  3. Directed toward me. Included in this category is the email that arrives in the inbox and also the pop-up notifications that this new email has arrived. Alerts raised by a person? computer, the ?ush of advertisements on a visited web page or the television or the radio, and the ringing telephone are all examples of information directed toward a person. The information itself may not be personally relevant. But the intended impacts of directed information certainly are personal. For better or worse, information directed to a person can distract the person from a current task, consume a person? attention, and convince the person to spend time, spend money, change an opinion, or take an action.

  4. Sent (posted, provided) by me. Information sent by the person (or posted or published) is personal information. We often try to control, albeit imperfectly, who sees what (and when) for the information we send, post, or otherwise provide. We do this with email, for example, through distribution lists and notices on the email messages such as ?onfidential, please do not distribute. Or we may hide information on a disconnected web page and then selectively distribute the address to this web page.

  5. Experienced by me. Information experienced by a person is personal information. Some of this information is under the person? control and so is also personal in the first sense of personal. Other information is not under the person? control: the book a person browses (but puts back) in a traditional library, for example, or the pages a person views on the Web. This fifth sense of personal information is especially important since we rarely consume all of an item? information in one or even several readings. Over a period of time we may return to an information item? document, a web page, or even an email message?everal different times. One major challenge of PIM is to support refinding?he return to information previously experienced.

  6. Relevant (useful) to me. A final sense in which information can be personal is determined by whether this information is relevant or useful to us. This category cuts across others to include subsets of the information we control, information we?e experienced before, and also new information we?e never seen before. Out there, somewhere, is an article that is perfect for a report we?e writing or an advertisement for a vacation package that perfectly fits our needs. This final sense of personal information can be expanded to include information that we or our family would find offensive and that we definitely would not want to see. As noted in the conclusion to Chapter 1, ?har be dragons out there?specially if we surf the Web, but even in the junk mail of our inbox. With respect to this expanded ?ixth sense of personal, we depend on filters both to filter in the information we? like to see and to filter out the information we do not want to see.

These broad categories have value not for what they exclude?n their union, they exclude very little. Rather, each category in its turn provides an important focal point for this book? discussion of PIM.


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Note that distinctions between the different senses of personal information can quickly blur. For example, a session of web browsing can be recorded by a history facility in the person? web browser so that this record becomes a part of the information kept by (for) the person. The person may also, knowingly or unknowingly, provide identifying information to a visited web site which can then go into a record about the person (his or her web site visits) that is maintained by others (e.g., the webmaster of the web site or the employer? IT department).

2.4 The information item and its form


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In a subsequent article, Buckland (1997) further explores the issues that arise when trying answer the question, What is a document? Briet (1951), for example, considers an animal in a zoo?he gives the example of an antelope?o be a document. An animal in captivity (but not in the wild) has been selected (captured) to represent something beyond its physical self. A captured antelope represents a whole species of antelope, for example, as well as a specific ecosystem in Africa. Otlet (1934) asserts that any object can be considered a document, provided we are informed by observing it. By this expansive definition, it would seem that anything could serve as a document. A tree stump as document tells us, by its number of rings, how old the tree was when cut. For that matter, a standing tree is a document telling us how tall it is by the shadow it casts.

These definitions are too inclusive for our purposes, but at the same time the conventional sense of ?ocument makes its use feel awkward when applied in reference to common objects of PIM such as email messages, web bookmarks, and downloaded music. We return, therefore, to Buckland? (1991) motivation for discussing ?nformation-as-thing as the only sense of information ?ith which information systems can deal directly (p. 359).

Information-as-thing gives us something tangible to be manipulated?o be created, copied, stored, retrieved; given a name, tags, and other properties; and moved, copied, distributed, deleted, and otherwise transformed. In this spirit, it is useful to speak of an information item and its associated form:

An information item is a packaging of information. Examples of information items include (1) paper documents, (2) electronic documents, digital photographs, digital music, digital film, and other files, (3) email messages, (4) web pages, and (5) references (e.g., shortcuts, aliases) to any of the above. Items encapsulate information in a persistent form that can be created, modified, stored, retrieved, given a name, tags, and other properties, moved, copied, distributed, deleted, and otherwise manipulated. An information item has an associated information form that is determined by the tools and applications that support these operations. Common forms of information include paper documents, e-documents and other files, email messages, and web bookmarks.

