From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 26, 2006*: Doing things the hard way.

These columns are often filled with the technological play-by-play of their production - from the gathering and organizing of my materials, through the actual writing of the columns, and their posting on this site. Over the years I've described many of the tools that I've used for these various stages - from those used to making notes to myself on through to the production and insertion of the admittedly limited code that makes what gets written appear on the screen as it does. I've admitted to being quite conservative when it comes to the layout, but I've also reported on my excitement when I encounter new tools - tools that make the gathering and organizing of what ultimately gets posted here into more of an online experience. Because I've actively sought out these tools, because I've publicly expressed my interest in doing as much of this job as possible online, the realization that over the past few months I've been becoming lower and lower tech has struck me as an unexpected surprise. Almost all of my notes for the past few Boidem columns have been little more than a collection of quotes and thoughts and links pasted into a text document. That document has served as my notepad for the actual writing of the column, and as these notes find their proper place in the completed column, I've simply crossed them off the list.

As I became more and more aware of the fact that this was happening, I also realized that this was something that I'd have to write about. After all, something rather counter-intuitive was taking place here. On the one hand I'm busy actively experimenting with new tools, sometimes even jumping away from my writing in mid-sentence in order to find something that I tagged in my esnips account, or to check an article saved via Furl, or perhaps even to check out the reviews of a new tool I've read about but haven't yet tried. But on the other hand, at precisely the same time, I find myself explaining that in certain circumstances lo-tech is good-enough-tech for me. As I write this (doing so with the aid of the retro-style notes I've mentioned, and additional lo-tech aides) I'm also updating the very tools that I seem to be admitting I don't really need. I'm even downloading and installing new ones. So which is it? Have I discovered that I don't need the tools that I long ago convinced myself that I want, tools that I've spent more than a few columns either praising if they're already available, or trying to describe if, at the time of my writing, they're little more than still to be realized ideas?

For me, the Holy Grail of my computer use is what I refer to as seamless integration, a Swiss Army knife of digital organizing that lets me attend to all of my tasks with only one tool. Numerous signs suggest that we're definitely getting closer and closer to an all-in-one application which will permit us to conduct all of our information-related activities online. During the preparation of this column Google launched Google Notebook, and Yahoo!, and other companies are moving in a similar direction. When I first learned of its imminent launch, my expectations for Google Notebook were very high. Sadly, I was disappointed with its first release. Disappointed or not, however, it's a fair guess that in the not very distant future, it (or one of its competitors) will cease being a stand-alone application, and will succeed in integrating the vast majority of our information needs into one readily accessible online framework. When that happens, when I'll be able to access links and notes and mail and more from the same source, using the web will no longer be "the hard way". When this messianic vision materializes, I'll probably free up a large part of my hard drive. I'll need it only for my music collection and the already rather enormous collection of clips of basketball dunks that Eitan has been busy downloading.

Do I trust moving online? Actually, I do. But why am I writing about this when, on the face of things, it's rather distant from the stated topic of this column? Here I think I can legitimately claim that there's method to this madness. I dream of a time when all of the tools I use will be able to interact with each other to such an extent that we'll see them as one tool. This quest for seamless integration seems to lead to doing almost everything online - at the very least, the boundaries between my online and offline work will become significantly blurred. When I run a Google search on the web and the results also bring me relevant results both from my own gmail account, and from my hard drive, we're getting close. When a search I run on my hard drive can find a document in any format, whether word processed, Acrobat, a mail item, or anything else (including cached items from previous web searches), as long as my search terms shows up somewhere in that document, we're getting close. Today I use more than a handful of tools to perform the numerous information-related tasks I attend to. They do their jobs well. But on the whole I still use a different tool for each specific job. I'm quite confident that in the rather near future hi-tech will offer me a tool that merges all of the various functions I seek into one tool. But lo-tech already comes very close to achieving just that. One simple white "page" (okay, we'll call it a document) can contain a mix of just about any information in just about any format. It's my guess that my temporary reversion to a lo-tech solution derives directly from how close hi-tech is getting to achieving this goal. Seamless integration may not yet be totally feasible, but it's on the horizon, and my ability to already see it there whets my appetite. A page of notes that can be maneuvered around, changed or expanded, definitely gets the job done, and I want it done now, not in some yet to come digital paradise.

Until the internet, the closest we got to seamless integration was, I suppose, our trusty old word processor, though of course, on their own terms, paper, and the bookshelf, were excellent integrators for quite a few centuries. But I doubt that we can talk seriously about seamless integration without being digital. As of today, though more and more tools continue to promise me that I can live a full and healthy digital and online life, too few of them allow me to do so as seamlessly as that one open and blank page of Word. Ultimately, however, I have no doubt that the hard way will prove to be the simple path. We'll need less buttons, less categories, less passwords. In a manner similar to what the World Wide Web promised us over ten years ago, format won't be important, everything will be accessible from one application.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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