Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

The return of fancy tools

Technology is seeing a little return to complexity. Dreamweaver gave way to hand-coding websites, which is now leading into Webflow, which is a lot like Dreamweaver. Evernote give way to minimal Markdown notes, which are now becoming Notion, Coda, or Craft. Visual Studio was “disrupted” by Sublime Text and TextMate, which are now getting replaced by Visual Studio Code. JIRA was replaced by GitHub issues, which is getting outmoded by Linear. The pendulum swings back and forth, which isn’t a bad thing. Some of the reasons for the last pivot - from complexity to simplicity - have been solved. Webflow fills a need, and produces better output than Dreamweaver did. Notion is more accessible to people who don’t know Markdown. VS Code is very helpful. Excessively helpful. It’s fine.

The same problems will crop up. In structured editors like Notion, the tendency to overstructure is common. Usually you’ll see a lot of structure - a table of nested pages with types, very particular formatting, a well-chosen icon. And then, after putting the structure in place, the content arrived and didn’t fit it. The columns aren’t filled in, or are filled with heterogenous information. The structure is encoded, but doesn’t reflect reality or doesn’t reflect how people actually thought about the information.

Webflow has buttons to add effects. It’s easy to add effects. Effects will be added, because there’s a button to add them. Everything for the next few years will slowly fade in as you scroll. I don’t know why. Stripe did it.

Fancy tools aren’t bad. Professional authors use Microsoft Word and they have the absolute courage, the phenomenal self-control, to never fiddle with fonts. I, however, don’t. Give me iA Writer to save me from myself.

And simple tools make you think a little more. The notetaking tool I use isn’t very good at recommending links, so I retype names and things, manually, every time that I refer to them. Would it be better if it did great autocomplete? Would it be even better if I didn’t even have to link things, and it automatically associated similar topics?

I don’t think so. As Drucker said and is written on the back of all my Field Notes notebooks, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” The friction of having to write, to structure thoughts in plain text, to remember the name of the person I need to reference on this page: that is the point. Frictionless note-taking produces notes, but it doesn’t - for me - produce memory.

The same goes for a lot of things. I use neovim to edit code like a grandpa, and I don’t use a file tree. There’s no “directory listing” in my editor. I hit ctrl-p and fzf helps me find the file by name. This is obviously not the future of coding: shouldn’t I be navigating the source tree in 3D like in Jurassic Park? Sure, but the names of things, their functionality, and how it all fits together should be things that exist in one’s mind, not just in a computer.

March 16, 2021  @tmcw