I Finally Reached Computing Nirvana. What Was It All For?

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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?

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