Thinking visually with Remarkable

Sketches, visualizations and other forms of externalizing cognition play a prominent role in the work of just about any scientist. It’s why we love using blackboards, whiteboards, notebooks and scraps of paper. Many folks who had the privilege of working the late Pieter Muysken fondly remember his habit of grabbing any old piece of paper that came to hand, scribbling while talking, then handing it over to you.

Since the summer of 2021 I have owned a Remarkable, and it has become an essential part of my scientific workflow because it seamlessly bridges this physical form of thinking with the digital world of drafts, files and emails. I rarely rave about tools (to each their own, etc.) but this is one of those that has changed my habits for the better in several ways: I’ve been reading more, taking more notes, writing more, and also doodling and sketching more. As a cognitive scientist I would describe it as a distraction-free piece of technology with just the right affordances for powerful forms of extended cognition (it is probably no coincidence that it was recommended to me by fellow traveller Sébastien Lerique, whose interests range from embodied rationality to interaction).

One of ways in which the Remarkable has changed my workflow and my collaborations is that it is much easier to sketch a basic idea for a visualization and share it digitally. We use this during brainstorms to produce first impressions or visualize hypotheses. Often such a rough sketch then functions as a placeholder in a draft until we’ve made an actual version based on our data.

The above example from a recent paper with Andreas Liesenfeld shows this process: first my rough sketch of what the plot might look like, which fuels our discussion and helps me to express how to transform our source data in R. Then a ggplot version I made in R that preserves the key idea and adds some bells and whistles like loess lines and colour.

I want to credit my collaborator Andreas Liesenfeld for pushing me to do more of this visual-first way of thinking. One of the things Andreas often asks when brainstorming about a new paper is: “okay but what’s the visual?”. Thinking early about compelling visualizations has made our papers more tightly integrated hybrids of text and visuals than they might otherwise have been. For instance, our ACL paper has 7 figures, approximately one to a page, that support the arguments, help organize the flow, and generally make for a nicer reading experience.

Conceptual frameworks

Sketches can also be useful to work out conceptual frameworks. In a recent collaboration with Raphaela Heesen, Marlen Fröhlich, Christine Sievers and Marieke Woensdregt we spent a lot of time talking about ways to characterize various types of communicative “redoings” across species. A key insight was that the variety of terms used in different literatures (eg. primatology vs. human interaction) could actually be linked by looking more closely at the sequential structure of communicative moves. I sent off a quick Saturday morning doodle to my collaborators, and ultimately we published a polished version of it in our paper on communicative redoings across species (PDF here).

Finally, sketches are useful to express ideas and hypotheses visually even before the data is in. For instance, in current work with Bonnie McLean and Michael Dunn we’re thinking a lot about transmission biases and how they influence cultural evolution over time. Bonnie’s dataset looks at biases and rates of change in how concepts relate to phonemic features. It’s helped me to express my thinking on this visually, and I can’t wait to see what Bonnie ultimately comes up with. (This visualization is inspired in part by something I read about parallax in Nick Sousanis’ amazing book Unflattening.)

Sketch showing three panels side by side. One the left, a plot showing a time series with a multitude of grey lines in the lower range and a single black line rising above the grey mass to occupy a distinctly higher position on the Y axis.

In the middle, a skewed square with points corresponding to the end points of all the lines in the left panel, suggesting that it is a sliver of the end of the first plot.

On the right, the middel panel turned towards the reader into a square X-Y plot with a mass of grey dots joined by isolines roughly in the middle and a solitary black dot in the top right.

Not a review

This is not a review of the Remarkable — just a reflection on how it’s changed my academic life for the better. Every device has pros and cons. For instance, I don’t particularly love the overpriced stylus (‘Marker plus’) or how they sell Connect subscriptions for slightly better syncing options — though you should be aware you don’t need a subscription to do any of the things I’ve described in this post. And on the other hand, I absolutely do love the litheness of this device, the just-right friction when writing, and the fact that it has no backlight. The design in general strikes me as a perfect embodiment of that philosopher Ivan Illich has called ‘convivial tools’: tech that is sophisticated yet also responsibly limited in ways that support human flourishing. Anyway, there’s a good remarkable subreddit if you’re in the market for a device like this.

Note. Remarkable has a referral program that gives you a $40 (or equivalent) discount if you use this link to purchase one. If you like the device and keep it, that would also mean I earn $40, which I would use to treat my team to fancy coffee and cakes!

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