Figure 2.0.

Consider the example given earlier of a cookie recipe. The recipe itself can be considered information. The representation of this information?yped on a piece of paper or displayed on a web page?s an information item. An information item can contain other information items. An email message as an information item might contain as an attached item the scanned image for the recipe. Similarly a paper envelope as an item can contain the letter as an item. Once the letter is taken out of the envelope or the attachment saved separately from the email message, these can be stored, retrieved, moved, copied, distributed, and deleted as items in their own right.

The ways in which an item is manipulated will vary depending on its form and the tools available for this form. The tools used for interaction with paper-based information items include, for example, paper clips, staplers, filing cabinets, and the flat surfaces of a desktop. In interactions with digital information items, we depend on the support of various computer-based tools and applications such as email applications, file managers, and web browsers. The ways we delete a paper document differ from the ways we delete an electronic document (e.g., tossing in the trash or shredding vs. using the commands ?ut or ?elete?, but some notion of deleting applies to each (a similarity the Macintosh reinforces through its metaphorical ?rash can?.

The information item establishes a manageable level of abstraction for the consideration of PIM. Certainly, a person? interactions with an information item vary greatly depending on its form. Interactions with incoming email messages, for example, are often driven by the expectation of a timely response and perhaps also by the awareness that, when an email message scrolls out of view without some processing, it is apt to be quickly forgotten. A person may make a paper printout of the same email message, to be folded, carried in a briefcase, marked up, and ultimately discarded when its information has been consumed.

But there are many essential similarities in the way people interact with information items, regardless of their form. Whether people are looking at a new email message in their inbox, a newly discovered web site, or the business card they have just been handed at a conference, many of the same basic decisions must be made: Is this relevant (to me)? To what does it relate? Do I need to act now or can I wait? If I wait, can I get back to this item later? Where should I put it? Will I remember to look?

At the same time, the category of information item does not blur to include all things informational. A hallway conversation between two people, for example, conveys information but is not itself a packaging of information. A conversation is not an information item. A cassette recording of this same conversation is an information item. The recording can be stored away, sent, copied, and so on. A person? memory of an impending doctor? appointment is not an information item. The scrap of paper containing a written reminder of this appointment is an information item.

Essential to the management of any collection of information items are operations to copy, move, retrieve, and delete these items. We also need to consider ?emi-items to which some operations can be applied but not others. Table 2.3 compares various objects with respect to the four essential operations.


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In contrast to what we hear or see in our physical world, another point concerning information items is that we can often defer processing. We can, and do, accumulate large numbers of information items for a ?ainy day. This is quite unlike, for example, the scenarios faced by the driver of an automobile or the pilot of an airplane. In these situations, acceptable delays in processing information are short, and there is no option to ?ook at this later when I have time.

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2.4.1 Other objects that bear information and control its flow

Let? reverse words and consider this differently. Rather than ?nformation-as-thing, let? consider ?hings-as-information?that is, let? consider objects other than information items for the information they carry or control. From a PIM perspective, we?e still interested in how we can use these objects to better manage our information.

Object Options and operations Comments
Office door Wide open, slightly open, shut. Shut to say ?on? bother me? leave open a little to say ?? here but knock only if it? important.
Word-processing application Spell checking on or off.
View as printed document or as draft.
In early stages of a document? composition, it may be a waste of time to correct misspellings or to format the document.
Cell phones Mute or not; answer or not. If only we could remember to mute our cell phone during movies and meetings!
Chair Good for reading or writing? Different chairs for different uses.
Dining room table Empty, or covered with bills or information for a project (where do things go during dinner?) Clearing the table can mean a loss of information concerning the state of the current project.
Does the family eat in the kitchen instead?
Picture of special place Frame? Place in prominent place on a wall where we will see it? A picture or painting of a special place may give us inspiration or the strength to meet the day.

Table 2.4. A sampling of objects that bear information or control information flow.

Table 2.4 provides only a small sampling of the objects we might want to consider from an informational perspective, together with some of the PIM-relevant options and operations supported by each object.


