Mario Villalobos

Digital Permanence

In this entry, I’m going to think aloud about something that not only took over my thoughts today, but has regularly occupied them for the past few years. I’m always thinking through how I do things, and I’m always wondering how I can do them better. For a few years, I loved Evernote, and I devoted hours and hours of my life to dump as many aspects of my life into it. A few years ago, though, once Evernote began to feel bloated and overloaded with junk of my own creation, I started to think about other ways I could manage this information. Around the same time, I bought my first Mac, so I also began my journey toward engrossing myself in all things Apple. After a few months I’d say, I discovered an app called nvAlt. nvAlt is a simple app that manages text files in three sections: a search bar, a list of all the notes in its database, and a text editor itself. That’s it. Because it is simple it is fast. That was one reason why I fell in love with it; the other reason was because text files were and are future-proof. Text files will last forever, and one thing that has always concerned me was the lifespan of all my digital detritus.

Evernote locked everything into its own propriety database that was super difficult to export my data from. That didn’t stop me, though. I exported all my text notes1 into HTML format, which I then converted to text files using an awesome Automator workflow, and for the next year or so, I spent god knows how many hours processing and organizing through my literally thousands of notes and adding them into nvAlt. This project felt awesome once I finished it. However, once I did, in the back of my mind I would notice how I didn’t do anything with these notes. They just lied dormant waiting for me to read them or process them or do something with them. In the meantime, I kept adding more notes and more notes, and my whole collection of notes just kept growing and growing, and I still don’t know what to do with them. I have tasks in OmniFocus telling me to organize them one day, but I don’t think that day will ever come. It’s one thing to ensure my stuff can last forever; it’s another thing to actually do something with that stuff.

So I ran up into a crossroads of sorts. Do I want to spend all my time managing and organizing text files that will last forever but that I’m not really using, or do I want to risk going all in into a system that may not last forever, may not be exportable, but will help me do stuff with all this information now? Obviously I chose the latter option, and it involves a combination of apps and services. When I first broke up with Evernote, I replaced it with Dropbox, nvAlt, Byword and Drafts on my iPhone and iPad. Unfortunately, these services really didn’t help me be any more productive. All it did was ensure my stuff can follow me around everywhere and be around for a long time, which satisfied the requirements I set for myself all those years ago. But I want something that will actually help me be more productive. I want tools that are a pleasure to use and simply help me be better.

For about the past three months, I’ve been slowly falling in love with an iPhone app called Vesper. It’s a very simple yet very well designed and beautiful notes app. That’s all it does. Vesper was updated yesterday to support the iPad (finally), and that’s the reason I’ve begun to think more seriously about the tools I use. The guys over at Vesper are working on a Mac app, which isn’t out yet and who knows when it will, but all I know is that I want most of my notes in there. I use Vesper a lot, and I didn’t realize how awesome that feeling is. One day I’m going to write a review of Vesper and possibly a lot of my current tools, but not today. A big subject, for lack of a better word, of my text file notes are clippings from web sites I read. I have hundreds of these type of notes, but I never refer to them or anything. They’re just sitting there. Over the summer, I became a member of Pinboard, a bookmarking service like Delicious used to be but way better. I didn’t incorporate Pinboard into my workflow until fairly recently, and now that I have, I can’t live without it. All the reasons I used text files for have slowly been replaced by simply bookmarking them in Pinboard and copying the relevant passages in the notes field. I’m planning to transfer all my text files with URLs into Pinboard and deleting the text files. This, hopefully, won’t take me a full year, but I know it’s going to take an annoyingly long time. Ditto with transferring notes into Vesper, especially without a Mac app.

These tools and others โ€” oh god, believe me there are others โ€” may not be around forever. Pinboard may one day shut down and all those bookmarks with all those awesome2 highlights could be lost forever. Vesper could one day shut down and there might not be an easy way to export all my notes out of it. Some notes I may not want to keep forever, though. Isn’t that the definition of a note, as simply an aid to memory? Which brings me to the entire theme of this entry and my whole thought process on this matter: digital permanence.

Do I want everything to last forever, especially when I have my memory and hopefully a completed piece of work that will last longer than these notes? What will the world look like when many of the world’s most important records are simply a series of 1s and 0s? We have written records that have stood the test of time, and we’re all the richer for it; but what about their digital counterparts? 1,000 years from now, will people even care to read the digital notes and bookmarks of some guy, let alone a famous author or politician or philosopher? What does a world like that look like?

  1. PDFs were easier to export, and I added all those into Dropbox into its own complex organizational system that I might write about later. Hazel helped a lot, and it still amazes me at how awesome it is. ↩︎

  2. Most likely not so awesome, unfortunately. I can always pretend I’m some awesome intellectual who highlights only the most profound passages from productivity websites and the like. ↩︎