Going Write-Only, Halfway Report
May 6, 2015
When I wrote the original essay about going “write-only” I was kind of putting myself out there sharing thoughts I would ordinarily keep to myself for fear of being a preachy hipster. However the thoughts rang true for me so I took the leap and assumed that someone else might at least partially agree.
I submitted the article to Hacker News, closed my email client, closed Twitter and began the long solitary experiment. Imagine my surprise a week later coming out of digital hibernation for the Monday internet check-in to discover how popular the article had become. The topic struck a nerve and thirty thousand people had shared and read it around the world during that week.
The response has been heartfelt emails and thoughtful commentary on Hacker News. There has been very little negativity. Most people pondered the ideas and talked about their own philosophy of life and coding – and in many cases challenged some of my oddball notions.
Let’s get into the feedback, the experience so far, and some adjustments for weeks three and four.
Maybe the biggest question was why aim for software longevity? A commenter compared coding to performance art, urging us to put on a good show while we’re still maintaining code and take a happy bow when the curtain falls. Quite a few people suggested that life is impermanent and that it’s liberating to embrace that fact and be content to build our sandcastles.
The point is well taken, but I think it is more nuanced. When I’m thinking of durable software I’m not thereby hoping to avert the heat death of the universe. Literally nothing lasts forever, even works of literature slip away when language changes. (This used to be English: “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”) The programmer-performer can consistently strive for lasting software and think of code longevity as the applause after a good performance. But I can see that longevity is not the only factor.
In fact I find small hacks/experiments to be quite fun. They provide good achievable challenges to grow as a developer and they give some needed insight into the big picture. But they are not the whole story and we need to step back to direct small hacks toward a grander whole.
The next topic is the lack of a clear mission in the media deprivation experiment. If, for example, you are focused and coding something cool then naturally you’ll forget about checking social media or emails or the news. I love when this happens. However as my critics point out this doesn’t seem to be the case in premeditated self denial. If I’m tempted to be reading random things online isn’t this a sign that I’m not motivated and am maybe working on the wrong thing?
It’s partly true, but it’s overlooking the power of habit. Succumbing to distractions is self-perpetuating. Also just as the saying goes that you’re the average of your five best friends, so your work is the average of the programs with which you interact. If you get sucked into a computing ecosystem full of accidental complexity then accomodating it starts to feel like real progress. It’s better to distance yourself from such things and bring up your average.
On a higher level, it’s not that I lack a mission it’s that I don’t trust myself to define a meaningful mission without stepping out of the media maelstrom. “I loaf and invite my soul.” This week I made progress toward the mission by making some personal notes contrasting convention and nature in computing but I’ll treat that in another essay.
There are still the nuts and bolts of the deprivation to consider. Life does not become instantly glamorous. As one email correspondent warned, removing one set of habits can open up a void that gets filled by other “stuff” which may be offline but isn’t necessarily better than what it replaces. I have been pretty strict with myself though and sometimes have opted to just sit and do nothing when there was nothing good to do.
And just as the offline world can be mundane, so the online can be quite meaningful. People pointed out the absurdity in denigrating “glowing rectangles” and asked how paper rectangles are fundamentally different. That’s a fair question. Talking with all of you online has been very meaningful, and these rectangles make conversation possible on a vast scale. So I take that one back, it’s what we put on our screens and pages that counts.
Finally my obscure argument about online art provoked some contention. As people pointed out, online art tends to be simple and simplicity takes work, balance and the clarity to know what to omit. So it’s significant stuff. But I’ve had plenty of time to learn from online art and ignoring it for a month certainly can’t do any harm. These past weeks I’ve been studying German Expressionist paintings instead. The point is to stand back and keep the mind open to fresh ideas.
Books that people suggested I read:
For the first half-week it was pretty lonely. Really more than I expected since I see people every day at work and often afterwards at meetups. I manned a booth at an IoT conference, I presented some of my open source work publicly elsewhere. It’s not like I’m in a shack with only crickets for company. But that feeling of emails waiting for responses and news happening online made me feel like I was out in the cold.
Going to a new place is a good antidote. I went to the SF Community Music center to practice piano. It was somewhat discouraging to painstakingly fumble through the first song of Musica Callada while in the next room somebody was blasting through Mozart like it was a professional concert. But I felt refreshed after the hour of effort and walked out into the sunny day quite contented. Writing on Nob Hill is also calming, sitting around the fountain surrounded by people playing with their dogs.
The email deprivation is no longer too difficult. I look foward to Mondays when it’s time to catch up, but I’m starting to no longer think about it the rest of the time. The most difficult part is coordinating meetings. I check mail all day long on Monday to be able to reply back and forth to finalize plans, which does rely on the charity of the other person to check on Mondays as well. If there is an unfinished email thread from Monday related to scheduling meetings I check email later in the week but filter by sender to ignore the other items.
I’m not pleased by the toll this experiment is taking on my open source work. The point of the experiment is to step back and evaluate which projects are most worthy of attention, but it’s hard to tear myself away from things I’ve been making and consider them - even provisionally - as unimportant.
That’s really one of the hard parts. We develop ourselves in certain directions and changing those directions feels like self-destruction even if our new selves would look back on the old life with relief at the change.
I have made some commits to open source though, with the benefit that I tackled older issues rather than those most recently filed or talked about. Logically the older ones need more help, and I feel I’m getting better now at maintaining distance from the latest chatter and looking at the bigger picture. Hopefully this continues to improve.
I’ve enjoyed getting out and meeting people offline especially in a non-meetup and non-tech way. Had some friends from Madison visit and enjoyed a campfire on the beach. Been hanging out at Noisebridge and discovering all kinds of projects, including Dave’s Pointed Pen Calligraphy Club. Pretty good changes for only two weeks, looking forward to what the next two weeks holds.
There isn’t much to change as far as the basic weekly check-in, reading classics, and big picture thinking. I’ll just stay the course for the next two weeks.