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2.5 Defining a personal space of information

Add it all together. Add in the information that becomes personal through any of several possible relationships to us. Add in the information we keep in the form of documents, both electronic and paper. Add in the photographs we take, which can also be in digital and paper-based forms. Add in our music (whether in CDs or MP3 files) and our videos (whether on old-fashioned tape, or DVD, or in the MPEG files on a hard drive). Add in the books on our bookshelves and the magazines and newspapers scattered on chairs and coffee tables. Add in the email messages and the web references we keep.

Add in also the information we create and send out or publish in the form of documents, email messages, blog messages, web pages. and so on. Add in the information that others keep about us. Add in the information ?ut there that we have experienced and might like to return to?n libraries, on the Web, in radio and TV programs, and even in the billboards we see on the way to work or school. Include also the information we might like to see?he information out there that we might use, the information that might entertain us, inspire us, or profoundly influence us if only we could find it. And include also the information out there we don? want to see or stumble across?ffensive material on the Web, for example. Add in the various devices, gadgets, software applications, and tools that we interact with to manipulate and to control the flow of information. Add in our computers, our telephones, our personal digital assistants (PDAs), our radios, and television sets. Add in storage devices including our filing cabinets for paper, our hard drives, and the space we?e given through web sites. Add in even ordinary objects like tabletops and doors for their uses in presenting and controlling the flow of information.

When all is added together, each of us has a unique personal space of information, or PSI, as depicted in Figure 2.1. We inhabit this space as surely as we inhabit a physical space. Our informational space affects the way we view and interact with the world(s) we inhabit. Our space of information also affects the way we are seen, categorized, and treated by others.

By the definition given here, a person has only one PSI. The PSI lets us refer to all things informational for a person.

Figure 2.1. A personal space of information (PSI) contains information that is personal (in any of six senses) together with information tools, objects, and constructs used to manage this information.


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The PSI might be visualized as a vast sea of personal information. If the ?ome waters represent information under the person? control, then, farther out in the PSI, are waters of information that are shared, disputed, or under exploration. This area includes information about the person, the use of which the person might like to control (or at least monitor) but which is currently under the control of others (credit agencies, tax authorities, insurance companies, etc.). At the periphery of a person? PSI are oceans of available information (on the Web, corporate intranets, public libraries, etc.), only the tiniest fractions of which the person explores in order to complete various tasks and projects and in order to fulfill various roles in the person? life.

Figure 2.2.

Even in home waters of the PSI, a person? sense of control over information is partly illusory. For example, an email message can be deleted and no longer appear. However, the message is very likely still in existence. We're adrift in a sea of information. Our own personal spaces of information (PSI) are large, mostly unexplored, with uncertain boundaries and big areas of overlap (with the PSIs of other people and organizations).

But PIM is about extending our control, or at least our influence, out over this sea of personal information. We will never have perfect control. We do what we can. And most of us can do much more than we?e doing now.

2.5.1 Characteristics of the PSI

A few aspects of a PSI can be emphasized:

  • We each have only one PSI. A person? PSI is everything informational as it relates to the person.

  • A PSI is defined as much by what we would like to be able to do as by what we can currently do. For example, the information others keep about us is included as a ?egion of the PSI as a way of staking a claim, so to speak, on this information. We might at least like to control who sees this information, how long it? kept, and how easy it is to correct or update.

  • The PSI is external to the person. A person could literally walk away from his PSI tomorrow, move to Mongolia, and have little further to do with his PSI aside from the few pieces of the PSI that can travel with him (e.g., his wallet, the notes he may have written on the palms of his hands, or the proverbial string he may have tied around one of his fingers).

2.5.2 Why ?SI?

A simple answer to this question is that ?ersonal information space does not produce an attractive acronym. Some readers will also note that PSI is frequently used as the Roman alphabet spelling of the Greek letter ? which, in turn, is frequently associated with psychology. Psyche has its origins in the ancient Greek word for breath, essence of life or soul.

One thread we explore throughout the chapters of this book is the extent to which a personal space of information can be said to reflect the mind and life of its owner. The book also explores the ways in which elements in a PSI? calendar or a to-do list or a even a set of touchstone words of wisdom placed on the bathroom mirror?rovide not only a passive reflection of a person? mind, but can also serve, more actively, to complement and facilitate the development of mind and soul?n the same way that a person? space of things reflects, complements, and facilitates the development of the body.

