Like many nerds before me, I spent most of my life looking for the perfect computing system. I needed a single tool that would allow me to write prose or programs that could search every email, tweet or document with a few keystrokes and that would work on all my devices. I longed to climb the mythical Mount Augment in order to achieve the enlightenment of a properly organized personal computer. Where software industry offered notifications, little clicks and calls, messages bouncing up and down my screen like a dog begging for a treat, I wanted calm textuality. Looking for it, I corrected it. i configured.
The purpose of the configuration is to make one thing work with some other thing – make a to-do list work with an email client, say, or a calendar work with another calendar. This is an interdisciplinary study. Configuration can be as complex as programming or as simple as checking a checkbox. Everyone talks about it, but they do not take it seriously, because there is little benefit in this. And, unfortunately, configuration is indistinguishable from procrastination. A little good, but too much embarrassing.
I’ve spent nearly three decades customizing my text editor, accumulating about 20 bit files that match one abbreviation or nonsense word with another. (For me: i3wm + emacs + org-mode + notmuch + tmux bundled together with ssh + git + Syncthing + Tailscale.) I would start along the way, but then there would be some kind of blocker – some kind of bug that I I do not understand, some page of errors that I did not have time to deal with – and I would have given up.
I had a big problem where to put things. I tried different databases, folder structures, private websites, cloud drives and desktop search tools. Finally, the key was to turn almost everything in my life into emails. All my calendar entries, essay drafts, tweets, I wrote programs that turned them into concerts and email concerts. Emails are horrible, messy, bloated, decrepit forms of data, but they are understood by everyone, everywhere. You can stuff them with attachments. You can tag them. You can add any amount of metadata to them and synchronize them with servers. They suck, but they work. There is no higher praise.
It took years to put all those emails in there, tag them, filter them for no reason. Little by little I could see more of the shape of my own data. And as I did so, the software got better and the computers got faster. Not only that, other people began to share them config files on GitHub.
Then, one cold day – January 31, 2022 – something strange happened. I was at home writing a little bridging function to make my emails searchable from anywhere in my text editor. I evaluated this tiny program and ran it. It worked. Somewhere in my brain I felt a distinct click. I’ve finished. No longer adjust, but adjust. The world conspired to give me what I wanted. I got up from the computer, engulfed in some kind of European classical-composer emotionality, and went for a walk. Was it happiness? Freedom? Or will I be back tomorrow with a brand new set of requirements?
More “professional” a piece of software should be, the more likely it is to be scripted. CAD tools or 3D programs will provide entire languages just for configuration. But the huge consumer goods, the operating systems themselves, are becoming more and more closed. There are several reasons – money, security, simplicity. Many of our calculations are done on someone else’s terms. We describe it in carceral terms. To take control of your device, you jailbreak.
I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why people crypto— they dream of a new world that can be customized like software. Programmable money, self-executing contracts, little scripts that change reality. In DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), people use code to create social rules and then buy or make things using their consolidated digital power.
A lot of my friends hate it all (probably NFTs more than DAO) with great enthusiasm; they see it as a closure, a betrayal of the open, trust-based nature of the early network. Others love it as they see it as a continuation of building a community and empowering the early network. I see a generation of configurators becoming independent. Older netizens expected to create a new digital economy; these young ones are trying to create a new one economy economy. Their dream is a more perfect union in which people, thanks to computers, will stop acting the way we have behaved since we stepped out of the trees. On the other hand, on the day I wrote this column, $200 million in NFTs was stolen.
Perhaps by the time you read this, NFTs will be back. This would be a good reconfiguration. But the likely outcome of the boom is that some people will cash out at the right time and make sure they have the keys to the universe and lecture us for the rest of their lives, and most people (those who had their NFTs, for example). stolen) will be humiliated or, at best, break even. When in history have we been able to plan insanity? Sometimes the only way to end a vacation is to drive the van off a cliff.
While the youth is reconfiguring society, I am finishing the reconfiguration. A month has passed since click, and the desire to adjust was gone. My system looks like something from the 80s (much of it is an from the 80s), but I finally got my room just the way I like it.
That’s what I mean. Let’s say I’m looking for the word “database”; 7,222 emails appear. Most of them are from marketers and industry mailing lists proclaiming some kind of technological triumph, but among them are posts from me or me about learning how to use databases—XML databases, SQL databases, and so on. When I read these old messages, I am always surprised at how little I have changed, how persistent my obsessions are. There is something of value to me only in seeing it’s seeing the world keep trumpeting the new while I stay the same. You’d think there were at least five new selves by now, given how often I vowed to be a better person. But no. I’ve been writing about customizing my text editor since 1996. At least that’s how long I talk about databases. It is said that one cannot dip one’s hand into the same river twice, but it is seldom mentioned that the same hand dips.
Because emails are just emails, sometimes I hit Reply (by typing “r”). On a thread that was dormant ten years ago. I don’t always offer context. Sometimes I just write: “Curious… how did that happen?” I used to feel like I was invading just looking in like that. But what the hell. It’s been a long pandemic. Nobody has to write back.
Sign out of email. Most don’t get a response; some get rebounded. But quite often people answer in detail. Some left the city and returned. Someone wants coffee. There are surprisingly many cyborgs now (pacemakers, hearing aids). Some are rich, some are poor, some are divorced. One is thinking about being frozen after death, someone is thinking about going into crypto, and one has moved to Miami. None of us understand our children.
I’m thinking of starting a Sunday brunch with waffles for vaccinated people come looking at each other. It’s one thing to send an email 10 years from now, but everyone loves being invited to breakfast. Maybe I’ll put up some kind of Internet-connected scrolling LED screen like they put on food carts so people from out of town can leave messages. i must have anything tune.
If you were to ask me when I was still tweaking, not yet tuned, why exactly I was cultivating these dozens of dot files, it would be difficult for me to answer you. I would say: I want a clean and smooth experience. I want the computer to work for me, increasing my stupid brain with its enormous arithmetic speed. I want to access my entire digital self. So I am very surprised that the end result of my efforts is not some kind of ecstatic communication with the Internet or even with my own computer. The function of my whole big organized, labeled, integrated system was simply to resurrect old connections. What was all this configuration for? It was, to be honest, for waffles.
This article will appear in the April 2022 issue. Subscribe Now.
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