By Paul Ford
Apr 1, 2022 at 07:00
Like many nerds before me, I spent a goodly portion of my life searching for the perfect computing system. I wanted a single tool that would let me write prose or programs, that could search every email, tweet, or document in a few keystrokes, and that would work across all my devices. I yearned to summit the mythic Mt. Augment, to achieve the enlightenment of a properly orchestrated personal computer. Where the software industry offered notifications, little clicks and dings, messages jumping up and down on my screen like a dog begging for a treat, I wanted calm textuality. Seeking it, I tweaked. I configured.
The purpose of configuration is to make a thing work with some other thing—to make the to-do list work with the email client, say, or the calendar work with the other calendar. It's an interdisciplinary study. Configuration can be as complex as programming or as simple as checking a box. Everyone talks about it, but it's not taken that seriously, because there's not much profit in it. And unfortunately, configuration is indistinguishable from procrastination. A little is fine but too much is embarrassing.
I spent almost three decades configuring my text editor, amassing 20 or so dotfiles that would make one acronym or nonsense word concordant with another. (For me: i3wm + emacs + org-mode + notmuch + tmux, bound together with ssh + git + Syncthing + Tailscale.) I'd start down a path, but then there'd be some blocker—some bug I didn't understand, some page of errors I didn't have time to deal with—and I'd give up. A big problem I had was where to put my stuff. I tried different databases, folder structures, private websites, cloud drives, and desktop search tools. The key, finally, was to turn nearly everything in my life into emails. All my calendar entries, essay drafts, tweets—I wrote programs that turned them into gigs and gigs of emails. Emails are horrible, messy, swollen, decrepit forms of data, but they are understood by everything everywhere. You can lard 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. No higher praise.
It took years to get all these emails into place, tag them, filter them just so. Little by little I could see more of the shape of my own data. And as I did this, software got better and computers got faster. Not only that, other people started sharing their config files on GitHub.
Then, one cold day—January 31, 2022—something bizarre happened. I was at home, writing a little glue function to make my emails searchable from anywhere inside my text editor. I evaluated that tiny program and ran it. It worked. Somewhere in my brain, I felt a distinct click. I was done. No longer configuring, but configured. The world had conspired to give me what I wanted. I stood up from the computer, suffused with a sort of European-classical-composer level of emotion, and went for a walk. Was this happiness? Freedom? Or would I find myself back tomorrow, with a whole new set of requirements?
The more “professional” a piece of software is intended to be, the more likely it is to be scriptable. CAD tools or 3D programs will provide whole languages just for configuration. But the huge consumer products, the operating systems themselves, are more and more locked down. The reasons are multiple—money, security, simplicity. A lot of our computing is done on someone else's terms. We describe it with carceral words. To assert control over your device, you “jailbreak” out. I wonder if this is one of the reasons people get into crypto—they dream of a new world that can be customized like software. Programmable money, self-executing contracts, little scripts that rearrange reality. In DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), people use code to make social rules, then buy or do things with their consolidated digital might.
A lot of my friends hate all this stuff (perhaps NFTs more than DAOs) with great passion; they see it as a closing off, a betrayal of the open, trust-driven nature of the early web. Others love it, seeing it as a continuation of the community-building, empowering nature of the early web. What I see is a generation of configurers coming into their own. Older web folks expected to create the new digital economy; these younger ones are trying to create the new economy economy. Their dream is a more perfect union where humans will, because of computers, stop acting in the ways we've been acting since we came out of the trees. Then again, $200 million in NFTs were stolen the day I drafted this column.
Perhaps by the time you read this the NFTs will have been returned. That would be a good reconfiguration. But the likely outcome of the boom is that some people will cash out at the right time and become convinced that they hold the keys to the universe and will lecture us for the rest of our lives, and most people (like those who had their NFTs stolen) will be humbled, or at best break even. When in history have we been able to schedule folly? Sometimes the only way to end the vacation is to drive the RV off a cliff.
While the youth reconfigure society, I'm done configuring. A month has gone by since the click, and the urge to tweak is gone. My system looks like something from the '80s (a lot of it is from the '80s), but I finally got my room just the way I like it.
Here's what I mean. Say I search for the word “database”; 7,222 emails pop up. Most are from marketers and industry mailing lists proclaiming some technological triumph, but nestled among them are messages from me, or to me, about learning to use databases—XML databases, SQL databases, and so forth. When I read these old messages, I am always surprised at how little I've changed, how consistent my obsessions are. There's something valuable to me in just seeing that, in seeing how the world keeps trumpeting the new while the self stays the same. You'd think there'd be at least five new me's by now, given how often I've vowed to become better. But no. I've been writing about configuring my text editor since 1996. I've been running my mouth about databases at least that long. They say you can't dip your hand in the same river twice, but they rarely mention that it's the same hand doing the dipping.
Since the emails are, well, just emails, sometimes I hit Reply (by typing “r”). On a thread that went dormant a decade ago. I don't always offer context. Sometimes I just write, “Curious … how did this turn out?” I used to feel I was intruding, to just drop in like that. But what the hell. It's been a long pandemic. No one has to write back.
Out go the emails. Most get no reply; some get a bounce-back. But often enough, people respond at length. Some left the city and came back. Some are up for coffee. A surprising number are now cyborgs (pacemakers, hearing aids). Some are rich, some are broke, some are divorced. One is considering being frozen after death, some are considering getting into crypto, and one has moved to Miami. None of us understand our children.
I'm thinking of starting a Sunday morning waffle breakfast for vaccinated people to come stare at each other. It's one thing to email after 10 years, but everyone appreciates an invitation to breakfast. Maybe I'll set up some sort of internet-connected LED scrolly screen, like they put on food carts, so out-of-towners can leave messages. I gotta have something to configure.
If you'd asked me, back when I was still configuring, not yet configured, exactly why I was nurturing these dozens of dotfiles, I'd have had a hard time telling you. I would have said: I want a pure and sleek experience. I want the computer working for me, augmenting my dumb brain with its immense arithmetical speed. I want access to my whole digital self. So I am very surprised that the terminal result of my efforts is not some sort of ecstatic communion with the internet, or even with my own computer. The function of my whole big orchestrated, tagged, integrated system was merely to rekindle old ties. What was all that configuration for? It was, in all sincerity, for waffles. -"I Finally Reached Computing Nirvana. What Was It All For?"