Personal Intelligence Tool -- Philosophical and Technical Overview
Revised April 30, 2014

By "intelligence" I mean the deliberate gathering, interpretation and use of information. If you are actively engaged with public, political, social issues, if you participate in any of the great debates embroiling our mass media, if you participate in any technical discussions about public issues you need to collect information.

No matter where you are politically, you will find that many people debating against you get their facts wrong. You will find many of them deliberately or unwittingly spouting nonsense. You will find supposedly smart people offering assinine reasons for all kinds of things. You can find comment threads on web logs and newspaper articles that are mostly long concatenations of hatred and stupidity.

So you need to collect information. Obviously, articles on specific topics that interest you. Also articles containing useful data, facts and figures, about issues you might want to address in the future. Also material containing falsehoods, distortions, hostility, etc., relating to subjects you are involved with. That some particular garbage gets spewed over and over through many outlets suggests some organized effort behind the spewing that you might want to learn more about. Finally, things that perplex you, things you have hunches about. It's true, everything is related to everything else, so one could get carried away on this last point. But if you really do feel you need to keep something, even if you can't say exactly why, then go ahead and file it. Just don't get carried away.

If you go about collecting information the wrong way, you can spend huge amounts of time and get very little in return for your efforts. My PIT (Personal Intelligence Tool) is a system that will help you manage your time. It will help you make good use of the information you collect.

The design of PIT was influenced by lessons I've learned from mistakes I've made over the last 30 years or so, as well as a few positive experiences. Early on, I learned that reading a news article carefully, highlighting key passages and typing them up, and writing a summary helped me form an opinion as to what the article was really about.

That is a good thing for you to do when you are starting out and later, when you are writing an article or preparing a serious comment or blog entry or letter to the editor. The activities involved in preparing a detailed data base entry for an article prior to physically filing it will help you grapple with the text and the ideas it contains, when this level of attention is warranted.

PIT is essentially a hybrid filing system. Part of it is physical: filing cabinets, manila folders, plus the newspaper and magazine articles, etc., some in a pile awaiting further processing, some in folders. Much of what turns the physical data items into "intelligence" is stored in a computer data base.

To digress a bit, one could certainly develop a PIT that managed computer-based items -- web pages, etc. -- as well as physical "object" data. I have no interest in describing a more complete system of that nature. In fact, I have not even written the computer code for the system I am describing. I need time, facilities, etc. Anyway, the most important thing about PIT is the ideas behind it. If I die tomorrow, someone else can write the code, someone else can figure out how to incorporate computer-based object data.

PIT saves material and space by not requiring you to have a separate physical folder for every category. For example, I have a news item with the title "Where were you when Detroit failed?" It belongs in the category "People complaining about suburbanites who do not care enough about Detroit," which itself is included in the larger categories "Detroit" and "race relations". If I went through my backlog pile, I might find 4 or 5 similar items, but I don't want to devote a physical folder to a topic I'll probably never write about and that contains only a few items.

So I've set up a system of keeping track of miscellany. Each miscellany folder has a two letter "series" designation, of the form AA, AB, . . . , ZY, ZZ. Once a folder gets reasonably full, I get a new folder and start a new series. (This is a personal intelligence tool. I will probably never make it past the "A"s.) All entries in the database are given an identifier consisting of the current series code and a three digit sequence number. You write the identifier on the physical item before putting it in a folder. Some topics, e.g., "Gay Marriage," are obviously big and they get their own folders right from the start. The data base keeps track of where every article is filed, in a miscellany or specific category folder. If my suburbanite category ever became important to me, I'd start a folder for it specifically. I'd pull all the old articles out of the miscellany folders and update the database accordingly.

The suburbanite article does not really require a category. Categories are always optional. PIT is designed to be sort of an "extension" of your mind. It is not an "English butler" that tries to do your thinking for you. The categories in your data base are the ones that make sense to you. If you are a dress designer and you find fuzzy pink belts to be of some significance, then you can have "Fuzzy Pink Belts" as a category. You can put articles in without categories and then add categories as they emerge in your thinking.

With PIT, an article can belong to multiple categories, but is typically only stored in one folder. If you are working on a topic, you can use the database to find "out folder" items. If you want, you can retrieve and re-file them and update the database accordingly. Or, if both categories are active and important, you can make photocopies and update the database accordingly.

It is possible for multiple articles to have the same series-sequence identifier. Normally this happens when there are different articles you want to keep that are on opposite sides of a sheet of paper, but you don't want to go to the trouble of making photocopies. You file the item according to the most important article. A flag will indicate that the articles belong to a "packet," so an "Organizing Closet Space" article might actually be placed in the "Fuzzy Pink Belt" folder. The packet flag can also be used for actual packets, e.g., a packet of sketches from a friend in New York City.

This illustrates a fundamental presumption. You will never use most of the stuff you file. Intelligence is a field where you don't always know ahead of time what material will turn out to be significant. You have to be able to save things based on vague hunches that you might not even be able to articulate. PIT allows you to get things into folders with minimal effort. In fact, for the large, obvious categories ("Affirmative Action," "2016 Presidential Election," etc.) you can put things directly into a folder without making a database entry. The lack of a hand-written identifier on a physical item means "no corresponding database entry." Obscure and miscellaneous items need database entries so they can be found.

PIT does not require a huge amount of work to be done up front. It saves you time by not requiring the invention or assignment of categories or the wanton use of a photocopy machine. It does not require a physical folder for every category. It does not expect any particular level of detail for any given article. The only required field is the series-sequence identifier, which is usually assigned automatically. You do the detailed work when it makes sense.

As you do your daily reading, you can put clips on a pile which you can process on a weekly or monthly or an as-needed basis. As you process, you can pitch things you don't really want. If your pile gets too high too fast, you are clipping too much and you need to think about how much time, space and material you want to devote to your personal intelligence system and what you really want to accomplish with it.

Copyright © 2014