Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 26

Audiodidact (Input)

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Today I'm going to talk about a system that I've been practicing almost as long as any of my other systems, since early 2002, a system I've gotten fantastic benefits from, but that I've never adequately described anywhere on the website.

I call it audiodidact. It's like autodidact except audio instead of auto. On its most basic level it's using sound recordings to teach yourself stuff. I'm not crazy about the name, and that's one of the reasons I haven't pulicised it much yet, but it's useful enough and proven enough at this point that I think it's worth discussing in a bit of detail.

There are two components to audiodidact. Input and output. Input is very simple: I listen to a ton of audiobooks. Output is where it gets more interesting. Among other things, I carry around a digital voice recorder with me on my urban ranger walks to record todos, random ideas that pop into my head, and keep a kind of audio diary. It's very therapeutic. Autotherapeutic. Kind of like having your own shrink, except without the hundred and fifty dollar an hour charge.

I'll talk about the simple part first.

I was an English lit major and trained to be a librarian. Now I sit all day in front of a computer. When I come home, there are a thousand practicalities to attend to: dishes, vacuuming, laundry, etc. I miss reading, and dread the dull chores that now take up my free time instead. The solution? Audiobooks. I know a lot of people who listen to books on tape during long commutes, and if I drove much, I'd do this too. But where books on tape really shine for me is in these little nooks and crannies of time when I am doing some mind numbing chore. Not only do I get more "reading" done than I ever did before, but formerly dreaded chores become positively pleasurable. I now actually love doing dishes and vacuuming because they're an excuse to listen to audiobooks. And I am thorough like I'd never be if I weren't dying to find out what happens to Teddy Roosevelt next, etc. I don't want to stop.

The great thing is there is no downside to this. There is no cost or trade off. I couldn't really productively be doing anything else with my attention at that moment. It is surplus attention that would have been wasted otherwise. The listening doesn't compete with other more active things I have to do. In fact, it helps, by making mindless chores more bearable.

Another time that I find audiodidact helpful is when I'm walking home from work. An audiobook snaps me out of work mode so I can stop obsessing about my job and give my family the attention they deserve when I get home. I hate it when I catch myself thinking about java code when I'm playing legos with my daughter, and but thanks to audiodidact, it doesn't happen much.

Here's another time when audiodidact comes in useful. I tend to have very little trouble falling asleep. But when I do, an audio book will knock me out in minutes. I don't know if that will work for hard core insomniacs, but give it a try. Worst case scenario you listen to something interesting for a while.

What do I listen to? Among other things, a lot of teaching company stuff. These are recorded lecture series by professors on varioius subjects. I mostly get them from the public library. This is not an expensive habit. In fact I save money because I've essentially stopped buying books. I don't know how typical my library system is, but here in cambridge you can request books on line from any branch in a pretty extensive library network and have it delivered to your local branch for pickup. It's almost like a free amazon.com. I also listen to a lot of foreign language stuff (mostly German, but some french and a tiny bit of hebrew). Foreign language podcasts have been fantastic for this.

Some people seem to think that listening is qualitatively inferior to reading. That the written word is somehow a purer medium. This is nuts. If anything, it's the other way around. We think of the written word as this old fashioned, quasi sacred thing in comparison with say the internet, but writing was once high tech too. Writing is just a very lossy compression and storage technology for speech. And in the same way that we worry about the effects of modern media technologies, the ancients worried about the technology of the written word. Socrates thought it would make people stupid because they wouldn't have to remember things any more. And in fact, this founder of western philosohpy never wrote anything. He just went around talking to people.

Silent reading is an even more recent innovation than writing. People used to read everything out load. St. Augustine, writing about 800 years after Socrates, was amazed when he saw that his mentor, St. Ambrose, could read silently, without even moving his lips.

I don't want to knock the written word. I am very happy that Plato wrote down what Socrates said about the dangers of the written word or we never would known anything about it. I just want to defend audiobooks from misguided literary puritans who say that speech somehow interferes with words. Yes, mp3s and wmas and aacs maybe new, but listening is as old school as it gets. School of athens old school.

I'm out of time for today. I'm going to have to save audiodidact output for a future podcast. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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