Mathew Lowry

Trading activity for meaning

Last year I decided to get Information Overload under control, setting up a GTD system with a DoIt-driven morning routine and Pocket, Diigo and IFTTT to queue, store and share useful stuff. I was all set. For what, I wasn’t sure. But I was sure as hell organised.

And then, a couple of days ago, an article on Aeon – What good is information? – passed through my nice shiny system. In the process, it explained to me what I was doing, why I was doing it, and what I had to change.

Be prepared – this post is about to get recursive, and it won’t straighten itself out until the very end.

Meaning, drowning in information

[The Aeon article probably came to my attention via an enewsletter from Quartz, Medium or the American Press Institute, which is one reason why I laugh out loud when I hear about the death of enewsletters (TumblrHub: 6 posts). I scanned it, saved it to Pocket, and next morning gave it a proper read. It was, as I suspected, more than good enough for my personal library, so before clicking ‘bookmark on Diigo’ I selected a few paragraphs. This copied them into Diigo’s note field, where I added a couple of thoughts of my own.]

What struck me with this article was the way it differentiates information from meaning, and how the floods of information we now receive are drowning out meaning in our lives, mentally incapacitating us:

“Information is … an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense … the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation… takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience… If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.”

– Dougald Hine, What good is information?

Or, to put it less theoretically – at best, the Stream:

“allows us to distract ourselves with the potentially endless deferral of clicking from one link to another. Yet sooner or later we wash up downstream in some far corner of the web, wondering where the time went…”

From curation to meaning

[One of the Diigo tags then triggered an IFTTT recipe, turning the Diigo item into a Tumblr post.]

I’ve written about curating Signal-to-Noise from the Stream before (Tumblrhub: 40 posts), so this really struck a chord for me. I’ve been using tools like Diigo and its distant ancestors to separate the wheat from the chaff coming down the pipe for over ten years. But now I’m looking back, wondering where the time went. Sure, I identified, I tagged and I shared, but what does any of it mean?

Curation is a start. Rather that reading and clicking onto the next thing on my stream, it forces me to read it properly, to engage with it and to relate it to other pieces of content, if only so I can find it later with the right tags. So at least I read what I share (the data shows many of you lummocks don’t).

But it should not end with curation: it’s no use building up a library of tagged resources if you don’t leave time for:

“the patient, unpredictable process that leads towards meaning requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge.”

Moving on, or moving deeper?

[The Tumblr is thus a sort of public library of the resources which – every day – are becoming part of my thinking, all ‘fast blogged’ direct from the Diigo popup.]

Hine’s article showed me that I’ve been confusing activity – the busyness of reading, tagging, sharing and clicking tasks ‘Complete!’ – with actual progress.

So it’s time to give myself that time for reflection. And the only way I know of thinking things through is to write them out.

[Another Diigo tag put the Aeon article in a queue for later, more indepth processing on my blog. And the next morning, a DoIt task put that queue in my face, asking me to do something with it.]

That was yesterday morning. I’m already running behind.

[As I wrote into Diigo as I processed the Aeon article, the TumblrHub posts are

“… a sort of first draft and reflection of blog posts to come. And if journalism is the first draft of history, and blogs are the hasty first draft of journalism, what does this make these posts? The digital equivalent of scribbled notes?”]

Author :


  1. Hi Matt,

    Just popped in to see what you we’re up to. You’re always writing stuff that I just have to point my other correspondents at. e.g.

    Might do us a favour and put links on all your routine tools. I can’t keep up with the different widgets everyone is playing with. GTD?

    I’m still pointing people at your slideshare, i wish you’d consider redoing slide 15. I ain’t got your talent for using graphics for explaining the “groups” who are having the “conversations on a specialist topic” across their orgs.- local, national, eurowide OR international.

    You might do a comparison between these two National categories.

    while considering this approach to their recategorization.
    i.e. orgs are composed on specialist groups who can’t find one another.

    You know I’m just a network geek who’s spent a few dacades in the media business. So this evolution is always about broadcast, and interactive, networks coming together (around inter-institutional specialist groups).

    Things are starting to come together in with this baby. But you know how it is. We’ve got the central guys, in specialist groups, doing their thing while the local guys do the same things, with a smaller perspective.

    Meanwhile. the euro view is too big a perspective to start with. (imagine trying to suggest a directory for specialist groups on this page ho, ho)

    I’ve become a grumpy ol’ man watching all their activity.
    No one asks “which way is progress?” (except you of course). Cheers!

  2. Hi Simon,

    Sorry for the delay in publishing your comment, but all those links put it in my spam queue, so it’s lucky I saw it at all.

    GTD = Getting Things Done: a personal productivity technique that actually works. You can find out more about it and the tools I use in this thinkpost on my TumblrHub.

    I’ve of course been watching the evolution of for a long time; they’ve been very influential on my thinking. So I’ll get back to you re: your other points at another time – you’ve probably given me ideas there for at least a couple of blog posts.

    In the meanwhile, if you want to get a sense of how I use the tools mentioned above, take a look at this likepost on my TumblrHub, which was posted in response to a blog post.

    What happened was that:
    – I spotted an interesting post – in this case, on the Inside blog
    – I selected a line of text (“what type of organisation gets a presence on GOV.UK – and what sort of presence they get.“) and clicked ‘bookmark on diigo’, which opened a Diigo popup with that text already in the note field
    – to this I added my own comments (“Interestingly similar model to the E2G ‘variable geometry’ portal architecture…”) and a number of tags, so that I could find the bookmark later on my Diigo account
    – one of those tags was ‘like’, which triggered a recipe on IFTTT (If This Then That), which turned the diigo social bookmark into a post on Tumblr
    – another of the tags I added on Diigo was ‘tweet’ – when the post was published on Tumblr it triggered another recipe, tweeting the TumblrHub post

    I don’t do that last trick often, however – Tweets should be personalised and customised to the medium, not autoblasted out by a computer program.

    Thanks for dropping by!

Comments are closed.