2.6 Making sense of the PSI

For each of us, our PSI is large and amorphous. We can? see it all at once. When we try to make a full list of just the kinds of information in our PSI, we are sure to overlook something. What about the documents relating to the car and its registration that are in the car? glove compartment? What about the old computer in a ?ead corner of our home office? It too has information we once considered essential.

The PSI establishes an arena for the essential activities of PIM as these are listed in the next chapter. But in most discussions, we look for ways to carve the PSI into smaller, more manageable regions in order to focus and make more concrete the book? discussions of personal information management. As we do so, it is important to resist an easy reliance on distinctions that only perpetuate a state of information fragmentation all too familiar to most of us.

There is little to be gained, for example, from a focus on digital information to the exclusion of paper-based information. There is little to be gained from a focus on email to the exclusion of web-based information or e-documents and other digital files. Even if the goal is to design a better email application, focusing on email alone places artificial boundaries on an informational landscape that can cause us to overlook important opportunities for integration.

Our lives contain many forms of information. It is difficult to think of any meaningful project or regular activity that does not depend critically on several forms of information. Consider something as simple as buying food for the evening? meal. Henry is cooking dinner and wants Jill to do the shopping on the way home from work. His list of things to buy starts out in his head but is then copied to an electronic document while he works at his computer. The list grows longer as Henry consults a recipe for the meal he wants to cook. The recipe itself might come from a paper-based cookbook or from a web page.

When Henry is done, he first thinks to call Jill with the list but then decides it? faster to send Jill the list in an email message. Jill gets the email message but calls Henry for clarification on a few of the items (?ow many cans of tomato sauce? What size??. She has a mobile device which she could use to refer to the list in digital form, but past efforts to do this in the grocery store proved cumbersome. She prints out the list instead. Later Henry calls with a few more items to buy, and Jill scribbles a few more lines onto the paper printout in order to remember to get these items too.

In even this simple, everyday example?he creation of a shopping list for grocery shopping?nformation moves through several forms, from human memory to e-document to email message to paper printout. Along the way, information in other forms? recipe book or a web page?re also consulted and several devices are used (the telephone, the computer, the printer) or considered for use (the mobile device).

The remainder of this section lists some concepts that aid us as we seek to explore portions of a PSI. Concepts support the creation of manageable regions in a PSI that correspond to our goals and roles as people rather than to regions defined by the happenstance of development in information tools, applications, and devices.

2.6.1 Personal information collections


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A personal information collection, referred to as ?ICs or simply ?ollections in the remainder of the book, are personally managed subsets of a PSI. PICs are ?slands in a PSI where people have made some conscious effort to control both the information that goes in and how this information is organized.

PICs can vary greatly with respect to the number, form, and content coherence of their items.
Examples of a PIC include:

  • The papers in a well-ordered office and their organization, including the layout of piles on a desktop and the folders in filing cabinets.

  • The organized papers in a specific filing cabinet and their organizing folders where, perhaps, the office as a whole is a mess.

  • Project-related information items that are initially dumped into a folder on our notebook computer and then organized over time.

  • A carefully maintained collection of bookmarks to useful reference sites on the Web and their organizing structures.

  • A collection of digital photographs and videos in a ?amily memories album.

  • A collection of digital music or a collection of CDs.

  • An EndNote database of article references including custom properties added by the user.

In a sea of personal information, PICs are islands of relative structure and coherence. A PIC includes not only a set of information items, but also their organizing representations, including spatial layout, properties, and containing folders. A PIC may or may not be strongly associated with a specific application (such as an application to manage digital photographs or digital music). The items in a PIC will often be of the same form?ll email messages, for example, or all files. But this is not a necessary feature of a PIC. People might like to place several forms of information in a PIC, even if doing so is often difficult or impossible with current software applications.

Just as the information item is self-contained as a unit for storage and transmission of information, the PIC is self-contained with respect to the maintenance and organization of personal information. People typically refer to a PIC when they complete a sentence such as ??e got to get this [papers | email | photographs | documents] organized! The organization of ?verything in a PSI is a daunting, perhaps impossible, task. But people can imagine organizing a collection of web bookmarks, their email inbox, their laptop filing system (but probably only selected areas), and so on. Likewise, in the study of PIM, PICs are a tractable unit of analysis, whereas consideration of a person? entire PSI is not. Why do people go to the trouble of creating and organizing PICs and how are these then used? Answers have implications for the larger study of PIM.

