Friday, October 14

It’s the middle of the night, and I should be sleeping. Because I had a run in with a plate of Oskar Blues chicken enchiladas and one to four pilsners (who’s counting, really?), I am not.

In between festivals, weddings, and conferences, I’ve been thinking about a project.

Back in 2013, I started writing userland: a book about the command line for humans. It’s not really finished,1 but I got it to a readable state in the fall of 2014, right about when the main project in my life was coming apart at the seams.2

After I left SparkFun, userland set a tone for the next couple years in my working life. Or at least after that, I started to get paid for technical writing, and wound up with a full-time job writing sysadmin docs.

It wasn’t the way I’d imagined being a writer when I was young, but I could still say with a straight face that I was a professional. And with it, I learned that I could in fact stare down a blank editor window and make functional text happen, even on topics that held little personal interest. (More people read my disposable, obsolete-at-publication tutorial on hosting an ill-advised mobile app framework in a single week than will ever read any of my poems.)

And then somewhere in there I burned out pretty hard. In fact, although I can handle the mechanics of writing, I am terrible at life as a content monkey. Unable to farm clicks with the necessary ruthlessness and keep any peace of mind.

It’s not that “content marketing” is automatically a degrading way to sell things. In fact it might be one of the more honest propositions in the business, at least when what you mean by it is “documentation on how to use useful things”. It’s just that the idea of “content” as a kind of generic liquid substance remains grotesque and distorting, and despite the baseline assumptions of marketing culture, it continues to matter what you sell.

When I quit writing for DigitalOcean, I started thinking about writing for my own reasons, and about how I could take that seriously as a practical task. Since then I’ve been hovering around a set of ideas that seem to have accumulated, pecking at them here and there, working up to that moment when the engine might turn over again:

  • Forget the contempt I held for highschool / college platitudes about notes: Notes are essential to so much code, systems, prose.
  • I’ve been taking notes since some time in the late 90s. They’re just scattered, unindexed, unsorted.
  • What if I had random access into my life’s entire catalog of meta-memory?
  • Why don’t I keep a database?
  • In an age of ever-more-thoroughgoing surveillance, why can’t I ask basic questions about my own life and experiences in a rigorous way? Why does the panopticon’s model of my existence seem more developed than my own?
  • Why does so much of my history on the command-line go unrecorded, un-annotated, un-repeatable past the narrow time horizons of my working memory?
  • Why don’t I publish photos any more?
  • Some of the tools I use are pretty good. Others would be pretty good if I was tough-minded and serious about developing the underlying ideas.
  • If I spend so much time customizing my computer environment, why aren’t my tools better?

I know that I want to write something like a book, but these aren’t exactly the topics I want to write it about. It’s more that I intend to use them as a way to discover the book I do want to write, or the thing that isn’t quite a book but will satisfy the same basic impulse.

1 Being a sketchy outline of the book it ought to be, and having emerged from a moment when a kind of optimism about computing seemed to me, somehow, appropriate and sustainable.

2 It had a little help.