2.6.2 Tasks and projects

Tasks and projects provide a practical way to approach a person? PSI and to understand his/her practice of PIM without ?alling into existing tool-based partitions (e.g., by studying only email use or only Web use).


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Tasks can usually be completed in a single sitting but often stay on a to-do list of pending tasks for long periods awaiting the requisite information. We can? make hotel reservations, for example, until we know the dates of the trip and the location of the meeting.

A project, in turn, is made up of any number of tasks and subprojects. Again, the informal to-do measure is useful: While it makes sense to put tasks like ?all the real estate broker or ?all our financial planner on a to-do list, it makes little sense to place a containing project like ?uy a new house or ?lan for our child? college education into the same list (except perhaps as an exhortation to ?et moving!?. A project has an internal structure of interdependent subprojects and tasks and can last for weeks or months.


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Task management?s used, especially recently, in studies of human?omputer interaction ?efers primarily to the management between tasks, including handling interruptions, switching tasks, and resuming an interrupted task.

Project management, on the other hand, refers primarily to the management of various components within a project. The extended lifetime of a project and the structures that are imposed on it are perhaps an inevitable consequence of its many components and their interdependencies. For the project to be successfully completed, many or most of these components must also be completed, in the right order, at the right time. In planning a wedding, for example, it? important to set a wedding date but not before dates of availability for the preferred location of the wedding are confirmed. If the wedding cake, wedding dress, vows, bouquet, and whatever else are all selected on time, the wedding is still not likely to be considered a success if the invitations don? go out in time.


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2.6.3 Hot, warm, and cold regions of personal information


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2.7 Looking back, looking forward

In this chapter, we have looked at several perspectives on ?nformation?

  • Information is what people process to understand their world.

  • Information is what? in documents, email messages, web pages, MP3 files, photographs (digital and paper-based), videos, and so on.

  • Information is what can be stored, retrieved, copied, transformed, and distributed.

  • Information is how other worlds are represented to us: past and present, possible and pretend.

  • Information is how we are represented to the outside world, accurately or not, for better or worse.

  • Information is what people use to get things done.

  • Information is an extension of us.

  • Information is a drain on a person? money, energy, attention, and time.

  • Information is what we can use to have things ?ur way.?br>

We then considered the six senses in which information can be said to be personal, according to our relationship with the information. Information can be:

  1. Controlled by, owned by me. Examples include email messages in our email accounts and files on our computer? hard drive.

  2. About me. Examples include credit history, medical, web browsing, and library books checked out.

  3. Directed toward me. Examples include phone calls, drop-ins, TV ads, web ads, and pop-ups.

  4. Sent (posted, provided) by me. Examples include the email we send, post to a blog or a personal web site, or publish in a report or an article.

  5. (Already) experienced by me. Examples include web pages that remain on the Web or books that remain in a library, or TV and radio programs that remain somewhere in ?roadcast ether.

  6. Relevant (useful) to me. This sixth sense of personal information includes information ?ut there that we would like to see. This sense of personal information also includes information that we do not want (ourselves or our family) to see, such as offensive material on the Web.

Information is sometimes packaged in information items that can be can be created, modified, stored, retrieved, given a name, tags, and other properties, moved, copied, distributed, deleted, and otherwise manipulated. However, the ways of manipulating an information item vary according to an item? form, as supported by and sometimes defined by the tools we use such as applications to manage email, music, photographs, or web browsing. Personal information is often scattered by its form into separate organizations for which we have developed distinct habits and strategies of PIM. Multiple forms of information exacerbate a situation of information fragmentation that is a central problem of PIM: the information we need is often widely scattered. A great deal of our time and effort is spent in managing information in different organizations on different devices and in gathering information together to get things done.

A personal space of information includes personal information in each of its senses. The PSI also includes various tools and other objects (virtual and visible) affecting the flow of information to, from, and through a PSI. The PSI can be thought of as a vast sea of personal information. If the ?ome waters represent information under the person? control, then, farther out in the PSI, are waters of information that are shared, disputed, or under exploration. This region includes information about us, the use of which we might like to control (or at least monitor). In this region lurk ?irates intent on stealing our information and, through our information, our very identities in an information world. At the periphery of our PSI are oceans of available information (on the Web, corporate intranets, public libraries, etc.) of potential relevance to us and the things we want to do or be. And, yes, at this periphery are ?ragons of various kinds, including offensive web pages we don? want to see and computer viruses that threaten to wreak havoc on the information we control.

Various concepts help us to make sense of our PSIs and to map out manageable regions of the PSI for special attention. But there are good and bad ways to divide a PSI into regions. We can give special focus on the management of paper?r email messages or web references or songs or photographs?s distinct forms of information. But in doing so, we risk perpetuating a state of information fragmentation that is a source for many problems of PIM. And we risk missing important opportunities for an integration of our personal information.

Instead, throughout this book, manageable regions of the PSI are defined according to the level of our activity, the collections we create and the tasks and projects we seek to complete. We have personal projects for the various things we mean to accomplish with our lives, ranging from getting a better job to having a wonderful summer vacation. Projects mean planning?hether done mostly inside our heads and by jotting down notes and to-dos, or through the use of some special-purpose tool. Projects, in their planning and execution, may last for days, months, or even years and include many subprojects and individual tasks. To complete a project, we often need lots of information in several forms. Solve the problems of information fragmentation for a project and we may have a solution for the larger problem of information fragmentation so pervasive in our practices of PIM.

This chapter began with a discussion of personal information and associated technologies as part of an enduring quest to ?ave things our way, free from the demands and constraints of the immediate environment. We can speak with people on the phone even though they are thousands of miles away. We can also correspond with these people via email and at a time of our choosing, not theirs. Our access to information, especially as mediated by the Web, gives us an astonishing reach to ?ealities (both real and make-believe) far removed from our current time and place.

Herbert Simon, in his book The Sciences of the Artificial (1969), describes the zigzag path taken by an ant as it struggles across a pebble-strewn beach toward some distant goal. He concludes that ?he apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself (p. 64). Simon goes on to consider the hypothesis that the apparent complexity of human behavior might similarly be understood to be a reflection of the environment in which people find themselves as they struggle toward their goals.

Our modern environment has been radically transformed by our tools and technologies. If we mean to understand the complexity of human behavior, we cannot do so in most cases by considering the physical environment alone. A person walking down a hilly road is observed to shorten his stride going uphill and to lengthen it going downhill. Variations in his stride correlate perfectly with?re attributed to?ariations in the grade of the road. Similarly, if this person cycles down the road on a simple bicycle with no gears, we will see him pedaling slower on the uphill and faster on the downhill.

But, if that same person cycles down the road on a 10-speed bicycle, variations in pedaling are dampened. The gears on the 10-speed enable the person to maintain a roughly constant rate of pedaling regardless of road grade. In this sense, the 10-speed lets the cyclist have things his way and not the way of the road. The use of the 10-speed to modulate the literal ups and downs in the roadway is characterized by the rough drawing of Figure 2.3.

Figure 2 3. Tools as a cushion between people and their immediate environment.

Now shift to Alice? environment (see sidebar) as she works in her home-based consulting business. Figure 2.3 also characterizes Alice? relationship to her tools and her informational environment. Long ago, before most of her clients were on email, much of her correspondence happened over the phone. When the phone rang, Alice answered?ot doing so meant possibly disgruntling or even losing a client. But now many more of her client interactions happen via email. Alice has more leeway concerning when she answers a client? inquiry. She finds she is able to work more effectively by ?atching responses so that she works through a set of inquiries at the end of the day. As Alice makes increasing use of her professional web site, she hopes that interactions with the web site will, in turn, take the place of much her current email correspondence. If so, Alice? behavior is even less tied to the ?igzag of individual client inquires so that she is able to maintain more constant focus on longer-term objectives.

Having our information and our information tools work with us, in the manner shown in Figure 2.3, instead of against us is certainly one primary purpose of PIM. But what is PIM? As an area of study, how does it relate to disciplines such as human?omputer interaction, information retrieval, information science, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence? More important, what is PIM in our daily practice of it? How do we do PIM, and how can we do it better? These are questions to be explored throughout the remainder of this book. The next chapter begins this journey with a framework for understanding and interrelating the essential human activities that comprise a practice of PIM.